Extending William M. Dugger's Changing Concepts of Inquiry: Ayers Brinser on the Continuation of Progress

By Vaughn, Gerald F. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Extending William M. Dugger's Changing Concepts of Inquiry: Ayers Brinser on the Continuation of Progress


Vaughn, Gerald F., Journal of Economic Issues


In his excellent paper, "Veblenian Institutionalism: The Changing Concepts of Inquiry," William M. Dugger [1995] includes the continuation of progress as one concept of inquiry. My note suggests an extension to that concept, attributable to Ayers Brinser (1909-1967) who taught resource economics and policy at Harvard University, the University of Colorado, and the University of Michigan.

Brinser argued: "The measure of success in managing the interaction of man and his environment is the quality of real choices open to him over time" [Brinser 1966, 237]. Further, "The criteria that are selected for alternative investment opportunities . . . should be concerned with improving the quality of choices that will come in the future" [1966, 244]. What are the most significant choices? Brinser explains, "The real questions are choices about how much to do, of what, by whom, and when" [1966, 238].

What does this mean to Dugger's concept of the continuation of progress? Throughout his writings, Brinser focused on the choices for public investment in resource development and saw the necessity to assess not only the quantity, but also the quality of goods and services flowing from such public investment. For instance, he observed that the public invests in programs to improve or maintain air quality and water quality, and these programs are evaluated as to how well they enhance the quality of air and water resources. However, Brinser was concerned not with the quality of the resources themselves, but with the resources' capacity to enhance the quality of life. He called attention to the need to design and test institutional structures to support and direct public investment in resource development, consistent with society's economic, political, and social objectives.

Brinser lamented the incompleteness of our knowledge about how to improve the quality of life. Yet he insisted that we need systems of analysis that emphasize measurement of the quality of life to be achieved, rather than emphasize the quality of the resources themselves.

To help us improve environmental policymaking to enhance the quality of life, Brinser's concerns about the range and quality of real choices and proposed means of resolution warrant revisiting. The influences of John D. Black, John Kenneth Galbraith, and John M. Gaus seem to undergird Brinser's thought. He apparently got from Black fundamentals of agricultural and resource economics, from Galbraith sensitivity to quality of life issues, and from Gaus concepts of public administration. Brinser also was closely associated with Hugh M. Raup (botanist and director of the Harvard Forest) and Ernest Gould (economist on the Harvard Forest staff).

Moreover, Brinser's thinking about policymaking also derives from the theories of welfare economics emerging at that time from British economists such as Ian M. D. Little and George L. S. Shackle. Brinser applied to environmental policymaking the general theories of Little and Shackle about expectations, choices, and decision making. He integrated this with the educational approaches of British scientists Sir Joseph Hutchinson and Max Nicholson in the area of natural resources. …

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