Afterword: A Memoir Continued From Canada to Israel Some Reflections on Political Matters Back To My Two Worlds A Final Word Notes References

Ricardo It's An Ill Wind

A Memoir Continued (2013)

"It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity;
therefore, I shall be short." (David Hume, My Own Life.)

From Canada to Israel

In this autobiographical Afterword I resume my memoir where I left it in my second volume of Collected Essays (“It’s an Ill Wind…”).(1) I had decided in 1996, under financial inducement from the University of Toronto, to opt for early retirement in 1998, at age 62. Although my decision was made freely my productivity was such that the Department of Economics should have been happy for me to carry on, and should have indicated as such to the University. But the only concern on high was the budget, and the Department itself benefitted financially by ridding itself of senior faculty. Furthermore, as I explained, there were departmental pressures militating against a serious place for doctrinal history in the graduate program. The Department nonetheless contributed towards a grand retirement conference and even permitted me to continue to use my office for one further year; and Trinity College, where I had given my graduate lectures in later years, suggested that I make my home with them. This proposal I much appreciated but events made it unnecessary to take the matter further.

Shortly after retirement, and to my great surprise, I was appointed Officer in the Order of Canada, the highest civilian state decoration Canada accords (actually the Companionship is one better).(2) The citation reads thus: “He remains one of the world’s greatest authorities on the history of economic thought. His series of innovative and authoritative volumes on the nineteenth-century fathers of economics has revolutionized the study of classical economics. He has earned a reputation as an internationally renowned scholar and speaker. As a professor at the University of Toronto, he has influenced and inspired innumerable students, many of whom are now professors at universities around the world” (11 January 1999). Very satisfying. I doubt whether the University would have let me go with such eagerness had the appointment occurred a little earlier. But who knows? After all, an earlier letter from Professor Paul Samuelson of MIT to President Robert Pritchard had no effect: “Willard Gibbs was perhaps America’s top scientist when he died at century’s end, but few at Yale and elsewhere realized how great was the scholar in their midst. I thought of this when I heard that Samuel Hollander’s magisterial book on Malthus is nearing completion. It occurred to me that you might not take amiss a statement from me that Professor Hollander of your university, by virtue of the depth and breadth of his writings on classical economics, I have to regard as virtual dean of his discipline” (8 November 1995).

I doubt whether my experience is unique. I understand that even Nobel Prize winner Sir John Hicks lost his Oxford office on reaching retirement age; and my teacher Lord Robbins had his troubles with the University of London at that stage in his academic career (Robbins 1971: 268-70). The lesson, I suppose, is not to allow oneself to become too attached to an institution since no one will be found to be indispensable; in any event, an institution itself is impermanent; in the case at hand, very few of the officers at the University of Toronto who reigned in the late 1990s remain in place today. And what was I making such a great fuss about? Compulsory retirement at Ontario institutions was age 65 at the time, so only three years were at issue. I was rather pleased to discover on a recent visit to Toronto that I can now view the entire episode in perspective. The campus I found to be even more beautiful than I remembered it; and my primary feelings were in fact of affection towards some wonderful students and colleagues during the many years I spent there.

After several months following my retirement investigating academic opportunities at home and abroad I received an invitation from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) of France to do research in Nice-Sophia Antipolis for one year. About this time, I also received an offer of a Visiting Professorship for three years at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the outcome of a chance meeting at a conference in Scotland with a member of the economics department. I accepted both invitations, and following our year in France my wife and I emigrated in August 2000 to Israel, where our children had lived since 1979.

Although my initial Visiting Professorship with the Department of Economics at Ben-Gurion University was for three years it was extended annually until 2006. Thereafter, I carried on my graduate teaching for two more years unpaid, in exchange for office, secretarial and library facilities. I would have taught longer, for the students I had in the initial years were first rate and a pleasure to meet; but numbers dwindled, signaling the end of an era. A little committee work still comes my way and I am happy to oblige. Most important, I have continued my researches in Israel, producing The Economics of Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press) which as far back as the 1960s I had promised myself I would write as part of a long-term program on classical economics, and in addition two unplanned supplements to the program: The Economics of Jean-Baptiste Say: the British Connection in French Classicism (Routledge) – the primary outcome of my French expedition – and Friedrich Engels and Marxian Political Economy (Cambridge University Press). I could have done no more had I stayed on in Toronto.

One particular reaction to my Marx has given me much pleasure and encouragement. I refer to a supportive review by the late Professor Mark Blaug, with whom I had been quarrelling, I believe to good effect, for decades. Here is part of what he wrote:

How splendid to read a book on Marx that takes him seriously as an economist and pays proper respect to the logical structure of his economic theory. There are literally hundreds of books on Marx that do neither—instead giving ample space to his philosophy of history, his theory of revolution, and his concept of alienation without so much as mentioning that he was first and foremost an economist, steeped in the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill…. [M]y advice is to read this book and to study it carefully because it is full of insights gathered over a lifetime of study of the classical economists (Blaug 2009: 399-400).

I went so far as to write to the reviewer saying that his notice had given me more gratification than any other I have received during my career. He replied: “Sam, you exaggerate as usual.” Yes, exaggeration is a weakness I admit to, but not in this case.

Regarding more general matters relating to the importance of the history of economic thought, recent events have confirmed how foolhardy were the Universities in allowing a withering away of the field in the graduate program, particularly the political economy dimension, in favour of technique. Thus, for example, as the first chapter in the present collection demonstrates, Adam Smith is still a relevant authority in approaching the theory of economic policy, Considering the current rescue operations by the state of banking, commercial, and industrial enterprises in various countries, it is of high interest to recall his case for rejecting such an operation in the case of the United Company of Merchants, a joint-stock operation protected by law from competition. Of the highest interest, and in a similar context, are Friedrich Engels’s comments in 1880 on an attempt by two insolvent German banks to sell off speculative railway shares to the state (Engels 1989 [1880]: 277-80). I might also cite a remark by my friend Walter Eltis of Oxford regarding my Engels book and its demonstration of Engels’s deep concern with the unreliability of the British proletariat: “You make a very strong case for him…. What he says about the embourgeoisement of the British is absolutely to the point. We have had six labour governments which have made absolutely no difference to income distribution. Four of these have had majorities. Roy Jenkins has said that you must remember that 80 per cent of the British people are Tories. Evidently universal suffrage made no difference” (correspondence, 21 July 2011). A recent paper by Professor Howard Glennerster of the London School of Economics – and a fellow student at the Gernon Lodge Primary School in Letchworth described in “It’s an Ill Wind…” – has, in effect, further justified Engels’s preoccupation with the conservatism of the British working class: “The distribution of wealth is widening in many countries and with it the importance of inherited wealth. In 1974 a Labour Government came to power in the United Kingdom committed to introducing an annual wealth tax. It left office without doing so” (Glennerster 2011).