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Lionel Robbins

Author(s):Howson, Susan
Reviewer(s):Hands, D. Wade

Published by EH.Net (December 2012)

Susan Howson, Lionel Robbins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiii + 1161 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-00244-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by D. Wade Hands, Department of Economics, University of Puget Sound.

Susan Howson’s biography is, and I suggest will remain, the definitive work on the life of Lionel Robbins. At over 1,100 pages it is obviously an extremely detailed biography, but the word “detailed” seriously understates the close-focus character of Howson’s investigation. It is a committee meeting by committee meeting, white paper by white paper, and trip by trip, documentation of Robbins’s public and professional life. It is an overwhelming research and writing project, and the author who undertook it, saw it through, and ultimately produced such a biography, deserves our greatest respect.

The book generally proceeds chronologically, beginning with Robbins’s childhood and ending with his death in 1984. Howson traces Robbins’s lifetime involvement with the London School of Economics (LSE) from his entrance as a student after World War I, to his acceptance of a permanent position in 1929, through his leadership during the following decades, and on to his retirement (all three of his retirements: 1961, 1966, and 1973). It is very clear that for much of the period from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s LSE economics and Lionel Robbins’s vision of economics were effectively inseparable. This said, he was also surrounded by a host of bright lights. Friedrich Hayek of course, but there were many others including John R. Hicks who was developing the ideas that would become Value and Capital (1939) and collaborating with his colleague R. G. D. Allen on what is now considered to be the key paper in the ordinal revolution (Hicks and Allen 1934), as well as a number of later-to-be-influential students such as Abba Lerner and Nicholas Kaldor. As Paul Samuelson often said, the 1930s were a great time to be an economist, and Howson makes it clear that was as much the case in London as it was in Cambridge, England or in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Two aspects of Robbins’s professional life that are consistently highlighted throughout the book are his extraordinary public service during and immediately after World War II (service both to Britain and to the Western political-economic system in general), and his close relationship with John Maynard Keynes. These two things are related of course since much of Robbins’s contact with Keynes occurred within the context of their war-related service. Robbins first met Keynes in 1928 and they were both involved in the 1930 Committee of Economists report on the economic slump. This was followed by a number of close collaborations during the war years as a result of Robbins’s duties in the economics section of the Office of the War Cabinet and later at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 and the negotiations over the Anglo-American loan agreements at the end of 1945 (during which Keynes’s health was rapidly deteriorating). Throughout this service Robbins was in the heart of the fight ? the fight for victory as well as the fight for the construction of fair, efficient, and robust economic institutions to help the world economy recover from the war ? with the same energy and commitment as Keynes. In the conclusion Howson notes that “Robbins was one of Keynes’s most powerful allies within the government machine” (p. 1084) and quotes from Robbins’s autobiography on the question of his adoption of Keynesian ideas: “But if all that is involved by that description is a conviction that, in a free society, the fluctuations of aggregate demand must not be left to look after themselves and that it is an important function of government, national and international, to pay attention to such matters, then indeed that was now my position” (p. 1085).

Of course Lionel Robbins was also involved in a substantial amount of public service independently of his war time service, Bretton Woods, and all that. He also played a key role in British educational policy as the influential chair of the Committee on Higher Education (1961-1965), served for over a decade on the Trustees of the National Gallery (1954-1967), as well as serving in a number of other capacities. Robbins was an important academic economist, but he had a profound influence on mid-twentieth century British social and cultural life independently of his academic research or the students he taught.

Anyone reading 1,100 pages of detailed biographical narrative is bound to have many moments where they suddenly see interesting new connections between certain events or ideas. I would just like to note two of many such cases for me. The first is that in the early years of World War II Robbins was involved with a number of other economists in promoting the federation of Britain and France that “would form a nucleus for the postwar federation of Europe” (p. 346), a federation that would “have full taxing and borrowing powers and also the power to carry out public works” (p. 350). Given this, one really wonders what he would have to say about the current European situation (or alternatively, one wonders whether we would be in the current predicament if economists like Robbins and Keynes had been around during the 1990s). The second issue is Howson’s discussion of Robbins’s involvement with the Mount Pelerin Society and in particular the impact that his relationship with Hayek had on his association with that society (pp. 661-664, 703-705, 845-848). The bottom line is that even though Robbins was the primary author of the Mount Pelerin founding statement, he attended the first meeting in 1947 but resigned soon after and did not attend again until 1979 and his relationship with Hayek had much to do with it. Interesting indeed.

Even though Howson’s book is painstakingly researched, extremely detailed, and clearly written, no reviewer is ever entirely satisfied. In my case, there was one topic where I found both the quantity and the quality of the discussion to be quite disappointing; the topic is economic methodology and related philosophical ideas. Other than his definition of economics and the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons, contemporary economics students are unlikely to know anything about Lionel Robbins. But this is not the case in economic methodology where An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1932, 1935) is one of the field’s most important texts and its arguments continue to be hotly debated. So I expected to find a discussion of the origins of, and how Robbins’s thinking evolved on, many of these methodological and philosophical questions. How exactly was Robbins influenced by logical positivism (many claim it had a great impact, but others cite an Austrian influence at odds with positivist empiricism)? Connected with this, he was obviously critical of American Institutionalism and of the popular psychological ideas of the day ? How did he come to have these views? How about behaviorism (he seemed quite critical of it in the second edition, but not in the first)? And later in his life ? What exactly did he think of the relationship between Karl Popper’s philosophical ideas and economics, in particular the tensions between some of the things Popper wrote about economics and his general falsificationist philosophy of science? And on the subject of Popper, how did Robbins feel about the claims of the young Turks such as Richard Lipsey and Chris Archibald who argued in the LSE M2T seminar that Popper’s philosophy of science was a better approach than Robbins’s methodology? And on and on ?

