Economic Ideas and Government Policy: Contributions to Contemporary Economic History

By Alec Cairncross | Go to book overview

20

REFLECTIONS ON ECONOMIC IDEAS AND GOVERNMENT POLICY

1939 and after*

My working life has been divided almost equally between universities and government departments. I spent the 1930s studying and teaching; the next decade as a civil servant in various government departments and international agencies; most of the following decade in academic life as a professor at the University of Glasgow; and in the 1960s I was back in the British Treasury as Director of the Economic Section and Head of the Government Economic Service. I then went back to university—the University of Oxford.

This alternation has been rather unusual in Britain but it ought to become increasingly common. It seems to me important that more economists should think of themselves as practitioners, applying their knowledge and training to the practical problems of industry and government by taking part in the economic management of their country and of the international economy. This means, to my mind, that they should not remain segregated in colleges and universities without first-hand contact with the worlds of business and of government. It also means, if they are to have sufficient time for reflection and writing, and keep up-to-date, that they should not remain throughout their career in administrative or advisory posts, but should be able to seek intellectual renewal and stimulation by resuming academic work from time to time.

Of course, I would not prescribe this mixture for everybody. Some economists are best employed purely as academics, some will want to enter politics or business, and others may find their talents suited to the work of administration, feeling no urge to enquire more deeply into the problems they face. But there is a need for personal contact between at least some of the professional economists in the universities and some of the politicians, businessmen, and administrators who have to devise and apply economic policies. In no other way can knowledge be made to flow freely in both directions: knowledge of how the economic system really works, knowledge of what stands in the way of making it work better, knowledge of the options

* From Twentieth Century British History, vol. 1, no. 3, 1990

-254-

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