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In Memoriam

Mark Blaug (1927–2011)

Polymath Economist and Historian of Ideas
Pedro N. Teixeira
p. 275-279

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1On 18 November 2011, we were saddened by the news that Mark Blaug, the doyen of historians and methodologists of economic thought, had passed away. His life was richly and intensely lived, full of ideas, books, and lively conversations. It is therefore difficult to sum it up in a few pages. I can do no more than highlight just a few of his multiple intellectual facets.

2 Mark Blaug’s life was an eventful one. Like many of his generation, his early years were severely disturbed by the tumultuous European history of the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Amsterdam on 3 April 1927, where his family had established themselves after leaving Vienna in the early twentieth century, following the rise of anti-Semitism in Central Europe. Then, in 1940 his parents sent him and his brother to England, prompted by the fear that Hitler would invade the Netherlands. According to him, pessimism had saved his family twice! These changes were quite a shattering event, not least because he could barely understand English. Notwithstanding this challenge, and as many that shared his fate, he developed a deep affection for the subtleties of the English language and came to excel at it in his writings.

  • 1 During his lifetime, he published around 80 books as author, co-author, and editor. To this, he add (...)

3 After a few years of study in an English grammar school, Mark Blaug moved to New York City where he finished his secondary education and completed his university studies. After an undergraduate degree in Economics at Queens College – City University of New York, he carried out his graduate studies (MA and PhD) in Economics at Columbia University, at that time still a hybrid department regarding neoclassical and institutional influences. He earned his PhD on the decline of Ricardian Political Economy, under the supervision of George Stigler and Terence Hutchison, spending a fair amount of his time in London. His dissertation was published as Ricardian Economics – A Historical Study (1958), becoming the first of a prolific list of books.1

  • 2 Apparently, the main reason James Tobin, then the head of the Economics Department, gave him for no (...)

4 After two short periods as an assistant lecturer at Queens College and at the Department of Labor, he became an assistant professor at the Department of Economics of Yale University. There, he took charge of the teaching of history of economic thought. Apparently, under pressure of the type faced by assistant professors at elite institutions, he worked intensively in the preparation of his lectures and these became the backbone of the first edition of Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962). Despite this achievement and a few other notable publications, the increasing marginalization in the field led the department to not grant him tenure and he returned to England.2

  • 3 He also developed close links with the London School of Economics and Political Science, helping hi (...)

5 His academic life entered a new phase in 1962 following a chance meeting with the director of the Institute of Education, who was looking for an economist. At that time, economists were increasingly interested in educational topics, notably because of the development of human capital theory by American scholars such as Theodor W. Schultz, Gary Becker, and Jacob Mincer. Although Mark Blaug was largely unfamiliar with such topics, he embraced them with his usual enthusiasm, becoming Reader and then Professor of the Economics of Education at the Institute of Education (London).3 He became one of the pioneers of the economics of education and a key figure in the dissemination of human capital ideas and the application of cost/benefit analysis to education in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

6 Over the following decade and a half, Mark Blaug devoted a significant part of his energies to the economics of education. This led him to collaborate with several international agencies, including the World Bank, UNESCO, ILO, and UNPD. He also served as a consultant to private foundations that shared his growing enthusiasm about education’s potential contribution to economic and social development. He spent much of the 1970s travelling the world and picking a few fights as a policy advisor (and like many of those experiencing this role, he was often frustrated by the contradictions and messiness of the policy process). Eventually, he tired of this role and became increasingly skeptical of the intellectual future of the economics of education, especially concerning human capital theory (see Blaug, 1976).

7 During the seventies, he became increasingly focused on the relationship between economics and philosophy, a long time interest of his. Thus, when in the late seventies he re-centered his energies fully on academic work, he turned his attention to economic methodology, then a much less developed field than it is today (see Blaug, 1980). At that time, he was enthusiastic about the ideas of Imre Lakatos, whom he had met in the sixties at the LSE, and this shows in his approach to economic methodology. Once again, he lived up to of the idea of being an intellectual rebel by firmly endorsing Popperian ideas at a time when they were coming under increasing attack from rising postmodernism and philosophical relativism.

8 This interest in the methodology of economics contributed to the increasingly skeptical tone regarding the contemporary state of economics that pervades much of his later writings (see, for instance, Blaug, 1999). This was reinforced by his renewed interest in the history of economic ideas, through which he showed how his ideas had changed since he was a young assistant professor of the 1960s. His former enthusiasm about neoclassical economics and, in particular about abstraction and rigor, which had been paramount in his favorable assessment of general equilibrium theory, gave way to a more distant attitude and an increasing skepticism about the capacity of mainstream neoclassical economics to engage in real economic issues and to provide relevant answers to policy problems. His intellectual heroes had also changed, Adam Smith displacing David Ricardo as the object of his enthusiasm (see Blaug, 1997).

9 These changes were also reflected in his views about the purpose and nature of the history of economic thought. Although he still considered it relevant to pursue further an engagement with an increasingly estranged economics discipline (albeit keeping his distance from the trendy history of science fads – Blaug, 2001), his support for rational reconstructions had weakened and he increasingly advocated the pursuit of the elusive (but necessary) historical reconstruction of economic ideas.

