Lord Robbins the Lion
By Pedro Schwartz
When Lord Lionel Robbins accepted to become the supervisor of my Ph.D. thesis I felt lucky, but did not know how lucky I was. I had been studying for a degree in Political Science at the London School of Economics. I wanted to go further and dig under politics to uncover the economic strands of the social fabric. When Karl Popper had suggested that I write on John Stuart Mill, I immediately agreed, for Mill was not only a political philosopher but also and fundamentally an economist. The School then saw I needed much help to tackle the economic side of my chosen topic. So, here I was, in some trepidation, in Robbins’s small room (Baron Robbins, of Clare Market in the City of Westminster, to give him his full title). At this our very first meeting my supervisor told me to start by reading Alfred Marshall‘s Principles and Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis, from beginning to end, a fortnight for each! Each took me a month and I only scratched the surface. I remember his remark when I expressed my despair at not having read all the books that were awaiting my study: “Pedro that is a feeling you will never get rid of in your life”.
This was characteristic of the great teacher that he was. He stretched you to the limit. He demanded analytical precision and at the same time broad historical perspective. Another trait was his exquisite but firm courtesy. When I produced a draft of my first chapter, which was on Mill’s methodology of the social sciences, he said: “Pedro, I found your paper very interesting. But why don’t you put it in an inaccessible cupboard?”
Robbins was born in 1898 in a strict Baptist family and died in 1984 after a gloriously fruitful life. His father Richard was a prosperous market farmer who cultivated as much as 300 acres of the land that now is part of Heathrow Airport. He did not attend boarding school but rather the local secondary School, where he took more to writing poetry than to studying mathematics. He was wounded as a very young soldier in World War I. Then, encouraged and financed by his father, he started study at the LSE, which would be his spiritual home for the rest of his life.
Here I wish to show what he meant, not so much for me, as for economic science (as he strongly believed it was a science), for his country in war and peace, for the universities, and for the arts, the ballet, and the opera. He was a person of conviction and character, but his most precious trait was a warm and caring personality, which shone through his unfailing courtesy. I have been led to recall the life of this outstanding man by reading Susan Howson’s immensely detailed biography, where his life is related als es eigentlich gewesen war—as it actually happened—in no less than 1,161 pages.
The young professor
Robbins was made a junior professor at LSE when he was not yet 31 and soon became a full professor. He set about transforming the teaching and cultivation of economics at the School. He rightly gave much more importance to lectures rather than tutorials, as he experienced in Oxford during his brief stint there. Another essential element of his work and influence was his famous Seminar, which he convened regularly all the years when he was teaching at LSE. His vision of economic was quite different from the type of analysis set forward by Marshall and used by his many disciples. Robbins wanted economics to be based on theory, by which he meant the use of logical reasoning based on general equilibrium,1 while Marshall was more of a partial equilibrium theorist.2 Now, this is contrary to the accepted view of the Austrian School of Economics, focussed on their refusal to formulate economic theorems in mathematical terms. One must not overlook their insistence that one should always account for the indirect repercussions of the solution for the whole of the economy when trying to solve an economic problems. While Robbins, in his lectures on the history of economic thought, unfailingly mentioned Leon Walras as an originator of general equilibrium he rather followed Friedrich von Wieser, the other founder of the method, in eschewing mathematical models.3 Robbins always applied the theory in its logical verbal form. His skill in the use of language allowed him clearly to present the manifold consequences of changes in initial conditions but he saw no need to formulate theorems and their proofs: deduction from the premises of rational behaviour was enough.4
Robbins, however, was also an applied economist. He was adamant in logically separating is from ought but this did not keep him away from political economy: he judged social situations as a moderate utilitarian; and he applied statistics when proposing policies. The crowning example of his statistical bent is how he led the Commission charged with the Report on Higher Education (1963) to collect the facts and figures of Universities and similar institutions, and to use them to forecast the needs and costs of the large expansion they would propose.
Robbins and Keynes
The main external circumstance that influenced the teaching and application of economics in the 1930s was the 1929 recession, later the Great Depression. In 1931 John Maynard Keynes publicly abandoned his free trade stance and proposed a tariff to help fight unemployment. Robbins lamented this recantation and never followed Keynes in his commercial heresy. With the Great Depression the rift between them widened. From 1931 on Keynes explained deflation in the United Kingdom by an excess of saving over investment. He argued that a slump should be corrected by more expenditure and started proposing a programme of public works to revive demand. Robbins, on the other hand, argued that he could not see the usefulness of public investment without regard to what the funds were being spent on
In the ‘thirties Robbins’s friendship with Ludwig von Mises and later F. A. Hayek helped him become growingly fascinated by the Austrian theory of the economic cycle—’a monetary over-investment theory of the business cycle’, as Howson aptly calls it.5 Robbins blamed the excessive boom of the ‘twenties on the artificial lowering of interest rates in the United States because it had led to mistaken investment decisions not backed by savings. The slump was a painful but necessary purge those mistakes and should be let rip. He wrote the only book of which he later in life said he repented: The Great Depression (1934). No artificial inducements were to be applied to reverse the slump.
