Lionel Robbins Essay

The Lord Robbins

Robbins at the opening of the Lionel Robbins building, 27 July 1978

Born(1898-11-22)22 November 1898
Sipson, Middlesex
Died15 May 1984(1984-05-15) (aged 85)
InstitutionLondon School of Economics
School or
Neoclassical economics
Alma materUniversity College London, London School of Economics
Edwin Cannan
Nicholas Kaldor
Amiya Kumar Dasgupta
Abba P. Lerner
William Baumol
Frank Hahn
InfluencesWilliam Stanley Jevons, Philip Wicksteed, Léon Walras, Vilfredo Pareto, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser, Knut Wicksell, Alfred Marshall
ContributionsRobbins Report

Lionel Charles Robbins, Baron Robbins, CH, CB, FBA (22 November 1898 – 15 May 1984) was a British economist, and prominent member of the economics department at the London School of Economics. He is known for his leadership at LSE, his proposed definition of economics, and for his instrumental efforts in shifting Anglo-Saxon economics from its Marshallian direction. He is famous for the quote, "Humans want what they can't have."

Early life[edit]

Robbins was born in Sipson, west of London, the son of Rowland Richard (1872–1960) and Rosa Marion Robbins (nee Harris). [1] His father was a farmer and was also a member of Middlesex county council.[2] Robbins' sister Caroline was a noted Professor of History.[3]

Robbins was educated at the local grammar school, Southall county school. His university education began at University College London, but was interrupted by the First World War. He served in the Royal Field Artillery as an officer between 1916 and 1918, when he was wounded and returned home. He became interested in guild socialism and resumed his studies at the London School of Economics, where he studied with Harold Laski, Edwin Cannan and Hugh Dalton.[2]

Theories and influences[edit]

Robbins is famous for his definition of economics:

"Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."[4]

A follower of William Stanley Jevons and Philip Wicksteed, he was influenced by the Continental European economists: Léon Walras, Vilfredo Pareto, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser and Knut Wicksell. Robbins succeeded Allyn Young in the chair of the London School of Economics in 1929. Among his first appointments was Friedrich A. Hayek, who bred a new generation of English-speaking "continentals" such as John Hicks, Nicholas Kaldor, Abba Lerner and Tibor Scitovsky. Frank Knight was an American influence on Robbins.

Robbins was very familiar with the work of economists in Continental Europe. Robbins became involved in the socialist calculation debate on the side of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and against Abba Lerner, Fred Taylor, and Oscar Lange.

Robbins was initially opposed to Keynes's General Theory. His 1934 treatise on the Great Depression is an analysis of that period. Robbins saw his London School of Economics as a bulwark against Cambridge, whether it was populated by Marshallians or Keynesians. However, he was later to accept the need for government intervention[5] Robbins' 1966 Chichele lecture on the accumulation of capital (published in 1968) and later work on Smithian economics, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy, have been described as imprecise.[6]

Although the ascendancy of the London School of Economics is foremost among Robbins' legacies, he was a free market economist who was also greatly responsible for the modern British university system—having advocated in the Robbins Report its massive expansion in the 1960s.[7] He became the first Chancellor of the new University of Stirling in 1968. He also advocated massive government support for the arts, in addition to universities.[7]

In the latter part of his life, Robbins turned to the history of economic thought, publishing various classic studies on English doctrinal history. Robbins' L.S.E. lectures, as he gave them in 1980 (more than fifty years after he first taught the subject upon his appointment in 1929), have been published posthumously (see 1998).

Honours and awards[edit]

Robbins was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in the 1944 Birthday Honours.[8]

On 16 June 1959 he was created a life peer as Baron Robbins, of Clare Market in the City of Westminster.[9]

Robbins received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1967.[10]

In the 1968 New Year Honours Lord Robbins was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH).[11]

The Lionel Robbins Building at the London School of Economics is named after him.


Robbins' early essays were combative in spirit, stressing the subjectivist theory of value beyond what Anglo-Saxon economics had been used to. He wrote a famous 1932 essay on economic methodology. His work on costs (1930, 1934) brought Wieser's "alternative cost" theorem of supply to England (which was opposed to Marshall's "real cost" theory of supply). His critique of the Marshallian theory of the representative firm (1928), and his critique of the PigovianWelfare Economics (1932, 1938), influenced the end of the Marshallian empire.

In his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Robbins made his Continental credentials clear. He redefined the scope of economics to be "the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses" (Robbins, 1932), a definition which is still widely used today. He has undoubtedly left an impressive legacy in the theory of economic science, and the history of economic thought.

