Paul A. Samuelson
In this paper, contributions of J.R. Hicks have been evaluated briefly. The landmarks in Hick” working life is described. Among the major works of Hicks, “Value and Capital” written at his age of 35, is a scientific epic saga – full of new and beautiful things and a springboard towards future advances. Even before the ‘General Theory’ if Keynes was considered as the greatest economist of the world’, J.R. Hicks was the greatest young economist at that time. Hick’s works are immortal.
I was lucky in my teachers at Chicago and Harvard. But being in love with the subject of economics and possessed of boundless youthful energy and a ferocious power to read and focus on everything that interested me, most of what I learned was not by word of mouth in lecturers and conversations with economists at those two great universities in the 1932-1940 period. The wide world was my school. It was from books and journal articles that I learned what were the important scientific questions to ponder over; and many of the best answers that could be then given to those questions came from those away-from-home sources, from the great “invisible college” of economic and other sciences. With two great libraries at hand, I read essentially all the journals when they were, so to speak, still hot, and I was excessively eclectic in sampling almost all of their contents.
It was a wonder that I had time to do independent thinking! And if the brain has only so much room in it (as Sherlock Holmes insisted to Dr. Watson), then my excellent memory could have endangered my own originality. But there was little danger of that, for as Chicago’s Professor Paul Douglas wrote to Professor Jacob Viner in recommending that as an undergraduate I be admitted to Viner’s celebrated Chicago graduate seminar in economic theory: “Young Samuelson is able if cantankerous and argumentative”.
All this is by way of saying that John Hicks (born 1904), early and late, was a major intellectual stimulus for me. I went over his contributions with a powerful microscope, a much more intensive analysis than he ever gave either to my own work or to that of any other economist. That was the way Hicks was. Always he preferred to do things his way. And that was the source both of his creative originality and prolific scientific productivity. Of course such a scientific style can lead to blind spots even in the best of scholars, and to the rediscovery of a certain number of round wheels. But the completed record shows that, if this was a Faustian bargain with the Devil, it was one with high net payoff.
More than once I have recorded the autobiographical fact that, as a teenager at Chicago, I was told by an early tutor that John Maynard Keynes was then – 1932 or 1933, well before The General Theory (1936) – “the greatest economist in the world” and told also, that at Harvard around 1935 by an Assistant Professor friend J.R. Hicks was the greatest young economist at that time. Both evaluations squared with my own early impressions. I spent a lot of time dissecting Hicks’s (1932) Theory of Wages; and, incidentally, I later disagreed with Hick’s own damning-with-faint-praise that early first book. By then I had learned to accept only with guarded reservations John’s claims and disclaimers about his own contributions. Expressions of modesty can sometimes be veiled signs both of vanity and Napoleonic ambition.
I wish present readers to understand that I always regarded Hicks as having been somewhat undervalued, particularly in Britain his own country. As he learned during his brief and not happy sojourn at Cambridge University – in between his nine golden years at the LSE and his decade of loner productivity at Manchester – Hicks was not “politically correct” and therefore not popular with the leftish elite at Oxbridge. Dennis Robertson engineered Hicks’ Cambridge appointment to keep down Joan Robinson; but subsequently Robertson kept somewhat at a distance. Moreover, in England an early failure to earn a First leaves scars on the ego that will not fade. If I ran the world I would heap every honor early on whomever was later to shine in the scientific barnyard; that might get out of the way some of the pathology of unbridled ambition, which can never be satiated even by the greatest of accomplishments. (I think of Joseph Schumpeter and of the mathematician Norbert Wiener as examples in point.)
John Hicks had another fault. He wrote well. This is not a common crime among economists. And it meant that his was a wide audience among readers, some of whom were not very expert in mathematical jargon and techniques. The good fairies balance their gifts. Hicks was not a terribly good lecturer. He did not stammer but his flow of words was not smooth, and in a personal dialogue with a Nicholas Kaldor or Milton Friedman he did not excel in quick repartee.
At Oxford over the years Hicks had some very good students. To name just two, these included the American Lionel McKenzie and the Japanese Michio Morishima. On their travels all over the world, John and Ursula Hicks would be met by admiring former pupils. But the master was not a warm, outgoing personality. He wrote few joint papers and tended to concentrate most on his own research puzzles. It was not a rash decision for him to retire early from his Drummond Professorship: that kept him in step with his older wife; and it in no way inhibited twenty more years of prolific and provocative innovative contributions.
In The New Palgrave A Dictionary of Economics (1987, pp. 641-646), Christopher Blisst gives an admirable selective description of J.R. Hicks’s many and fine contributions to varied fields of economic theory. I shall not duplicate that here. Let me merely sing the praises of Value and Capital (1939, 1946). Written when the author was 35, this is a scientific epic saga – full of new and beautiful things and a springboard toward future advances. No single misprint mars its mathematical text; and the one major omission in its first edition he was able to repair by altering a few pages only.
To summarize my superlative evaluation of John Hicks, I believe it would have been as well for the Royal Swedish Academy of Science to have named Hicks alone for the second Nobel Prize in 1970, following immediately after Ragner Frisch and Jan Tinbergen in 1969. That would have left Kenneth Arrow to receive later an unshared award: the Hicks and Arrow coupling was not particularly optimal; and it came about, I suspect, from the happenstance that some of the judging committee resented Hicks’s cavalier citings of contemporary work by other scholars – a non-Scandinavian practise not uncommon in the British senior common rooms of that time. (I should add that Kenneth Arrow, in my book, deserves at least two Nobel Prizes).
I remember Sir John the last time I saw him in person, toward the end of his life, at the Saltzesbaden 1987 conference near Stockholm in honor of Erik Lundberg. He was in good form for an octogenarian. “Fortunately I am dying from my feet up rather than from my brain down”, he quipped.1
Years before John Hicks had confided to me, “When one of us – Ursula or I – dies, the other will be left lonely”. And so it was for this childless couple; when Ursula (born in 1896!) died first, Sir John lived alone at his Blockley family property in the Cots-wolds near Oxford. Fortunately younger economists on the Oxford scene helped him travel to conferences in Italy and elsewhere.
To the end Sir John Hicks was as he had been throughout his life: a loner scholar, for whom the sun rose in the morning when first he opened his eyes. His works constitute his immortality.
Bliss, Christopher, 1987. “Hicks, John, R.” in J. Eatwell, M. Milgate and P. Newman, eds., The New Palgrave A Dictionary of Economics, Vol. 2, London. Macmillan.
Hicks John, R., 1932, 1963. The Theory of Wages. London. Macmillan.
Hicks John, R. 1937. La Théorie Mathématique de la valeur end régime de libre concurrence. Trans. G. Lutfalla. Paris: Hermann.
Hicks John, R. 1939, 1946. Value and Capital. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Keynes, John Maynard. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London. Macmillan.