Viner, Jacob

Viner, Jacob (1892-1970), third Walker Professor of Economics and International Finance, was one of the ablest economists of his generation, and ``in the range and depth of insight and erudition,'' according to the British economist Lionel C. Robbins, ``the outstanding all-rounder of his time in our profession.'' His primary interests were in international economics, economic theory, and the history of economic thought, but his influence pervaded all areas of economics and spread to the fields of history, philosophy, literature, and religion. President Bowen, who was one of his students, called him ``one of the great Renaissance scholars of the world.''

Born in Montreal, Canada, of Rumanian immigrant parents (he later became a naturalized citizen of the United States), he graduated in 1914 from McGill, where Stephen Leacock was one of his teachers, and received his Ph.D. in 1922 from Harvard, where he was a pupil and became a close friend of Professor Frank Taussig.

He became an instructor at the University of Chicago in 1916 and was promoted to full professor in 1925, at the age of thirty-two. Chicago had a remarkably brilliant group of economists in those years; according to Simeon E. Leland, his first graduate student and later his colleague, ``the brightest star in this galaxy was Viner . . . the most industrious and the toughest teacher of the lot.''

Viner's first book was Dumping (1923); when a dowager asked him why anyone would write a book on that subject, his reply was the subtitle: ``A Problem in International Trade.'' His second book, Canada's Balance of International Indebtedness (1924), was his doctoral dissertation; a pioneering work, it set the style for a highly productive series of studies in the working of international financial mechanisms. His Studies in the Theory of International Trade (1937), was, Robbins said ``at once the main source of historical knowledge regarding the evolution of thought in this sphere and a work in which some of his main theoretical developments play a pivotal part.'' During his eighteen years as editor of the Journal of Political Economy, he brought that journal to the peak of its distinction.

Viner frequently interrupted his academic work to serve as an adviser to the government and as a delegate to many international conferences. During the First World War, he was associated with the United States Tariff Commission and the Shipping Board. In the thirties he was an adviser to the Treasury Department, participating in the original planning of the Social Security Program. He was later a consultant to the State Department and to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Viner made several close friends in other countries, among them, Lionel Robbins, who has described their first encounter at Oxford in 1927 and ``by the impression he at once made -- the short alert figure with his candid and penetrating eyes, now brimming over with fun, now sober with deep reflection, his quick wit, his delight in argument and the general sense of intellectual vitality that informed even his casual remarks.''

Later Robbins discovered other qualities: Viner's scrupulousness, his candor, his catholic outlook, his ``zest for the exchange of ideas and the pursuit of the thought wherever it led him which made any session with him an exciting and strenuous adventure.'' Robbins said of Viner what Dr. Johnson said of Edmund Burke: ``That man calls forth all my powers.''


In 1946, after serving for thirty years as a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago, Viner accepted President Dodds's invitation to come to Princeton, where he made a remarkable contribution to the intellectual life of the University for almost twenty-five years.

His insight and erudition delighted his Princeton colleagues. Time and again, Professor William Baumol recalled, Viner would pose propositions to him ``involving complex interrelations arrived at by some inexplicable intuitive process.'' Occasionally, Baumol would argue with him that his propositions were obviously incorrect, but always it turned out that Viner had been right. ``Sometimes it took me days of painstaking calculation to arrive at his result,'' said Baumol, ``but I can remember no case in which the mathematics failed to support his assertion.''

His reputation as a tough teacher continued. Graduate students knew that in doctoral examinations his would be the most difficult questions, Baumol recalled, but what they did not know was that afterward his would be the most generous marks proposed -- and usually adopted. Once a colleague asked Viner how he could possibly propose such a good grade for a student who had failed completely to answer what Viner had asked him. With a playful gleam in his eyes, Viner replied ``Surely no one could reasonably have been expected to answer that question.''

A familiar figure in Firestone Library, Viner exercised a lively influence on its other users. ``No one,'' the University Librarian, William S. Dix, said, ``could measure the value of his informal teaching as he stood near the catalogue or in the stacks talking with a graduate student or a colleague . . . teaching by example the pleasure and the integrity of sound scholarship.'' An expert bibliographer and an inveterate reader of booksellers' catalogs, he delighted in discovering obscure but useful books and pamphlets which he acquired and gave to the University library, with meticulous notes on their bibliographical significance.

