Robbins’s Early Life and Education
Lionel C. Robbins (1898–1984) was born in Sipson, a town on the western edge of what is now the Greater London metropolitan area. He was raised on his family’s farm.
Robbins was educated at home, at the local grammar school, and at Houslow College, a nearby private college preparatory school.
Robbins entered University College London in 1915.
The following year, Robbins volunteered to serve his country in World War I. He was appointed an officer with the Royal Field Artillery, with which he served from August of 1916 until April of 1918, when he was wounded during the Battle of the Lys (AKA the Fourth Battle of Ypres) in Belgium.
As a result of his own reading during the war—especially, the works of the British economist and historian, G.D.H. Cole—Robbins became interested in the guild socialist movement. In 1919, after recovering from his war wounds, he was officially demobilized from the army.
The following year, in 1920, Robbins returned to college. This time, on account of his interest in the guild socialist movement, he decided to attend the London School of Economics (LSE). Among his teachers at the LSE were Harold Laski, Edwin Cannan, and Hugh Dalton.
In 1923, Robbins received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the LSE with first-class honors.
After graduating, Robbins worked for six months as a research assistant to William Beveridge, later a chief architect of the British welfare state.
Robbins then received a one-year fellowship in economics with Oxford University’s New College.
In 1925, Robbins returned to the LSE as an assistant lecturer. He soon rose to the position of regular lecturer.
In 1927, Robbins’s fellowship at New College, Oxford, was renewed, while he continued to teach at the LSE. He spent two years commuting from London to Oxford and back every week.
In 1929, Robbins obtained a permanent professorship at the LSE. He was instrumental in building up the LSE’s economics department during the 1930s, bringing in top economists from around the world, notably Friedrich A. Hayek and Nicholas Kaldor (Káldor Miklós).
Robbins’s students at the LSE included many future economic luminaries, including Abba Lerner, William Baumol, Amiya Kumar Dasgupta, and Frank Hahn.
With time, Robbins’s views on political economy moderated considerably. He ended up clashing publicly with John Maynard Keynes during the 1930s on the question of protectionism.
During the Great Depression, the British government sponsored a commission to study the question of tariffs, among other issues. Robbins was the sole dissenter from the commission’s official findings, which backed tariffs. When Keynes, who chaired the commission, refused to allow Robbins to issue a minority report, the dispute between the two men degenerated from an academic disagreement into a bitter personal quarrel.
As a result of these events, the economics departments of Robbins’s LSE and Keynes’s Cambridge University came to consider themselves as ideological opponents.
During World War II, Robbins worked for the government’s Central Economic Information Service. A “points system” for rationing that he developed was instituted by the government in 1941 for the duration of the war and its immediate aftermath and was considered a success.
Robbins’s prominence in government continued to grow, as he became heavily involved in planning for the post-war reconstruction of Great Britain.
As the war wound down, Robbins attended two international conferences in the US: the first one on global food security, held in 1943 at Hot Springs, Virginia; and the second one on the international financial system, held in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
Immediately after the war, in 1946, Robbins participated in negotiations that led to Britain’s securing a massive loan from the US.
As a result of his extensive work within government, or of his cooperation with Keynes in much of that work, or both, Robbins pulled back from the free market–oriented position he had assumed after his youthful flirtation with socialism. Robbins also reconciled with Keynes on a personal level.
In later life, Robbins remained active in government, especially in connection with financial support for higher education.
Robbins had a keen and long-standing interest in the history of economics, a subject to which he returned during his last years.
Between 1979 and 1981, Robbins delivered a highly regarded series of lectures at the LSE, which almost 20 years later were finally published in book form as A History of Economic Thought (see “Selected Books by Robbins” below).
Although Robbins became a guild socialist during World War I, he began to recant his early collectivist views as early as 1920.
During the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, Robbins sided with Ludwig von Mises and Hayek. Afterwards, as already mentioned, he was instrumental in bringing Hayek to the LSE.
However, Robbins later moved back in the direction of his earliest position, coming to see a legitimate role for government in guiding the economy.
In a rather startling—because so rare for such a high-profile academic—statement of mea culpa composed years afterwards, Robbins wrote:
I grew up in a tradition in which, while recognition was indeed given to the problems created by the ups and downs of the trade cycle and the fluctuations of aggregate demand, there was a tendency to ignore certain deep-seated possibilities of disharmony, in a way which, I now think, led sometimes to superficiality and sometimes to positive error. I owe much to Cambridge economists, particularly to Lord Keynes and Professor Robertson, for having awakened me from dogmatic slumbers in this very important respect.
Setting aside Robbins’s substantive views on political economy, without a doubt his most important contribution to the discipline had to do, rather, with methodology.
In his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, published in 1932 (see below) and universally regarded as his masterpiece, Robbins set forth the following theses (quoted verbatim):
Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.
Economics is not about certain kinds of behaviour, . . . [but] a certain aspect of behaviour, the form imposed by the influence of scarcity.
Economics is entirely neutral between ends; . . . in so far as any end is dependent on scarce means, it is germane to the preoccupations of the economist.
Economics as science is about “ascertainable facts” of the positive as distinct from normative (ethical) judgments on economic policy.
Taken together, these principles had a profound impact on the self-conception of the economics profession during the twentieth century, and indeed influenced debates in the social sciences beyond the boundaries of economics.
Selected Books by Robbins
The Great Depression (1934).
The Economic Causes of War (1939).
Autobiography of an Economist (1971).
A History of Economic Thought, edited by Warren J. Samuels and Steven G. Medema (1998).
Lionel Robbins on the Principles of Economic Analysis: The 1930s Lectures, edited by Susan Howson (2018).
Selected Works About Robbins
Backhouse, Roger E. and Steven G. Medema, “Defining Economics: The Long Road to Acceptance of the Robbins Definition,” Economica, 76: 805–820 (2009).
Brown, Andrew and David A. Spencer, “The Nature of Economics and the Failings of the Mainstream: Lessons from Lionel Robbins’s Essay,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, 36: 781–798 (2012).
Cowell, Frank and Amos Witztum, eds., Lionel Robbins’s Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science: 75th Anniversary Conference Proceedings (2009).
Howson, Susan, “The Origins of Lionel Robbins’s Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science,” History of Political Economy, 36:3; doi:10.1215/00182702-36-3-413 (2004).
Howson, Susan, Lionel Robbins (2011).
O’Brien, D.P., Lionel Robbins (1988).