Book Review: The sage who was reluctant to publish

A Soaring Eagle, Alfred Marshall, 1842 – 1924
by Peter Groenewegen
Cheltenham: Elgar. £59.95

This is the first full-length biography of Alfred Marshall, founder of the Cambridge School of Economics, and the dominant force in British economics from the death of Mill to the rise of Keynes. Hitherto we have had to make do with Keynes’s Memoir, published almost immediately after Marshall’s death in 1924; no acute deprivation as it is one of the finest short lives of a man of science ever written. Peter Groenewegen, a professor of economics at Sydney University, who specializes in the history of economic thought, has risen manfully to the challenge of converting Keynes’s brilliant sketch into a fully rounded portrait. For this, despite small corrections and big amplifications, is essentially what his book is. What Keynes says in seventy pages, Professor Groenewegen says in 700. It has taken him ten years to write. It is full of interesting detail, exhaustive in its research and exhausting to read, sensible and sensitive in its judgments. It could have been better done, but having been done is unlikely to be superseded.

Marshall gave his profession important theoretical tools and concepts for analysing economic problems generalized demand and supply curves, the concepts of elasticity of demand, “normal value” as resulting from the undisturbed action of free competition, partial equilibrium, external and internal economies, short and long periods to deal with the problem of time, consumers’ surplus and the marginal utility theory of money. Their development from the work of earlier economists is part of the history of economic thought.

Marshall’s establishment of a separate Economics and Politics Tripos at Cambridge in 1902 is part of the story of the professionalization of economics.

But a great deal of Marshallian economics is doctrinal, not technical.

Biographies of economists, by recalling the mental atmosphere and circumstances in which economic doctrines are produced, can alert us to their historically contingent character. Knowledge of the wider Victorian background is essential to understanding Marshall’s ambition to “moralize” and “socialize” economics, as it is to the tentative character of his economic reasoning, in contrast to the clear-cut “timeless” theorems of Ricardo and his followers. Marshall’s personal psychology and medical history also help explain his “unconscionable delay” in publishing his work.

But it is not enough to have this background recorded. Since a biography can only suggest, never prove, connections between the “life” and the “work”, such force as it carries is artistic, or rhetorical. Groenewegen has produced a quarry, not a work of art. It is full of buried treasure, but the reader has to dig deep. Narrative flow is sacrificed to arrangement by topics; too much time is lost in telling the reader what the author is about to say, rather than just saying it; the detail overwhelms the theme. All this is a pity, because Groenewegen gets Marshall just about right. How much better the book would have been had he only managed to break out of his academic strait-jacket!

Alfred Marshall was born in 1842, of lower-middle-class parents. His father, William Marshall, was upgraded in the Keynes Memoir to “cashier in the Bank of England”, but in fact was a clerk at the Bank, who lived in “unsalubrious Bermondsey”. Alfred was sent to a good public school, Merchant Taylors; but embarrassment at his lowly origins made him pose, in Groenewegen’s phrase, “as a person with no family”. He obliterated all traces of his upbringing, and one can only guess at the psychological damage it did him. William Marshall, it seems, was a monster, whose grandchildren “danced with joy” when he died at 92.

Alfred Marshall’s “pathological fear of making mistakes” reflects his father’s withering criticisms; his beloved mother, Rebecca, her unmarried sister and his own sisters were his only protection against his father’s withering criticisms.

His later championship of a sexual division of labour may have had its roots in these early experiences.

It was hatred of the classics, Groenewegen suggests, rather than desire to escape the clerical career planned by his father, which led Marshall to reject a scholarship at Oxford, in order to read mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge. Hard work rather than outstanding mathematical ability enabled him to graduate as Second Wrangler in 1865. The next ten years as a Fellow of St John’s College were the most creative of Marshall’s life. He read widely in ethics, logic, epistemology and history; he indulged his “lust of facts” by trampling through England’s industrial towns, noting working-class conditions, and classifying faces as expressive of character. With the falling away of religious belief, his desire to do good transferred itself easily to economics: he started reading Mill, Cournot, von Thuenen, Jevons, Smith, Ricardo, Marx and others to discover “the economic substratum” of ethics. His “mathematicisation” of Mill, chiefly in the form of the geometrical curves which he patented, date from this early period. Groenewegen agrees that Marshall’s claim to independent discovery of the marginal utility principle “would not be unjust if the emphasis is on marginal rather than on the utility”. By 1874 or 1875 his technical concepts as revealed in his unpublished papers edited by Professor Whitaker were sufficiently far advanced to have justified a short book of theory which would have immediately established his pre-eminence.