A different explanation came from Chicago. Milton Friedman relates how there they explored a third possibility in the explanation and correction of the Great Depression. Whatever the initial causes, sitting on ones’ hands was not the solution. What had started as ‘a garden variety business recession’ became a chasm because the Federal Reserve allowed the money supply to shrink catastrophically. It had not acted as a lender of last resort in good time and had allowed scores of banks to fail. However, this more hopeful monetarist explanation was not fully formulated until the ‘forties. The Austrian solution looked too miserable, so Keynes provisionally emerged triumphant.
Robbins in fact never gave up the Austrian theory as an explanatory frame-work but after working with Keynes during World War II, he did move to using aggregate economic variables rather than insist exclusively on analysing relative prices as Hayek did. And instead of focussing on measures to increase the flexibility of the labour markets and the economy as a whole, as he had done in the ‘thirties,6 he accepted the Keynesian public investment proposals to revive aggregate demand.
Service during World War II
Robbins served in both world wars; he was wounded as an artillery officer in the First War and worked as an economist very near the seat of power during the Second. He started as one of the economists attached to the War Office, his more noticeable contribution was helping establish war rationing of consumption goods to a point system. He then became the Director of the Economic Section in the underground warren of offices under Whitehall from where Churchill directed the war. These offices can be paid an enthralling visit today. He was material to transforming the British economy into an effective war machine.
Around 1943 he increased his collaboration with Keynes, who was working at the Treasury nearby, principally on the design of the economy of the post-war world. With the other economists of the group, he had to travel frequently to the United States. With Keynes, he made a signal contribution to the British side at Bretton Woods. When the war ended he helped negotiate the American loan, whose intent was to help the United Kingdom to keep a fixed exchange with the dollar, despite the UK’s twin deficits of the balance of payments and the budget. The loan was frittered away in trying to keep the pound at the over-valued rate. Luckily, the Marshall Plan intervened and the United Kingdom together with the other European allies received large additional fund for reconstruction.
Return to the LSE
In December 1945 Robbins left public employment and returned to his beloved LSE. He soon started teaching his regular Principles of Economics course. It was essentially a microeconomics course, using graphs and even cardboard models but very little mathematics. I well remember that, when he came to speaking of the economy in aggregate terms he assumed we were all familiar with (Keynesian) macroeconomics, so he did not dwell on them. This shows the extent of Keynes’s influence on him. We know that he had abandoned Hayek’s reliance on changes in relative prices as a remedy for the slump, so that he would not rely on lowering wages to reduce unemployment as he used to. He did mention money and artificially low interest rates as two factors of inflation but for him they were not the main arguments as they would for Milton Friedman.
He also retook the chair of Economics Department and of many administrative committees but more momentous was the care he lavished of postgraduate school. He restarted his famous Seminar to which he had invited so many distinguished economists when they passed through London. Questions were studied intensively, as for example happened during the 1946/7 session wholly given to the discussion of public utilities at the suggestion of Ronald Coase. 7 And he was material in engaging many distinguished staff for the School, as he had done for Hayek before the war and Popper on the return of peace.
The Mont Pelerin Society
In 1947 Hayek was able to convene a small band of philosophers, historians, and economists high up on the shores of Lake Geneva to examine classical liberalism anew, then at its lowest point since the middle of the 19th century. Robbins was of that group of thinkers, as were Frank Knight, the young Friedman and more. His old friend Mises was there too; charming in private, but making “a dreadful exhibition of himself” and “his prickly temperament” in the discussions.8 One can perhaps understand some of Mises’ reactions (at one point Mises left the meeting in a huff calling the rest “a bunch of socialists”) because many of those gathered there wanted to free classical liberalism from the taint of absolute laissez faire. Even Hayek, when preparing the meeting, had said he wanted a new version of liberalism.9 The Society, bent on waging an intellectual battle, has in fact gone nearer to the unyielding stance of the Austrian School of economics. An important contribution by Robbins was the drafting of the Statement of Aims of the MPS, which is still the official Statement today.10 It takes note of the dangers to human freedom posed by the spread of intolerant creeds and the undermining of private property and competition over large parts of the earth. It does not propose the formation of a propaganda group or a body to impose orthodoxy. It calls for an intellectual effort and a defence of values needed to preserve civilization and outlines some of the fundamental questions that should be further studied by the membership.
