- Purchase/rental options available:
History of Political Economy 33.1 (2001) 177-179
[Access article in PDF]
Charlatans or Saviours?
Economists and the British Economy from Marshall to Meade
Charlatans or Saviours? Economists and the British Economy from Marshall to Meade. By Roger Middleton. Cheltenham, U.K., and Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 1998. xx; 462 pp. $100.00
Roger Middleton has made a formidable contribution to the growing literature appraising the health (or otherwise) of the contemporary economics profession. But this work also provides much more. It is, at the same time, a reasonably comprehensive survey of major themes in British economics, dating from Marshall’s initiative in organizing what would become the Royal Economic Society in 1890 to the present. In addition, it inspects the shifting fortunes of professional economists as policy advisers in Whitehall over the past century.
The bulk of the narrative is organized around an analysis of the fate of Marshall’s aspirations for a genuinely professionalized discipline. Marshall’s “mission” (as Middleton characterizes it) had three components: “an attribute (specialist knowledge), an attitude (freedom from political partisanship) and a consequent reward (privileges in policy-making)” (3). Through his teaching and his example, he hoped that a cadre of experts with “cool heads and warm hearts” would be brought into being. Its members would be expected to employ their talents to advance human welfare.
In Britain, the penetration of professional economists into the higher echelons of the bureaucracy got off to a slow start. This was not altogether surprising in view of the traditions of the British civil service and its genuflection toward the cult of the amateur. Some headway was made in the interwar years when economists were represented in the debates over the decision to relink sterling to gold at the prewar parity and in the discussions of policies to address unemployment in the 1930s. (Middleton’s treatment of this period, it should be noted, includes a perceptive account of the creative tensions over the proper trajectory for the discipline associated with the regnant orthodoxies in the main academic institutions, i.e., Cambridge, Oxford, and the London School of Economics.) World War II opened new doors to professional opportunity in the corridors of power. Economists—especially those equipped to manipulate the Keynesian aggregates—had something worthwhile to contribute to wartime economic mobilization, and their expertise was valued. A body of doctrine to inform policy decision-making that had been largely shut out by the predominance of “the Treasury view” in the 1930s thus acquired an “insider” status. The Keynesian [End Page 177] style of thinking, in turn, was primarily responsible for the conceptual framework guiding policies to promote full employment in the post–World War II economy.
During the war and in the immediate postwar decades, Marshall’s vision for the profession was effectively realized. Economists displayed an expertise that was recognized and respected in policy discourse, and their collective efforts were channeled to serve the common good. In Middleton’s reading, the waning of this “golden age” began with the massive recruitment of economists to Whitehall in Harold Wilson’s Labour government of the mid-1960s, during which they allowed their professional competence to be “politicized” in the interests of loyalty to a prime minister who insisted—until the last moment in 1967—that devaluation of the pound was not a discussible subject. The profession’s credibility in Britain—as was also the case in the United States—suffered even heavier damage in the “stagflation” days of the 1970s. Even so, a new low was established in the British case in March 1981 when 364 economists—representing the profession’s academic elite, a fair number of whom had substantial policy-advisory experience—signed an open letter denouncing the economic program of Margaret Thatcher’s government. This breach between the professional mainstream and the government of the day was not to be repaired.
Marshall would have been horrified by this turn of events. He probably would have been even more disturbed by the course of academic economics in the closing decades of the twentieth...