is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Bertil Ohlin: A Centennial Celebration (1899-1999)

Author(s):Findlay, Ronald
Jonung, Lars
Lindahl, Mats
Reviewer(s):Metcalf, Michael F.

Published by EH.Net (February 2003)


Findlay, Ronald Jonung, Lars and Lindahl, Mats eds., Bertil Ohlin: A Centennial Celebration (1899-1999). Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2002. xvi + 546 pp. $60.00 (hardback), ISBN: 0-262-06228-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael F. Metcalf, Croft Institute for International Studies at The University of Mississippi of Oxford, Mississippi.

As Paul Krugman notes (389), Nobel Prize winner in economics Bertil Ohlin is probably more known to recent generations of economists by way of Paul Samuelson’s interpretation than he is from his own published works. The centennial celebration of his birth in 1899 that gave rise to this book provides ample occasion — and reason — to rediscover Ohlin through his own work and through his students and former colleagues, as well as the opportunity for economists and economic historians to learn about his remarkable career as a political party leader and public intellectual.

The volume itself is as unusual as it is stimulating. A chapter by his three children — one herself Sweden’s minister of finance from 1991 to 1994 — reflect on Ohlin the family man in the Sweden of the 1940s, while other chapters of a personal nature are contributed by his friend, former student, and colleague at the Stockholm School of Economics, Torsten G?rdlund, and by Paul Samuelson, who writes about “his” Bertil Ohlin. Sections of the book are devoted to the man, the emerging scholar and professor, Ohlin’s macroeconomics, the Heckscher-Ohlin theory of trade, and the role of that theory in economic history. Included is a translation of Ohlin’s 1922 licentiate thesis “The Theory of Interregional Trade,” the first to introduce this work to scholars who do not read Swedish.

We learn not only a great deal about Ohlin’s early development as a student of Eli F. Heckscher and a devotee of Knut Wicksell, but also about the way Ohlin transformed the teaching of economics at the University of Copenhagen, the post he held before returning to his alma mater, the Stockholm School of Economics, to succeed Heckscher as professor of economics in 1930. Benny Cartlson and Lars Jonung analyze Ohlin’s economics journalism in a chapter concentrating on 80 newspaper articles Ohlin devoted to issues related to the Great Depression between 1926 and 1935, which, we learn, is a but a small sampling of the more than 2,300 newspaper articles he published, “half of which appeared in the 1920s and the 1930s, before he made the transition from science to politics” (263). Another side of Ohlin’s multifaceted career is illuminated by Eskil Wadensj? in an article on Ohlin’s work for the Swedish government’s expert committee on unemployment between 1927 and 1935, while senior Stockholm journalist Svante Nycander elucidates Ohlin’s remarkable career as a Liberal Party member of Sweden’s Riksdag from 1938 until 1970, as a member of the four-party national unity government from 1944 to 1945, and, especially, as head of the Liberal Party in opposition from 1945 until 1967.

Bertil Ohlin was a remarkable economist, a remarkable public intellectual, and a remarkable leader of the Liberals in opposition through most of Tage Erlander’s years as prime minister during Sweden’s booming postwar decades. Eclectic in nature, this volume of essays does great justice to most aspects of Ohlin’s highly productive and principled career in all three roles. From Paul Samuelson’s brief, playful, and appreciative reflection on what he owes to Ohlin’s thinking (e.g., 51) to Paul Krugman’s pondering of the question “Was It All in Ohlin?” and on through the fascinating application of the Heckscher-Ohlin model to the long centuries between 1400 and 2000 by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, this is a volume that deserves notice by economists, economic historians, and historians of twentieth-century Swedish politics, alike. As one whose expertise lies in Sweden’s political history rather than in either economics or economic history, reading Svante Nycander’s essay on Ohlin as a politician has given this reviewer an enhanced appreciation of his role in shaping the Liberal Party as social reform competitors of the Social Democrats during the Second World War and as reliable and successful opponents of the Social Democrats’ tendencies toward establishing state pension plan investment funds that he feared would stifle labor market flexibility and thus Sweden’s international competitiveness.

Overlooking the book’s untraditional eclecticism, the only thing that warrants serious criticism is the sloppy editing that MIT Press copyeditors inflicted on this volume. One of the articles suffers stylistically from its Danish author’s inadvertent “Danglisms,” while some of the Swedish authors’ “Swenglishisms” likewise go uncorrected. Constructions such as “leader writer” (71) for editorial writer, “ideologist” (74) for ideologue, and “electors” (90) for voters are undeserved blemishes on what is a refreshing set of essays examining Bertil Ohlin’s contributions to economics, economic history, and Swedish public life and politics.

Michael F. Metcalf’s publications include The Riksdag: A History of the Swedish Parliament, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII