Wilfred Beckerman Obituary

  • Date: 29/04/20
  • Guy Leech

Professor Wilfred Beckerman died on 18th April at the great age of 94 years and 11 months. He was a highly distinguished economist, writer and teacher and was admired by generations of students at Balliol College, Oxford and at UCL. He continued to teach at UCL until his death – his professional career covered an extraordinary 70 years.

Wilfred Beckerman at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2017. Image source: The Guardian

He took his PhD at Cambridge in 1950 and subsequently worked in Paris for the OEEC/OECD, then in the UK for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. In 1964 he became a Fellow of Balliol and then in 1967 was appointed Economic Advisor to Anthony Crossland, President of the Board of Trade in the Wilson Labour Government. From 1969 to 1975 he was Professor of Political Economy and Head of the Department of Political Economy at University College London. In 1975 he returned to Oxford as Fellow of Balliol College, until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 67 in 1992. He did not welcome retirement and accepted an invitation back to UCL to teach a course in Environmental Economics and Ethics with his wife, the philosopher Joanna Pasek. The couple also introduced a unique third year undergraduate course called Ethics in Applied Economics, which was taught as a dialogue between a philosopher and an economist. According to Professor Beckerman’s obituary writer at UCL, “both of these modules were among the most popular and intellectually stimulating modules ever taught in UCL economics”. Professor Beckerman’s inspiring video introduction to the 2019 Ethics in Applied Economics course can still be seen at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/economics/study/undergraduate/module-list/ethics-applied-economics-econ0033

Wilfred wrote succinctly and clearly. He collaborated with mathematical economists and econometricians when he felt he had to, but like most great economists, and too few professional ones, he expressed his thoughts in plain English and did not over-rate the utility of mathematical models as a means of explaining or predicting human economic behaviour. He was a strict and rigorous teacher, but popular and dedicated.

It must have been during Anthony Crossland’s tenure as Secretary of State for the Environment from 1974 to 1976 that Wilfred achieved what he described as “preventing the Labour Party from going Green” – he told me in 2012 that he had achieved this by enlisting the support of trade union leaders and headed off a potential lurch towards unilateral pricing by the UK of a supposedly global externality. He joked that his influence had dwindled by the time the Labour Government passed the most expensive and least examined legislation in UK history – the Climate Change Act 2008.

Wilfred’s publications, books and papers, covered what at first glance might look like an unconnected variety of subjects – determinants of economic growth, the 1966-70 Labour economic record, poverty, the economics of environmentalism, the ethics of economics – but there were unifying themes running between them. His “Introduction to National Income Analysis” was for many a standard undergraduate text book about the measurement of GDP, but this measurement and definitional or conceptual challenge was intertwined with his work on the reduction of poverty and the questions he asked about the meaning of “sustainable development”. 

What will be of most interest to readers of the GWPF website is Wilfred’s large number of publications on environmental economics. He worked in this field in the 1960s and he was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in the early 1970s.

His first book on the subject, “In Defence of Economic Growth” (1974) was a rebuttal of the arguments that economic growth makes us less happy and entails social costs which reduce the quality of life, and of resource depletion arguments, advanced most prominently then by the notorious Club of Rome’s “The Limits to Growth” 1972 report. On environmental policy, he took the common sense view that prosperity leads to greater expenditure on reducing the social costs of damage to the environment and that economic growth generally reduces environmental harm rather than increases it. On resource depletion, he was an economist – he understood that firms don’t discover or own more resources than they can get a return from over a fairly short period, which is why estimates of available mineral or fossil fuel resources are always wrong, and he understood that relative prices reflect scarcity and abundance and therefore determine the economic utility of different resources. He said “Resources are either finite or they are not. If they are, then the only way to ensure that they last for ever is to stop using them”. My favourite Beckerman quote on resource depletion is “modern civilisation has survived without any supplies at all of Beckermonium, the product named after my grandfather, who failed to discover it in the nineteenth century” (both of these quotes are from “A Poverty of Reason”)

As an undergraduate student of Wilfred’s in 1976, I duly read “In Defence of Economic Growth” (and the Club of Rome report) but I did not understand the importance of the issues addressed until 35 years later, after reading everything I could find about global warming and other scare stories. I then stumbled across the large number of other books and papers which Wilfred had written on the subject – between 1990 and 2003 he published half a dozen books and extended papers “blowing the whistle on the Greens” (a 1995 subtitle).

The last book, “A Poverty of Reason: Sustainable Development and Economic Growth” (2003), is my favourite. In its brief 76 pages of clearly written text, it demolishes many of the shibboleths of environmentalism, as evidenced by the chapter titles – what is sustainable development, resource depletion, energy & biodiversity, climate change, the precautionary principle, regulation & protectionism, the ethics of sustainable development. I expect that most GWPF readers will recognise these subjects as the key political and economic issues which policy makers dealing with environmental issues should address, but seldom do. I sometimes wonder if the titles of Nigel Lawson’s 2006 lecture “The Economics and Politics of Climate Change. An Appeal to Reason” and his 2008 book “An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming” were giving a nod to the title of Wilfred’s book; they certainly must have agreed on many points.

Wilfred’s publications and academic work after “A Poverty of Reason” – remember that he was 78 when that was published in 2003 – turned towards applied ethics and his main publication was a textbook called “Economics as Applied Ethics” (2010 & 2017) which accompanied his UCL courses. This wasn’t a departure from the themes of the environmental economics; all of them were focussed on ethical principles – e.g. how much of our GDP should we invest today in the hope that we make our descendants better off, what are the right discount rates to use to assess precautionary principle motivated investments. Rather, I suspect that like many enlightened but prudent intellectuals, he sought a broader canvas on which to develop his ideas where they might find a reception, recognising that whether he was right or not about environmental issues, the audience had gone in a different direction, maybe temporarily.

If Wilfred’s writing and ideas had not gone against the grain of what in my view are the very foolish political views about environmentalism which are popular at the moment, then I think he would have enjoyed a much higher profile as a public intellectual. I rather suspect that this didn’t bother him too much, that he had the moral courage and strength of mind to row against the tide and did not mistake popularity for success. But I hope and expect that he will have the last word from beyond the grave.

Guy Leech, 29 April 2020

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