Mark Blaug, one of the greatest historians of economics, died this week. My sincere condolences to his wife, Ruth Towse, an eminent cultural economist, and his sons, including Ricardo Blaug (a former student of Robert Paul Wolff) and Tristan Blaug, both eminent academics, too.
Mark Blaug was born in an Amsterdam Jewish merchant family before WWII. His father made rain-coats, and he and I sometimes fantasized about how our families were competitors. Mark escaped safely to London in 1940, and eventually found his way to NYC, where he graduated from Stuyvesant High near the end of the war. Mark received his PhD at Columbia University with a dissertation on Ricardo--a life-long interest (the last time I saw him he was still talking with passion about his interpretative battles over Ricardo with the followers of Sraffra.) His supervisor was the future Nobel laureate, George Stigler, who was already famous in economics. He was denied tenure at Yale, a victim of the economists's desire to remove history of economics as a serious topic in graduate education. (One of the dumbest moves undertaken in the name of "efficiency.") He spent the rest of his career at the University of London, where he attended seminars with Popper and Lakatos.
In addition to being the world's leading historian of economics, Mark also became quite well known in education (and art) economics. His work on education economics led him to development economics and much public service. (Toward the end of the life he expressed misgivings about his and the field's dealing with corrupt governments, but it also provided him with an endless source of great anecdotes.) Mark also taught at University of Buckingham pre-retirement and at University of Exeter post retirement. In 1999 he found a second intellectual home in various programs for the history and methodology of economics, in the Netherlands, including Chair of the History and Methodology of Economics group at the University of Amsterdam.
His Economic Theory in Retrospect is one of the most widely cited works in the history of economics. Blaug improved it throughout his life. It rationally reconstructs past economists with contemporary tools. It is a sure guide to the thought of past economists to countless readers, one of which was John Rawls, who read it with profit. Because of his use of modern notation, Blaug's name became synonymous with a certain kind of anachronism. But more often than not subsequent research vindicates his judgment. Another very influential, much cited, and widely translated book, although more of its times, was The Methodology of Economics, or How Economists Explain. In many ways it was an attempt to create a (Popperian) paradigm for the philosophy of economics.
Mark was not very impressed by my first draft chapter on the methodology/content of the Wealth of Nations chapter: "I found much of what you have to say in Retrospect, 5th edition,1997. But I would say that, wouldn't I?" In the fall of 2003, I presented my work in Rotterdam in Uskali Mäki's seminar. That seminar was notorious for bloodbaths. To my horror Mark, who did not suffer fools lightly, had been assigned my commentator. Given that journals were rejecting my work regularly, my confidence was at all-time low. Mark's comments consisted of three points. The first one amounted to something to the effect that I had an original and important new thesis about the Wealth of Nations unanticipated by anybody, etc; it turned into a glorious afternoon. (Privately he told me that my treatment of Smith's growth's model was still inadequate!)
When I moved to Leiden in 2005, I discovered with pleasure that Mark and Ruth had bought a house a block away from the philosophy department overlooking Leiden's famous Hortus Botanicus. We tried to meet for lunch regularly, and he would patiently answer all my questions about economics. (He and Ruth also tried to set me up on a blind date once!) I was amazed by his perpetual inquisitiveness. He kept reading widely. More interestingly, he kept reinventing and re-examining his own views on economics. A late paper on welfare economics was the product of life-time reflection. While the voice is controlled, the content packs a punch:
The apparent sterility of modern welfare economics, of which earlier writers like Little and De Graaff complained, is noted with alarm by many mainstream economists. Their retort is to point to the endless political squabbling that attends most policy debates, arguing that if economists were to return to pre-Robbinsian days, there would be little to choose between a so-called “hard” science like economics and a “soft” science like political science or social psychology. But the fact is that there may well be little to choose between these subjects and ours. Ultimately, all policy debates turn into fuzzy comparisons between slightly incommensurate entities. What economics can contribute to policy matters is not finely etched precision in tightly stated logical propositions but a possibly superior understanding of what variables must be assessed in order to arrive at a conclusion, and possibly a somewhat better grasp of the magnitude of these variables.
Mark Blaug's wisdom and kindness will be missed greatly.
[Update: For a lovely autobiographical video of Mark, including his experiences during McCarthy era, see here.]