Sir Alan Peacock (1922-2014)

In the heyday of state interventionism that followed World War II, it fell to a relatively small group of economists to defend the seemingly outdated classical liberal inheritance and develop a critique of government growth. Alan Peacock was one of the most significant members of this group, taking over the mantle of an earlier generation which included scholars such as Lionel Robbins (1898 – 1984) and John Jewkes (1902 – 1988). Although born not far from Newcastle he saw himself as an honorary Scot and was certainly one of the most effective interpreters of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment even if these were, during his lifetime, as neglected north of the border as they were to the south.

On his appointment as a Professor of Economics at Edinburgh in 1956 he at first found it difficult to resist the trend towards increasing technical rigour in economics and away from institutional and historical studies. In his Mattioli Lectures (1992) he admitted that ‘my reforming zeal led me to consign the history of economic ideas to a specialised course given by an economist with little interest in research’. But this phase as a ‘young Turk’ seems to have passed very quickly and, in his personal writing seems barely to have existed at all. In 1958 he co-edited with Richard Musgrave Classics in the Theory of Public Finance which translated into English a set of major late nineteenth century and early twentieth century papers by Wagner, Pantaleoni, Barone, Lindahl, Wicksell and others. James Buchanan, the later Nobel laureate and founder of ‘Public Choice’ analysis, advised on the Italian selection and translated Wicksell.

Alan admired greatly the Italian contribution to public finance with its worldly and realistic assessment of state action, which contrasted with the naïve and idealised conception of policy formation and implementation that prevailed in England. He attracted many Italian students and enjoyed travelling and speaking in Italy. His admiration of the German ordo-liberals who played such an important role in preparing for post-war reconstruction and laying the foundations of the ‘wirtschaftswunder’ was also an important element in his approach to policy.

In 1961 he produced (with Jack Wiseman) a celebrated study of The Growth of Public Expenditure in the UK 1890-1955. It was the beginning of a research agenda that led to many similar studies of other countries by students who were attracted to the University of York where he founded the Department of Economics in 1962. Under his leadership York became a major centre for research in public sector economics. Alan became increasingly critical of the tradition of normative public finance that derived from the welfare economics of Pareto, seeing it as hostile to a more classical conception of liberalism. With Charles Rowley he wrote several papers on this theme and (in 1975) published a jointly authored book, Welfare Economics: A Liberal Restatement.

Over the same period he applied public choice theory to the analysis of public policy – including policy towards music and the arts. In these areas he courted the unpopularity of influential lobby groups by questioning the role of public subsidy in spite of being personally devoted to the arts and an amateur viola player and composer. In 1986 the Peacock Report on the funding of the BBC offended similar powerful interests with its support for more consumer choice and its recognition that technical developments would permit far more competition and the growth of subscription services.

In his support for liberal causes Alan was prepared to take considerable professional and reputational risks. He was always a staunch supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs and was a member of its Advisory Council at a time when the presumption in favour of state power over market processes was even more extreme than it is today. He moved from York to become Principal and (after the award of a Royal Charter) Vice Chancellor of the newly established independent University of Buckingham. He joked that the younger economists he took with him to Buckingham had much more to lose than he did. But it was his human capital and reputation that the fledgling institution needed and that he put at its disposal. It would have been much easier to support the experiment in principle and from a safe distance.

This high degree of moral courage did not make Alan aloof in his relations with others. Accessible to junior colleagues and supportive of their efforts, he was excellent company and a repository of endless amusing stories. He led happy departments. Only in later years did I become aware that his resolve had been tested in an altogether more demanding arena of human conflict. As an officer in naval intelligence his ship had been torpedoed in 1943 – he had served on the Arctic convoys and had been awarded the DSC (and very recently the Arctic Star).

4 thoughts on “Sir Alan Peacock (1922-2014)”

  1. Posted 11/08/2014 at 10:31 | Permalink

    I only came to know Sir Alan at a fairly late stage in his life but was very impressed by his continuing enthusiasm for economics and his useful advice on various matters. We were pleased to publish one of his final essays, a fascinating piece on the history of national insurance (written jointly with George Peden) in the February 2014 issue of Economic Affairs.

  2. Posted 11/08/2014 at 14:18 | Permalink

    My first book was on taxation — ‘The Power to Destroy: a Study of the British tax system’ — so from early in my career I was well aware of Alan Peacock, in particular the book he wrote with Jack Wiseman on The Growth of Public Expenditure in the UK. Much of the earlier book he edited, with Richard Musgrave, republishing Classics in the Theory of Public Finance was then, and remains, beyond me. (My main interest, as an accountant, was on the devastating impact of currency debasement on the tax system.) As one of the very early academic supporters of the Institute of Economic Affairs he certainly deserves a share of the credit for helping to change the intellectual climate, not just in the UK but around the world. My association with the University of Buckingham began after his time there — it is one of the IEA’s initiatives of which we can be most proud — but the University owes him a good deal for helping it to get established. He was a doughty friend of freedom.

  3. Posted 12/08/2014 at 13:52 | Permalink

    I was pleased to have lots of contact with – and advice from – Alan after I first met him soon after I joined the IEA. The ice was somewhat broken because (if I remember this correctly) the first Academic Advisory Council meeting I attended and at which he was present I had had the same week a letter published in the Telegraph about broadcasting which was along “Peacockian” lines. Then came an interesting interaction with Ofcom. David Currie (chairman) and Ed Richards (then head of policy, I think) called me in and said that, prior to the BBC charter review, they would like some input from the IEA. What they really meant was that they wanted input from Peacock – and we organised two important events. In fact, the reality was that 18 years on from the Peacock report there was really nothing more to be said and nobody else to speak to (though it is worth noting that Peacock had been proven right before even he expected himself to be proven right). The little monograph we published after those two events is very difficult to improve upon as a basic statement in favour of the liberalisation of public sector broadcasting. He had such a broad range of other intellectual interests too – he put to shame many of today’s breed of academic who often seem to get pleasure in further refining their partial differential equations and wittering on about “market failure”.

  4. Posted 27/02/2015 at 18:40 | Permalink

    I was an economics student at York University in the 70s and was lucky enough to attend some of his lectures.

    Better than that, he became my tutor for a period and I enjoyed a couple of friendly one-on-one cups of tea with him in his office. He was invariably charming and had the humility to talk to me as an equal (which I clearly wasn’t!)

    Top man!

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