The History of Economic Thought
During his 1950 sabbatical year Robbins engaged on a new line of research and publication, where he excelled: the history of economics. He had had an abiding interest in the past of the subject, witness his initiative of having the School republish classical texts. He started teaching the subject in 1953. His first book in this field was The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (1952) where he undid the usual presentation of the Classical School as a single orthodox movement for non-interventionism. He reinforced this line of thought with Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics (1958), a book that was special in many ways. It underlined Colonel Torrens’s discrepancies and coincidences with other economists of the time. It threw a new light on the evolution of economic analysis, especially in the field of international trade. And it was an outstanding exercise in scholarship. He later published The Theory of Economic Development in the classical period (1968), when growth and development were becoming hot topics. His work was a paragon of historical empathy without falling into the temptation of doctrinaire anachronism. I was lucky to attend his LSE lectures on the history of economic thought and have read with great pleasure the publication of the notes of this course by [Warren J.] Samuels and [Steven G.] Medema (1998). All these, I must say, were precious lessons for the historian I was trying to be.
The arts and other occupations
One of the outstanding traits of Robbins’s personality was his love of the arts—paintings, the opera, the ballet were not only enjoyed but the object of his administrative care. He was immensely knowledgeable; he cared deeply for that part of civilised life. I especially remember a visit to the Prado in his company and that of Iris his wife. Among other requests his principal wish was to see Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross”. He stood transfixed before that supreme work for a long time and I saw tears welling up in his eyes.
At some point in his life he was Chairman of the National Gallery, a trustee of the Tate Gallery, the Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. His contributions to these institutions were not only based on his vision and good taste but also on his excellent relations with Governments and civil servants and the administrative capabilities he had honed during his war service.
This was not all. He was also simultaneously Chairman of the Financial Times and a director of British Petroleum, while he went on presiding the Economics Department at LSE, with all the administrative and academic work that implied. He took it all in his stride but the University. Authorities decided he had to give up his chair, a move that made him very unhappy. There was more to this move than meets the eye: a number of the economists at LSE thought that Robbins’s conception of economics was somewhat passé and that the School had to move into the mainstream by becoming much more mathematical and econometric.
The Higher Education Report
One of Robbins’s main contributions to the progress of his country was chairmanship of the Committee on Higher Education, whose Report was done and published in 1963. In fact, Robbins was much more than a convener of the Committee. In the end, the Committee held 111 meetings over two years.11 With due respect to the other members he not only suggested the topics to be covered, organised the visits in Britain and abroad, led the cross examination of the witnesses, wrote the drafts of the different chapters and finally the draft of the Report itself.
It was the belief of Robbins that the British University system was too restrictive and wasted a great deal of potential in the young population. His aim and that of the whole Committee was to increase numbers without lowering quality. The reaction of many at the time (unfortunately including myself) was that more meant worse. I must say I was wrong. If we take a long view to the present, there is little doubt that the goal of the Report has been attained and surpassed. British Universities are of world quality in teaching, research, and for their contribution to civilised society.
One distinguishing aspect of the Report was its use of statistical analysis. In this he deviated from Austrian School orthodoxy. Robbins called in Claus Moser to help with the use of data. Moser suggested a statistical construct to measure ´the total pool of ability’ in the student population. This pool not only included the young who did attend university but also those who had the ability and not the means, and those who did not even aspire to proceed to further education though they were of the level for it—especially women. To correct such wastage the Committee proposed greatly to increase the supply of places and even examined the possibility of student loans. The estimate of the Report was that the student population including the overseas contingent would grow from 216,000 in 1962/3 to 607,000 in 1985/6. Howson adds that this turned out to be an underestimate of the actual expansion of student numbers.
The Report for all its qualities and boldness was clearly set in the statist mode. The main source of funds was to be government, though they should be supplied through a non-political intermediary, the University Grants Committee. This is very much within the British tradition of correcting the Oxbridge duopoly by creating public universities mainly funded by government. In the 19th century two new universities, University College and King’s College were launched in London through civic or Church efforts. But soon public money acquired the greater role. In the Report the role of institutional competition to as a method of maintaining quality was almost absent. The aim was uniform quality of the system. Quality was kept up by regulation. The Report thus moved away from the American system of freely competing self-governing establishments, both private and public, where competition does not result in uniform quality but the supply is more obedient to the varied kinds of demand.
Though Robbins had spent most of his adult life connected with LSE, he had to give up his professorship, as related above, and when nearing seventy simply kept giving some lectures there. It is ironic for an educator so caring for the cultural and professional aims of University that he should have been involved again in the School’s affairs during the ‘troubles’ of 1966/7 and 1968/9. In those years the Universities of the English speaking world went through a time of conflict, which in 1968 spread to France and Germany. At LSE they took the form of objections by the more radical students to the appointment of a new director, whom they accused of racialism. Robbins was Chairman of the Court of Governors during the second period of troubles coinciding with demonstrations against the Vietnam War, matters came to such a pass that the School had to be closed for twenty five days.12 This was a bitter pill to swallow, later sweetened by the success of the Appeal for a new Library. That facility was named after him and is now in full swing.