Yet the Principles on which his claim to fame chiefly rests, did not appear until 1890; two further companion volumes were published in 1911 and 1922. By then, as Keynes wrote, they “lacked the novelty and path-breaking powers which would have been acclaimed in them a generation earlier”. These delays in publication constitute the chief mystery in Marshall’s life. The decline of his creativity dates from his marriage to Mary Paley in 1877. A correlation is not a cause; and this intelligent and remarkable woman gave Marshall forty-seven years of self-sacrificing devotion, while he treated her as little better than an amanuensis and “foolometer” deleting from his books any passages she could not understand. However, there is little doubt that his marriage, by ejecting him from St John’s College, where Fellows were still required to be un-married, disrupted his working habits, moving him to Bristol as first Principal of University College, an administrative job for which he was unsuited, then briefly to Balliol College, Oxford, before he could return to Cambridge as Professor of Political Economy in 1885.

There is also the suspicion that he may have married Mary Paley, in part, to take control over a writing project of her own, based on his economics lectures. This appeared in 1879 as The Economics of Industry. It was published under their joint names, Marshall later denouncing it as “hollow” economics for “feeble minds”. In his own way, Marshall loved, or came to love, Mary Paley; but Groenewegen amply documents the manipulative, self-serving character of his relationship with her, as with his male colleagues. He suggests in a footnote that Marshall was impotent, though he does not speculate on what form his impotence took. At any rate, the impotence theory is more plausible than Keynes’s conjecture (in a letter to Lytton Strachey) that Marshall could not have children because he became “sterile” soon after marriage.

In 1879, Marshall was diagnosed as having “stones in the kidney”, which he later claimed “removed ten years from his life through the enforced leisure they caused”. Is this medically plausible? It seems more likely that Marshall thus rationalized his reluctance to publish. It was not the only rationalization. Marshall convinced himself he could not work on serious problems more than fifteen minutes at a time; he spent long periods accumulating facts on industrial conditions, which Groenewegen rightly judges to have been largely a waste of time, as his original contributions in no way depended on his “field work”, and anyway he made little use of it. The reluctance to publish seems to me to have its roots in Marshall’s psychology.

His life was a constant quest for ideal conditions of work, which, of course, he never found. He invented all kinds of excuses to postpone publication, as well as gadgets to ease the pain of writing. A strong desire for mastery and priority warred with a terror of premature literary ejaculation. Failure to publish led, in turn, to extreme prickliness over issues of priority.

Keynes argues that Marshall mistook the nature of his genius, which was for theoretical speculation, not preaching: hence Groenewegen’s image, derived from Keynes’s essay, of the “soaring eagle” beached by the moralist. Marshall would not publish until his sermons were ready, the tools correctly proportioned to the end of material betterment, which in turn was the necessary, and, Marshall came close to saying, sufficient condition of ethical progress.

Marshall’s infirmities, if such they were, proved highly serviceable. The publication of his Principles, in 1890, gave economics a moral authority it had never yet possessed. Against this, the loss of analytical momentum especially in monetary theory deplored by Keynes in 1924 seemed a small price to pay in the autumn of Victorian stability.

One wishes Groenewegen had left himself room to trace Marshall’s influence on the work of the “Marshallians” who followed him. By what steps and transformations did Marshallian economics become Keynesian economics? Was it “all in Marshall”, as Keynes’s pupil Denis Robertson claimed? Or was the Keynesian revolution a genuine mutation? Groenewegen does not say. He describes at some length the unscrupulous manoeuvres by which Marshall secured the election of Arthur Pigou to succeed him in the Cambridge chair in 1908, thereby dishing his oldest friend and colleague Herbert Foxwell; but does not consider the effect of Pigou’s “dangerous tendencies towards theoretical dogmatism and over-simplification” in igniting Keynes’s attack on the doctrines of his old Master.

Many of Marshall’s ideas on taxation, trade unions, co-operation, the role of the state and the position of women have a continuing relevance, and one wishes this had been emphasized. He expected that progressively higher wages for men would free women from the drudgery of factory work, releasing them for their higher duty of improving the next generation. Although this view is highly politically incorrect, his championship of the family unit as the chief source for the accumulation of human capital is strongly supported by the experience of the East Asian societies. Marshall foresaw that education would raise the wages of the unskilled by making unskilled labour scarce. This is broadly what happened until the 1960s: thereafter, the number of unskilled jobs started falling faster than the numbers of unskilled workers. Now we need to reverse this trend. Marshall’s view that the state’s economic role should be limited to regulation and distribution is coming back into fashion; governments, he said, should not “interfere in business, whether to make employment continuous or for any other purpose, unless its action will give a very large balance of direct good”. Often absurd, prickly, selfish and devious as a person, Marshall remains a great sage and economist. Groenewegen enables us to catch glimpses of this greatness through an often impenetrable thicket.