Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Dead Economists as Inspirators of Living Social Economists

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Dead Economists as Inspirators of Living Social Economists

Article excerpt

The writing of this presidential address has been the greatest challenge in my professional career. I found it difficult to select a topic that might be appropriate for the occasion. In order to get my bearings, I reread the addresses of some of my predecessors. All of these scholars approached their topics from the point of view of their particular expertises. If I can claim to possess anything that approximates expertise, it is identical with my efforts as a student of the history of economic thought.

I shall, therefore, attempt to excavate selected aspects of some of the works of certain dead master-economists(2) in order to demonstrate that they were, if not full-fledged social economists, at least architects of guidelines that might serve as signposts for those contemporary and future economists who may aspire to add to the existing body of social-economic knowledge.


Space constraints necessitate that I restrict the scope of my inquiry. Hence 1 shall be concerned almost exclusively with the works of only two dead master-economists, namely Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes. By the same token, I shall be concerned with only one topic in social economics, namely what may be called the social economics of labor. Marshall identified the domain of this specialty thus: "Let us look at those vast masses of [unskilled] men who, after long hours of hard and unintellectual toil, are wont to return to their narrow homes with bodies exhausted and with minds dull and sluggish" (Marshall in Pigou 1925: 105). But, said he, in addition to the employed unskilled workers, there is included in the "working-classes" a group of "'unemployable'" people who form a "'Residuum' of persons who are physically, mentally, or morally incapable of doing a good day's work with which to earn a good day's wage" (Marshall in Pigou 1925: 118; and 1961: 714). Hence, as pictured in Marshall's social economics of labor, both employed and unemployed members of the working class live in poverty, largely because of institutionally engineered neglect.

Keynes likewise found that the institutions of capitalism forced the underclass of laborers "to forgo so largely ... the comforts of life" that the "soldier [in World War I] was better clothed, better shod, and often better fed than the labourer, and his wife" (Keynes CW, II: 13; IV: 26). The economic conditions of the working class improved only marginally, if at all, during the 1920s and extreme "poverty [existed] in the midst of plenty" in the depression decade of the 1930s (Keynes CW, VII: 30).

It seems, therefore, that Marshall and Keynes took up economics because they wished to contribute to the extermination of poverty among the working classes. Hence if they were aware thereof, the two economists would undoubtedly have endorsed W. Stanley Jevons's clarion call for action:

If the citadel of poverty ... is to be taken at all, it must be besieged from every point of the compass - from below, from above, from within; and no kind of arm must be neglected which will tend to secure the ultimate victory.

(Jevons 1965: 2)

I postulate, therefore, that Marshall and Keynes were attracted to economics because "they wished to solve [the] live economic problems" of poverty and felt a need to forge the requisite "weapons" to deal with these problems (Stigler 1965: 56). In order to substantiate this postulate, I shall undertake a study of the relevant portions of the two economists' work. In so doing, I shall proceed chronologically and begin with an inquiry into the nature and character of Marshall's incipient social economics of labor.


Toward the end of his life, Marshall offered the following reasons for choosing economics when in his youth he was "in search of a vocation" (Groenewegen 1995: 98):

About the year 1867 ... Mansel's Bampton Lectures(4) came into my hands and caused me to think that man's own possibilities were the most important subject for his study. …

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