Great Economists Since Petty and Boisguilbert
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 92: Joan Violet Robinson (1903–1983)
For Joan Robinson, there was “no such thing as a ‘purely economic’ problem [to be] settled by purely economic logic; political interest and political prejudices are involved in every discussion of actual questions” (Robinson 1951–79, Collected Economic Papers, hereafter CEP, V: 1). Indeed, “the answers to economic problems are only political questions” (Robinson 1975: iv), rooted in morality and ethics. Besides the political, you find, throughout Robinson’s work, that the answers to economic questions are mired in epistemic ambiguities, the basis for her insistence on a distinction between history and equilibrium. An instinct for the ethical dimensions of economic problems is evident from the beginning. “Beauty and the beast” (CEP, I: 225–33), an undergraduate essay, reflecting a deep understanding of what she had learned from Marshall’s Principles (1920), ends in a “happy union of producer’s and consumer’s surplus”, but what sparks our interest is an ethical problem with a decidedly modern ring. [The] speculator who by intelligent foresight anticipates the future, and who makes his gains by shrewd purchases and sales, renders thereby a public service of no small importance, but when to a normal degree of foresight is added [the Beast’s] supernatural [inside] information, the speculator is in a position to enhance his own gains at the expense of less enlightened members of the community. Such malignant forms of speculation are a grievous hindrance to progress. (CEP, I: 230) Then there is the enduring moral question of what ought to be for sale. The father of the...
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