List of works[edit]

  • "Principles Of Economics", 1923, "Economics"
  • "Dynamics of Capitalism", 1926, Economica.
  • "The Optimum Theory of Population", 1927, in Gregory and Dalton, editors, London Essays in Economics.
  • "The Representative Firm", 1928, EJ.
  • "On a Certain Ambiguity in the Conception of Stationary Equilibrium", 1930, EJ.
  • Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 1932. download
  • "Remarks on the Relationship between Economics and Psychology", 1934, Manchester School.
  • "Remarks on Some Aspects of the Theory of Costs", 1934, EJ.
  • The Great Depression, 1934. Scroll to chapter-preview links.
  • "The Place of Jevons in the History of Economic Thought", 1936, Manchester School.
  • Economic Planning and International Order, 1937. Macmillan, London.
  • "Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility: A Comment", 1938, EJ.
  • The Economic Causes of War, 1939. download
  • The Economic Problem in Peace and War, 1947.
  • The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy, 1952.
  • Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics, 1958.
  • Politics and Economics, 1963.
  • The University in the Modern World, 1966.
  • The Theory of Economic Development in the History of Economic Thought, 1968.
  • Jacob Viner: A tribute, 1970.
  • The Evolution of Modern Economic Theory, 1970.
  • Autobiography of an Economist, 1971.
  • Political Economy, Past and Present, 1976.
  • Against Inflation, 1979.
  • Higher Education Revisited, 1980.
  • "Economics and Political Economy", 1981, AER.
  • A History of Economic Thought: the LSE Lectures, edited by Warren J. Samuels and Steven G. Medema, 1998. Scroll to chapter-preview links.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Howson, Susan (2011) Lionel Robbins C.U.P., 1200 pp.
  2. ^ abOxford Dictionary of National Biography
  3. ^J. R. Pole, ‘Robbins , Caroline (1903–1999)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 8 Sept 2015
  4. ^Robbins, An Essay on the nature and significance of Economic Science, p. 15
  5. ^The Economic Problem in Peace and War – Some Reflections on Objectives and Mechanisms], Read Books, 2007 (1st ed. 1947), pp. 68 ("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."
  6. ^Grampp, William D. (April 1972). "Robbins on the History of Development Theory". Economic Development and Cultural Change. 20 (3): 539–553. doi:10.1086/450573. ISSN 0013-0079. 
  7. ^ abFrum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 7. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  8. ^"No. 36544". The London Gazette (Supplement). 8 June 1944. p. 2568. 
  9. ^"No. 41740". The London Gazette. 16 June 1959. p. 3912. 
  10. ^ "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". Retrieved 2016-04-11. 
  11. ^"No. 44484". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1968. p. 25. 

External links[edit]

Although recognized equally for his contributions to economic policy, methodology, and the history of ideas, Lionel Robbins made his name as a theorist. In the 1920s he attacked Alfred Marshall’s concept of the “representative firm,” arguing that the concept was no help in understanding the equilibrium of the firm or of an industry. He also did some of the earliest work on labor supply, showing that an increase in the wage rate had an ambiguous effect on the amount of labor supplied (see supply).

Robbins’s most famous book is An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, one of the best-written prose pieces in economics. That book contains three main thoughts. First is Robbins’s famous all-encompassing definition of economics, still used to define the subject today: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” (p. 16). Second is the bright line Robbins drew between positive and normative issues. Positive issues are questions about what is; normative issues are about what ought to be. Robbins argued that the economist qua economist should be studying what is rather than what ought to be. Economists still widely share Robbins’s belief. Robbins’s third major thought is that economics is a system of logical deduction from first principles. He was skeptical about the feasibility and usefulness of empirical verification. In this view he resembled the Austrians—not surprising since he was a colleague of the famous Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, whom he had brought from Vienna in 1928.

In 1930, when Keynesianism was starting to take over in Britain, Robbins was the only member of the five-man Economic Advisory Council to oppose import restrictions and public works expenditures as a means of alleviating the depression. Instead, Robbins sided with the Austrian view that the depression was caused by undersaving (i.e., too much consumption), and he built on this concept in The Great Depression, which exemplifies his anti-Keynesian views. Although he remained an opponent of Keynesianism for the remainder of that decade, Robbins’s views underwent a profound change after World War II. In The Economic Problem in Peace and War Robbins advocated Keynes’s policies of full employment through control of aggregate demand.

The London School of Economics was home to Robbins for almost his entire adult life. He completed his undergraduate education there in 1923, taught as a professor from 1929 to 1961, and continued to be associated with the school on a part-time basis until 1980. During World War II he served briefly as an economist for the British government. Although Robbins was an advocate of laissez-faire, he made numerous ad hoc exceptions. His most famous was his view, known as the Robbins Principle, that the government should subsidize any qualified applicant for higher education who would not otherwise have the current income or savings to pay for it. His view was adopted in the 1960s and led to an expansion of higher education in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

Selected Works

1932. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan.

1934. The Great Depression. London: Macmillan.

1934. “Remarks upon Certain Aspects of the Theory of Costs.” First published in Economic Journal (1934). Reprinted in James M. Buchanan and G. F. Thirlby, eds., L.S.E. Essays on Cost. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Available online at:

1939. The Economic Basis of Class Conflict. London: Macmillan.

1939. The Economic Causes of War. London: Jonathan Cape.

1947. The Economic Problem in Peace and War. London: Macmillan.

1971. Autobiography of an Economist. London: Macmillan.

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