Professor T. W. Hutchison

Historian of economic thought
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The Independent Online

Terence Wilmot Hutchison, historian of economics: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 13 August 1912; Lecturer, University College, Hull 1946-47; Lecturer, London School of Economics 1947-51, Reader 1951-56; Professor of Economics, Birmingham University 1956-78 (Emeritus); FBA 1992; married 1935 Loretta Hack (died 1981; one son, two daughters), 1983 Christine Donaldson (deceased); died Winchester 5 October 2007.

T.W. Hutchison was one of the most eminent post-war scholars in the history of economic thought in Britain and a pioneer pre-war figure in the methodology or philosophy of economics.

At the early age of 26, after a first degree in economics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and a teaching post as a Lector in Bonn, he published the first of many books, The Significance and Basic Postulates of Economics (1938). It applied to economics the same standpoint that the young A.J. Ayer had brought to philosophy with his iconoclastic Language, Truth and Logic (1936), namely, ideas which we now bundle together under the label of "logical positivism". Too many economic theories, argued Hutchison, are nothing but tautologies grounded on the unfalsifiable assumption of perfect knowledge, particularly perfect knowledge of the future: economics should instead consist largely of testable propositions.

These ideas were in the air at the time, but Hutchison probably acquired a whiff of them at lectures by John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge that preceded the publication of The General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest (1936). The influence of Keynes stayed with Hutchison all his life and to it he owed his persistent interest in the history of macroeconomics and his lifelong dislike of the writings of David Ricardo (1772-1823). Nevertheless, he was one of the first historians of ideas to demonstrate Ricardo's Burkean views on politics, despite Ricardo's radical views on the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of the Poor Laws and the liquidation of the public debt, but he only approved of action at a gradual rate to protect private property rights.

It is curious that this also became Hutchison's own political stance, which might be described as liberal Tory. In one of his great contributions to the history of economic thought, Markets and the Franchise (1966), he showed how the enfranchisement of the working class after the Second Reform Act of 1867 weakened the laissez-faire attitudes of the great economists of the second half of the 19th century (William Stanley Jevons, Alfred Marshall and Henry Sidgwick) and made them much more inclined to urge government action in economic life.

The years spent in Germany paid off in an unusual knowledge of the German and, in particular, the Austrian literature in economics, which shines through Hutchison's first masterful survey of a slice of the history of economics, A Review of Economic Doctrines, 1870-1929 (1953). It was overshadowed by his last major contribution to the history of economic thought, Before Adam Smith (1985), written in retirement, which worked systematically through the glorious economic writings of the 17th and 18th centuries.

He continued to believe into his old age that economics is nothing if it is not policy-relevant and geared to the solution of practical problems. That too was one of Keynes's legacies to him. Some of Hutchison's later books, Revolution and Progress in Economic Knowledge (1978), The Politics and Philosophy of Economics (1982) and The Uses and Abuses of Economics (1994), once again exhibit his limpid style. If only all historians of economic thought wrote as well as he did, the subject would no longer be in the doldrums where it has lain for over two generations.

Terence Hutchison was born in Bournemouth in 1912 and attended Tonbridge School in Kent. He went to Cambridge, obtained his degree in 1934, spent three years in Bonn and in 1938 moved to a Baghdad teacher training college.

After service in India during the Second World War, he began his university career at University College, Hull (now Hull University). From Hull, he went to the London School of Economics and from there, in 1956, he was appointed Professor of Economics at Birmingham University, a position he held until retirement in 1978.

Mark Blaug