10 One of Mark Blaug’s distinctive features was his capacity to intellectually organize and shape a field. He did this several times through writing textbooks and extensive surveys. With the massification of higher education, textbooks became a prime instrument for academics and students and a powerful tool for the dissemination of ideas, concepts, and methodological approaches, and an important part of Mark Blaug’s influence was a result of his success as a textbook author. The best-known example is of course Economic Theory in Retrospect, which went through five editions and arguably became the most influential textbook in the field for most of the second half of the twentieth century. He used this not only to convey his views about the evolution of economic ideas, but also to promote a certain view about the field and its position in relation to the economic discipline at large. Likewise, his sudden interest in the economics of education led him to produce a textbook—An introduction to the economics of education (Blaug, 1970)—that was arguably the best-known textbook in the field for many years, widely used not only by economists, but also by many non-economists. In this case, Mark Blaug played a significant role in consecrating human capital theory as the backbone of the field.

11 Mark Blaug clearly enjoyed being an economist, but his intellectual interests were never fully contained within the boundaries of the discipline. He was a compulsive reader and had an outstanding erudition in the history of economics, in economics, and beyond. He was known for expressing his views strongly, but he was willing to reconsider his views and to be convinced that he had got it wrong (and he recognized in print a few times that he had changed his mind). He was not a man of minutiae and this may have hindered his perceptions on some issues, but he was sharp and he was known for being extremely perceptive when reading an article or book or listening to a presentation.

  • 4 Several people tried to convince him to write his memoirs, but he did not consider it to be importa (...)

12 Mark Blaug was fascinated by ideas and this stimulated in him a permanent inclination to engage in intellectual conversations and controversies. As a formidable debater, it was a pleasure seeing him "in action", especially against his intellectual bêtes noires. He was also a fantastic storyteller and it is unfortunate that he did not want to write his memoirs, because very few people have been such a witty and privileged observer of economics over the past 60 years.4

13 When in the early 1950s Mark Blaug went to see George Stigler (at that time a professor at Columbia University), asking him to be his supervisor and telling him that he wanted to work on HET, Stigler told him to get serious. Mark Blaug insisted and eventually Stigler accepted, but he warned him that he would pay a price for that. Mark Blaug could have changed his mind and most likely he would have enjoyed having a rather comfortable life at an elite Economics Department in the US. Nonetheless, he decided to devote most of his academic career to a field that he knew was losing visibility, but that provided him with deep intellectual satisfaction. In doing so, he made a great service to our field and he has left us an enduring intellectual legacy. We will miss his wit, his erudition, and his unquenchable intellectual enthusiasm. I will also miss him as an extraordinary storyteller and a sharp mentor.

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Bibliographie

Blaug, Mark. 1958. Ricardian Economics. A Historical Study. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Blaug, Mark. 1962. Economic Theory in Retrospect. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin.

Blaug, Mark. 1970. An Introduction to the Economics of Education. London: Alan Lane.

Blaug, Mark. 1976. The Empirical Status of the Human Capital Theory: A Slightly Jaundiced Survey. Journal of Economic Literature, 14(3): 827-855.

Blaug, Mark. 1980. The Methodology of Economics, or How Economists Explain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blaug, Mark. 1994. Not Only an Economist. American Economist, 38(2): 12-27.

Blaug, Mark. 1997. Economic Theory in Retrospect. 5th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blaug, Mark. 1999. The Formalist Revolution or What Happened to Orthodox Economics After World War II. In From Classical Economics to Marshallian Economics: Essays in Honour of Denis O'Brien, eds. R. Backhouse and J. Creedy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 257–280.

Blaug, Mark. 2001. No History of Ideas, Please, We're Economists. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15(1): 145-164.

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Notes

1 During his lifetime, he published around 80 books as author, co-author, and editor. To this, he added almost 200 journal articles and book chapters and a long list of book reviews. The topics include the history of economic thought, economic methodology, economic philosophy, the economics of education, and the economics of the arts.

2 Apparently, the main reason James Tobin, then the head of the Economics Department, gave him for not granting him tenure at Yale was because they were not interested in having a specialist in the history of economic thought.

3 He also developed close links with the London School of Economics and Political Science, helping him to stay in contact with a larger group of economists and other social scientists.

4 Several people tried to convince him to write his memoirs, but he did not consider it to be important. However, those with interest on this should not miss his autobiographical essay “Not only an economist” (1994). There is also an extensive and fascinating autobiographical interview recorded by the University of Canterbury (New Zealand), when he was invited to deliver an important series of lectures, which also gives a flavor of his wit and sardonic humor. This was available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEzcLkpuhmw.

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Pedro N. Teixeira, « Mark Blaug (1927–2011)  », Œconomia, 2-3 | 2012, 275-279.

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Pedro N. Teixeira, « Mark Blaug (1927–2011)  », Œconomia [En ligne], 2-3 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2012, consulté le 23 juillet 2017. URL : http://oeconomia.revues.org/1306 ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.1306

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Auteur

Pedro N. Teixeira

CIPES and Faculty of Economics, University of Porto

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