University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-08490r], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Jacob Viner: An Appreciation

by edward tenner 

edward tenner is visiting scholar in the Rutgers Department of History and a distinguished scholar in the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Published March 20, 2020.

The sociologist Robert K. Merton coined a number of the favorite concepts of social science: “peer group,” “self-fulfilling prophecy” and even “the Matthew Effect” (as in the Gospel passage “to him that has shall more be given,” a reflection on inequality). My own favorite is less well known: “obliteration by incorporation.” When scientific ideas become widely accepted, the works that launched them are cited less often by other scientists.

I was reminded of this when I learned that the 50th anniversary of the economist Jacob Viner’s death (at the age of 78 in 1970) was approaching. So far, I’ve found no plans to commemorate the date comparable to the publication of his selected works by Princeton University Press around the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1991. There, he got the grand remembrance, with encomia from Paul A. Samuelson, George J. Stigler and Viner’s former graduate student at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman. It is hard to imagine today the esteem in which Viner was held in the 1970s and even decades beyond. 

The introduction quotes, among others, the Dutch economist Mark Blaug’s assessment: “the greatest economic historian who ever lived.” Viner netted 13 honorary degrees. It is true that Paul Samuelson received more than twice as many, but Samuelson’s lifespan was greater by 16 years, and he acknowledged that “[a]fter the first dozen honorary degrees, all it takes is longevity to double the number.” Viner’s correspondence and other papers occupy almost 60 linear feet in the Princeton University Archives.

Viner should be remembered as the most learned and steadfast defender of free trade in the 20th century (we could use him just about now). As a historian, he traced the rise and fall of the early modern protectionist system of mercantilism and critiques leading to the contributions of Adam Smith and other political economists. One of his graduate students of the 1950s, Francis H. Schott, recalled in an e-mail:

As an economist he was a dedicated free trader, and all of his teaching and writing appeared to be aimed at creating more free traders. (Sample exam question: “What is the basic case for free trade as against the various arguments for protectionism?”)

But he backed his convictions with evidence: “a sure Nobel Prize winner had he lived to see the inauguration of the economics Nobel,” Schott believes. A compilation of tributes following Viner’s death suggests many colleagues would have shared this opinion.

What Viner would have made of the world of the expanded European Union, Brexit, Nafta Part 2 and Trumpism is anybody’s guess. Schott notes that as an early theorist of customs unions, Viner observed how they were favored by both free traders and protectionists and saw them hopefully as building blocks of true free trade.

Viner should be remembered as the most learned and steadfast defender of free trade in the 20th century, and as a proponent of the free movement of ideas.

An equally important part of Viner’s legacy is the free movement of ideas. He bridged social science with humanities departments including history and English literature and encouraged his students to do the same. And he had a quietly powerful position on campus as a member of both the faculty editorial board and the trustees of Princeton University Press. A few years after I arrived there to work as science editor in the late 1970s, the press’s director, Herbert S. Bailey, Jr., explained to me how in the 1950s Viner had enforced a peer review system that had become famous in the small world of academic publishing for its rigor.

In place of what Viner considered rubber stamping after a single review, Viner had insisted on two, thoroughly debated. This system ensured high standards, but also ran the risk of false negatives and loss of some books that turned out to be pathbreaking. I suspect that Viner would have been among the first to recognize the importance of another theme introduced by Robert Merton: unintended consequences.

While changes in global economics and politics necessarily render many great 20th-century analyses of mainly historical interest, at least one side of Viner remains vital. He found a balance between the technical side of economics that has grown exponentially with new technology and analytical tools, and its connections to history, philosophy and qualitative social science. He expressed it most memorably in a lecture at Brown University in 1950 as new mathematical ideas were spreading in his profession. The title: “A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Education.”

At least two things about that talk stand out. First, it was prescient. Economics journals of the 1950s and early 1960s still had many more historical articles than they would in the 1970s. When I was studying the history of hats in the 1980s, for example, I found a study of “Hats and the Fur Trade” in the Canadian Journal of Economics in 1962. Today such a study would be more likely to appear in a journal of history or geography. Second and more important, Viner was making a modest gentle point, not a plea for a redirection of the field or a major chunk of the graduate curriculum for the political, cultural and ethical side of economic life.

Viner’s reputation rested not only on his historical depth but also on his theoretical contributions, and he recognized the importance of specialization. At the same time, he called attention to the risk that, without experience in broader scholarly concerns, PhDs in economics (and other fields) would find it much more difficult to be good teachers. One answer to this conflict has been a progressive reduction of teaching loads, as humanities as well as natural and social sciences compete for research-oriented talent.

As a frequent visitor to faculty clubs over the decades I have noticed how few professors, even in the same department, still lunch with each other. In 2012 the Harvard Crimson mourned the passing of the Long Table that I knew as a junior member of the Society of Fellows — a hybrid faculty/student appointment — in the early 1970s where I could join such luminaries as Alexander Gerschenkron, another economics polymath. It reported on the current clientele:

Potential departmental hires, celebrities and foreign dignitaries are all likely to pass through, escorted by faculty members trying to impress. Professors frequently rub shoulders with relatives at family weddings, but less frequently share a meal with their colleagues.

Why do the general scholarship and conviviality represented by Jacob Viner still matter? Because, while there are excellent polemicists among social scientists in the fight against economic nationalism, heated arguments tend to cancel each other out on the web. Jacob Viner’s gentle example may be worth following again.

main topic: In Memoriam