Viner’s Early Life and Education
Jacob Viner (1892–1970) was born in Montreal, Quebec, in Canada, to a family of Romanian-Jewish immigrants.
Viner obtained his bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal in 1914. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1922.
Viner wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on dumping in international trade, under the supervision of trade-theory specialist Frank W. Taussig. The dissertation was published as a book the following year, in 1923 (see “Selected Works by Viner” below).
Even before graduating, Viner obtained his first teaching position from the University of Chicago in 1916. He remained at Chicago, with a one-year interruption in the last year of the First World War, until 1946.
Among Viner’s many students at Chicago, perhaps the most notable were the future Nobel laureates Paul A. Samuelson and Milton Friedman.
Viner co-edited Chicago’s Journal of Political Economy with Frank H. Knight for many years. However, he always maintained that he never considered himself a member of the “Chicago school of economics.”
In 1946, Viner moved to Princeton University, where he taught until his retirement in 1960.
Viner was also appointed a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton during the 1947–1948 academic year and a permanent member of the IAS from 1950 until his death in 1970.
During World War II, Viner acted as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr.
Viner also worked with Alvin Hansen on the economic and financial group of the “War and Peace Studies” project organized by the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations. This project was formed to provide economic advice to the US Government during the war and its aftermath.
At the end of the war, Viner also became a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons.
Viner was once regarded as one of America’s most distinguished economists. He was among the last of the “generalists,” meaning economists who attempted to master all the various aspects of political economy.
Today, Viner is remembered mostly for his contributions to the theory of international trade and the history of economic thought.
In addition, Viner pioneered the analysis of the interaction between religious allegiances and economics.
Viner is also well known for a polemic he conducted with John Maynard Keynes, beginning with a paper published in 1936 (see below). Although he agreed with Keynes regarding the appropriateness of government intervention in the economy in response to the Great Depression, he disagreed with him over the details of the implementation of such interventions.
In a nutshell, Viner distinguished between Keynesianism, which he viewed as useful in the short run, and mainstream neo-classical theory, which he felt was closer to the truth over the long run.
In this connection, Viner later opined that:
No matter how refined and how elaborate the analysis, if it rests solely on the short view it will still be … a structure built on shifting sands.
Finally, generations of economics students at the University of Chicago remembered Viner as the forbidding presence whose mandatory class, “Economics 301. Price and Distribution Theory,” functioned to separate the wheat from the chaff.
An edited transcript of Viner’s handwritten notes for his “Economics 301” lectures, which he delivered in 1930, was published as a book in 2017 (see below).
Selected Works by Viner
“Some Problems of Logical Method in Political Economy,” Journal of Political Economy, 25: 236–260 (1917).
“Price Policies: The Determination of Market Price,” in Leon C. Marshall, ed., Business Administration Chicago: University of Chicago Press; pp. 343–347 (1921).
“The Utility Concept in Value Theory and its Critics,” Journal of Political Economy, 33: 638–659 (1925).
“Adam Smith and Laissez-Faire,” Journal of Political Economy, 35: 198–232 (1927).
“Mills’ Behavior of Prices,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 43: 337–352 (1929).
“Costs Curves and Supply Curves,” Zeitschrift für Nationalökonomie, 3: 23–46 (1931).
“Mr. Keynes on the Causes of Unemployment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 51: 147–167 (1936).
Trade Relations Between Free-Market and Controlled Economies (out of print) (1943).
“International Relations between State-Controlled National Economies,” American Economic Review, 34: 315–329 (1944).
The Customs Union Issue (1950).
International Economics (1951).
“The Intellectual History of Laissez-Faire,” Journal of Law and Economics, 3: 45–69 (1960).
“Hayek on Freedom and Coercion,” Southern Economic Journal, 27: 230–236 (1961).
“‘Possessive Individualism’ as Original Sin,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 29: 548–559 (1963).
“The Economist in History,” American Economic Review, 53: 1–22 (1963).
Problems of Monetary Control (pamphlet) (1964).
“Man’s Economic Status,” in James L. Clifford, ed., Man versus Society in 18th-Century Britain: Six Points of View. New York: Cambridge University Press (1968).
Religious Thought and Economic Society: Four Chapters of an Unfinished Work, edited by Jacques Melitz and Donald Winch (1978).
Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics, edited by Douglas A. Irwin (1991).
Jacob Viner: Lectures in Economics 301, edited by Douglas A. Irwin and Steven G. Medema (2017).
Selected Works About Viner
Barber, William J., “Jacob Viner,” in Ross B. Emmett, ed., The Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing (2010).
Groenewegen, Peter, “Jacob Viner and the History of Economic Thought,” Contributions to Political Economy, 13: 69–86 (1994).
Hengstmengel, Joost, Divine Providence in Early Modern Economic Thought (2019).
Oslington, Paul, “Jacob Viner, the Cost of Protection and Customs Unions: New Light from a Manitoba Consulting Assignment,” History of Economics Review, 55: 73–79 (2012).
Oslington, Paul, “Contextual History, Practitioner History and Classic Status: Reading Jacob Viner’s The Customs Union Issue,” Journal of the History of the Economic Thought, 35: 491–515 (2013).
Robbins, Lionel, ed., Jacob Viner, 1892–1970: A Tribute (out of print) (1970).
Van Horn, Robert, “Jacob Viner’s Critique of Chicago Neoliberalism,” in Robert Van Horn, Philip Mirowski, and Thomas A. Stapleford, eds., Building Chicago Economics: New Perspectives on the History of America’s Most Powerful Economics Program. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; pp. 279–300 (2011).