And what does one find that might help us understand Robbins’s thinking on such questions? Very little. Robbins’s philosophical ideas are seldom discussed ? either the origins of his ideas or how he considered revising them in light of criticism ? and what discussion there is, seldom sheds much light on these matters. We are told that his 1930s lectures included “a spirited attack on American Institutionalism” (p. 175). Okay, so what were his criticisms and how were they related to his arguments in Nature and Significance? Howson quotes at length from a first draft of the preface to the second edition where he argues that the critics of the normative-positive dichotomy are the manifestation “of that wave of revolt against the rational which in the shape of Hitlerism Fascism ? etc is sweeping over the civilized world today” (p. 273). Perhaps this was true for some critics, but there were many ? including associates like Frank Knight, Terence Hutchison, and Hayek ? who raised substantive issues unrelated to his use of the normative-positive dichotomy. What of these? Nothing is said.? There are various mentions of Popper speckled around in the book ? his visit to LSE in 1936 (p. 290), his criticism of historicism (pp. 496-497), a mention of the Latsis conference in 1974 (p. 1080), and even a brief note on some of Popper’s comments on the rationality principle (p. 849) ? but nothing sustained, or systematic, and nor is there any serious attempt to fit these ideas into the evolution of Robbins’s thinking about the character of economic science. Similarly for the T2M seminar. Howson tells us that the criticisms were “somewhat unfair to Robbins” because his “methodological viewpoint in the 1950s was not identical with his in the 1930s” (p. 820). Okay, but how exactly did it change and why? Finally, and perhaps most exasperatingly, we are told early on that Robbins was a “provisional utilitarian” (p. 96) and then reminded again at the very end that he was “a utilitarian in his political philosophy” (p. 1087), but there is essentially nothing on the subject in the one thousand intervening pages (in particular there is nothing that might be considered to be a defense of these claims or even any effort to explain what type of utilitarianism Robbins ostensibly supported). What could one mean by saying that Robbins was a utilitarian when his most well-known contribution to economics effectively snapped the back of applied utilitarian-based welfare economics? Perhaps he was a utilitarian of some kind, but exactly what kind, and why, needs to be explained. These are only a few of many such cases ? sins of both omission and commission ? that jumped out as me as I read through the book.

Now, I am willing to admit that my disappointment is based in part on my personal interest in methodological questions and my desire to gain some additional insight into Robbins’s views on a number of long-standing philosophical issues. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic. I suppose it is also possible that Robbins himself just never thought about such topics (or at least never wrote about, or corresponded about, such topics in a way that would leave a record for the historian) but that seems unlikely since such issues were at the heart of his most influential work, they were the topic of the most heated discussion about his work during his lifetime, and he continued to address them in print in later life. It seems more likely that the reader’s attention is deflected away from such methodological questions and toward Robbins’s contribution to important policy debates because of the author’s own interest in British economic policy and the desire to give Robbins proper credit for his under-appreciated policy work. There is of course nothing wrong with the author of a biography emphasizing one particular aspect of the relevant individual’s life and helping Robbins get proper credit is a reasonable goal, but this emphasis should be made clear to the reader from the beginning. Perhaps the title should have been “Lionel Robbins: Economist in the Public Service.” In any case ? and for whatever reason ? I found the discussion of economic methodology and related philosophical ideas to be the most disappointing part of the book.

So to summarize, Lionel Robbins is generally an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written biography. As I said in the first paragraph, it not only is, but will remain, the definitive work on Robbins’s life. It is much more of a facts-of-his-life history than an intellectual history ? what he did, what he said, what he wrote, at particular times ? rather than the evolution of his ideas, but it is a beautiful example of the type of biography that it is. It is long, but it is worth it, and one comes away with a much greater appreciation of the man, the economist, and in a sense the hero, Lionel Robbins. I close with the suggestion that since Howson has already done such a vast amount of research, perhaps she should now write a short, 150 pages or so, biography that paints Robbins’s life with a much wider, faster moving, and more interpretative brush. There would certainly be benefits associated with reaching a wider audience.


Hicks, John R. (1939) Value and Capital. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hicks, John R. and Allen, R. G. D. (1934), “A Reconsideration of the Theory of Value, Parts I and II,” Economica, 2, 52-76, 196-219.

Robbins, Lionel. (1932). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan & Co.

Robbins, Lionel. (1939). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. 2nd Edition, London: Macmillan & Co.

D. Wade Hands is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state and has taught history of economic thought for over thirty years. He has written on a wide range of topics in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. He is co-editor of the Journal of Economic Methodology and the author of Reflection Without Rules: Economic Methodology and Contemporary Science Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2001. His Agreement on Demand: Consumer Choice Theory in the Twentieth Century, edited with Philip Mirowski, was published in 2006 by Duke University Press and The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology, edited with John B. Davis, was published in 2011.

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