He also contributed his tough-mindedness and his infectious humor to the affairs of the University Press as a member of its editorial board and as a trustee. Under his influence standards and procedures were established for the publication of scholarly books that have helped set the Press's guidelines ever since. Remarking on Viner's influence, Herbert S. Bailey, Jr., Director of the Press, spoke of the ``witty seriousness'' that was characteristic of everything he did. ``He rarely told a joke,'' Bailey recalled, ``but conversations with him were filled with laughter. . . . Even on the most serious occasions when he was righteously aroused by some scholar's carelessness or infidelity, a flash of wit could suddenly turn everything to smiles -- though the carelessness or infidelity was not excused.''


Viner's wit as well as his humanistic approach to learning are illustrated in an address delivered at Brown University in 1950, titled ``A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Training.'' His ``modest proposal'' was that graduate schools should assume more responsibility than they ordinarily do for scholarship as distinct from research.

Although he admitted that graduate students could not become ``finished scholars as well as finished economists'' in the short time available to them, he pointed out that graduate study is followed by another stage in education ``lasting to the end of one's life.'' He suggested, therefore, that doctoral degrees should be granted, and accepted, somewhat in the spirit in which the University of Avignon handled the case of a capable but negligent candidate in 1650; ``after some hesitation it conferred the doctoral degree . . . sub spe future studii . . . `in the hope of future study.'''

He did not plead on behalf of scholarship that it would save the world (``although this had conceivably happened in the past and might happen again'') or that it would bring material rewards to the scholar or that it was an invariably exciting activity. All that he would plead, at least on this occasion, he said, was that once the taste for it has been aroused,

``it gives a sense of largeness even to one's small quests, and a sense of fullness even to the small answers to problems large or small which it yields, a sense which can never in any other way be attained, for which no other source of human gratification can, to the addict, be a satisfying substitute, which gains instead of loses in quality and quantity and in pleasure-yielding capacity by being shared with others -- and which, unlike golf, improves with age.''

Viner's ground-breaking study, The Customs Union Issue, appeared in 1950, his essays, International Economics in 1951, and his lectures at the National University of Brazil, in 1952. In 1957, on his sixty-fifth birthday, his students and friends brought out a selection of his writings, titled The Long View and the Short.

In 1960 Viner nominally retired, but despite his reply to an old friend who asked what he was doing now -- ``basking amid the laurels of my students'' -- he continued to spend most of his time in Firestone Library, ``pursuing with concentrated intensity at once the detail of how the subject of his study actually happened and what its significance was in the broad evolution of thought and affairs.''

In 1962 he was awarded the Francis A. Walker Medal, presented by the American Economic Association once every five years to an economist who has made a contribution of the highest distinction to economics. In presenting this award, Fritz Machlup, Viner's successor as Walker Professor, said that in all the fields to which Viner had contributed, he would be remembered as ``a deflator of pretentious nonsense as well as an original creator.'' What all of his colleagues might learn from him, Machlup added, was ``intellectual honesty and fearlessness,'' with ``a willingness to stand firm on the unpopular side of any issue, theoretical or practical, whether that side be `radical' or `conservative,' `newfangled' or `old fashioned.'''

During his retirement he spent a year at Harvard as Taussig Research Professor, wrote a monograph on monetary control and another on Adam Smith, and gave the Wayne Memorial Lectures of the American Philosophical Society on ``The Role of Providence in the Social Order.''

Viner was a permanent member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and an honorary fellow of the London School of Economics. President of the American Economic Association in 1939, he was also a fellow or member of a number of honorary academies in the United States as well as in Great Britain, Sweden, and Italy. He received honorary degrees from thirteen American and foreign universities including Princeton.

``A deep love of justice and liberty and a profound sense of compassion'' were for Viner ``the underlying justifications for thought and public action,'' Lionel Robbins wrote in his final tribute:

``Jack was not a believer in any orthodox creed. But he believed passionately in the liberal values: equality before the law, the maximum freedom for the individual compatible with similar privileges for his fellows, sympathy and help for the unfortunate. Nothing stirred him to anger more than an infringement of these norms, nothing more aroused his contempt than bogus substitutes for them. . . . He did not believe that life on this planet was likely to become perfect. But he believed that, with forethought, it could be made less imperfect than it is.''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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