Economics historian Mark Blaug called Jacob Viner “the greatest historian of economic thought that ever lived.” One of Viner’s greatest accomplishments is his book Studies in the Theory of International Trade. This work is not just a history of the theory of international trade but also a guidebook that tells where the early economists who studied trade were wrong and where they were right. In it Viner decisively refuted fallacies of mercantilism. Viner also wrote a famous 145-page introduction to an edition of John Rae’s Life of Adam Smith.
Viner was an international trade theorist in his own right. His book The Customs Union Issue introduced the distinction between the trade-creating and the trade-diverting effects of customs unions (see international trade agreements). His earliest book, Dumping, is a comprehensive analysis of the subject.
Viner is known for his view that the long run matters. Some of his best articles are reprinted in a 1958 book, The Long View and the Short. “No matter how refined and how elaborate the analysis,” Viner wrote, “if it rests solely on the short view it will still be … a structure built on shifting sands.” One of the articles included in Viner’s book, “Cost Curves and Supply Curves,” lays out the short-run and long-run cost curves that still show up in microeconomics texts.
Viner, who grew up in Montreal, was an undergraduate student at McGill University, where he studied economics under the famous Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, writing his dissertation under international trade economist Frank W. Taussig. He was a professor at the University of Chicago from 1916 to 1917 and from 1919 until 1946. He moved to Princeton in 1946, where he taught until retiring in 1960. For many of his years at Chicago, Viner, along with Frank Knight, edited the Journal of Political Economy. Viner is not considered part of the Chicago school as he was much less sympathetic to free markets than his Chicago school colleagues.