He crowned his life as an economist and a historian with a last book: Political Economy, Past & Present (1976), where he reviewed the leading theories of economic policy. And in 1998, as I said, the notes of his course on the history of economic thought were published, much to the satisfaction of those of us who had had the pleasure of attending along the years.
The Old Lion
I hope I have painted Lionel Robbins’s portrait ‘warts and all’ but recalled the reasons for his greatness. A mane of hair that had turned white when I met him crowned his imposing figure. His strong carrying voice had traces of earthiness as became the son of a farmer. He spoke with clarity and conviction and, as many said who knew him, he had a capacity for concentration and a prodigious memory that helped him in the many intellectual battles that he waged in his academic, political, corporate, and administrative posts. His ability for lucid exposition, elegant and precise pen, outstanding capacity for marshalling evidence and argument, great powers of concentration and memory, contributed to making him the outstanding public figure he became.
In his way he was an arch-establishment figure but one that never sounded hollow. He truly understood and respected the civilisation in which he was born and grew. He loved paintings, opera and ballet and was able to help reform and finance the museums and theatres that he advised and directed with the same effectiveness as he applied to his war service. A restrained sense of beauty shone through his prose and increased its power.
As an historian he was a meticulous scholar who did not commit the solecisms of so many of his peers, who today for example invent denominations such as ‘neo-Keynesian’ that Keynes would have repined at.
As an economist, which is after all what he essentially was, his achievements were mixed though he may have been less out of line than he appears today. He was an inspiring teacher and lecturer. He was a political economist who did use statistics to understand and predict the situations he studied. He is out of favour today because he shunned using mathematics, his models were verbal, and he was born too early to incorporate econometrics to his reasoning. It is a pity that on some crucial questions he moved away from the Austrian School of his youth. For example, his famous definition of economics as the science which studies the relationship between given ends and scarce means with alternative uses lacks the dimension that Hayek would underline in his 1945 on “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, that ends may be unformulated and means undiscovered, and that therefore economic calculation was far from an engineering problem. Again, his move nearer to Keynes during WWII by stressing aggregate demand as the mover of the economy was a plain mistake that Mises could have warned him against.
Let me conclude that I was indeed lucky to have him as a mentor.
Committee on Higher Education (1963): Report. Cmd. 2154 HMSO.
Friedman, Milton (1956): Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money.
Hartwell, Ronald Max (1995): A History of the Mont Pelerin Society. Liberty Fund, Inc.
Hayek, Friedrich (1945): “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, by Friedrich A. Hayek. AER, September 1945.
Howson, Susan (2011): Lionel Robbins. Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, Alfred (1890, 1920): Principles of Economics. 8th edition.
Robbins, Lionel (1932): Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. 2nd edition, 1935.
Robbins, Lionel (1934 a): The Great Depression.
Robbins, Lionel (1934 b): “Remarks upon Certain Aspects of the Theory of Costs”, Economic Journal.
Robbins, Lionel (1952): The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy
Robbins, Lionel (1958): Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics
Robbins, Lionel (1968): The Theory of Economic Development in the History of Economic Thought
Robbins, Lionel (1998): A History of Economic Thought. The LSE Lectures, edited by Steven G. Medema and Samuels, Warren J. Princeton.
Schumpeter, Joseph Alois (1954): History of Economic Analysis
 An instructive example of his application of general equilibrium can be seen in Robbins’s theory of opportunity cost (1934). It is worth the visit.
 It was Robbins himself who called my attention to the general equilibrium analysis in the mathematical appendix Note XIV of the Principles. But Marshall added that, “[…] while a mathematical illustration of a definite set of causes may be complete in itself, […] it is otherwise with any attempt to grasp the whole of a complex problem of real life […] in a series of equations. For many important considerations, especially those connected with the manifold influences of the element of time, do not lend themselves easily to mathematical expression.” I take this to mean that Marshall thought Walras overplayed the notion of equilibrium.
 Robbins only used two charts in all his published writings, to illustrate the backward bending supply curve for labour. (Howson, 2011, pg. 172). But he did use them in his classes.
 He expounded the logic of his method in his most famous book, the Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1935, 2nd edition).
 Howson (2011), pg. 176).
 The 1930 Committee presided by Keynes and studied by Howson (2011), pages 179-193.
 Howson (2011), page 653.
 Robbins to his wife April 3rd 1947, quoted by Howson (2011), pages. 662-3.
 Hartwell (1995), page. 33.
 Hartwell (1995), pages 41-2.
 Howson (2011), page 867.
 Dahrendorf pages 443-477.
*Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of economics at Universidad Camilo José in Madrid. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene. He was a past President of the Mont Pelerin Society.
For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.