Lionel Robbins

From New World Encyclopedia

Lionel Charles Robbins, Baron Robbins (November 22, 1898 - May 15, 1984) was a British economist, famous for his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. He was also instrumental in shifting Anglo-Saxon economics from its Marshallian approach toward the Continental direction.

Robbins was not only influential as an economist but he was also a key figure in the advancement of the British system of university education. His Robbins Report led to the major expansion of British higher education in 1960s and 1970s, which led to the formation of the modern British university system. These universities, in response to the Robbins Report, were established not only to make places available for an increasing number of students, but also to make the education relevant to the needs of the developing British society. In this way, Robbins' work significantly contributed to the expansion of higher education to a larger segment of the population.


Lionel Charles Robbins was born on November 22, 1898 in Sipson, Middlesex, England. He was educated at Southall County School, University College, London, and the London School of Economics (LSE). During World War I, he served in the Royal Field Artillery 1916-1919.

Robbins became a research assistant of William Beveridge in 1923, and a lecturer at New College, Oxford in 1924. In 1925, he started his long-term relationship with the London School of Economics, where he stayed for the rest of his career. He was initially a Lecturer (from 1925 to 1927), and was named a Professor of Political Economics in 1929. He taught there until 1961. He was also a Fellow and Lecturer at New College, Oxford 1927-1929.

In 1932, Robbins published his well-known methodological treatise, An Essay in the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, which ensured him international fame.

During the Second World War, Robbins served as Director of the Economic Section of Offices of the War Cabinet. From 1954 to 1955, Robbins was President of the Royal Economic Society. In 1959, Robbins received high recognition for his work, being created a life peer, as Baron Robbins of Clare Market in the City of Westminster.

Robbins resigned from the LSE in 1961 to accept the chairmanship of the Financial Times, serving in that position until 1970.

Robbins was Chairman of the Committee on Higher Education, from 1961 to 1964. He published his famous Robbins Report in 1963, which revealed the need for additional resources in British higher education. His report eventually led to the major expansion of higher education in the Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

Robbins was a member of the Court of Governors at the London School of Economics and its Chairman from 1968 to 1974. He was also a Trustee of the National Gallery, 1952-1959, 1960-1967, and 1967-1974, and for the Tate Gallery, 1953-1959, and 1962-1967. From 1955 to 1981, he was Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and President of the British Academy 1962-1967.

Robbins died on May 15, 1984, in London.


A follower of William Stanley Jevons and Philip Wicksteed, Robbins was influenced by the Continental European economists - Léon Walras, Vilfredo Pareto, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser, and Knut Wicksell. That was highly unusual for that time, when Marshallians dominated British economic thought. Robbins’s early essays were clearly combative in spirit, stressing the subjectivist theory of value and reflecting the spirit of Continental economics.

Robbins succeeded Allyn Young to the chair of the London School of Economics in 1929. Among his first appointments was Friedrich Hayek of the Austrian school, who trained a new generation of English-speaking "continentals" such as John Hicks, Nicholas Kaldor, Abba Lerner, and Tibor Scitovsky.

Robbins’s work on costs brought Wieser's "alternative cost" theorem of supply to England (which was opposed to Marshall's "real cost" theory of supply). His critique of the Marshallian theory of the representative firm and his critique of the Pigovian Welfare economics signaled the end of the Marshallian empire.

Robbins was initially opposed to John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. His 1934 treatise on the Great Depression is an analysis of that period. He believed that the depression was caused by undersaving and too much consumption (similar to the Austrians). Robbins saw his London School of Economics as a bulwark against Cambridge, whether it was populated by Marshallians or Keynesians. However, he was eventually to recant and accept the Keynesian Revolution.

An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

Robbins’s major work was his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. In it he offered one of the first definitions of economics:

Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses (Robbins 1932).

Robbins believed that the distinction needed to be made between "positive" and "normative" economics, positive dealing with hypotheses about economic relationships measurable by empirical evidence, while normative dealing with value judgments of what the economy “ought to be.” Robbins argued that economists need to deal only with positive economics.

Robbins also believed that economics is a system of logical deduction from first principles. He thus did not have a high opinion on the feasibility and usefulness of empirical verification. Here also he resembled the Austrian school of economics and the Continental school of economic thought.

Robbins Report

Robbins is also greatly responsible for the modern British university system—having advocated in the Robbins Report its massive expansion in the 1960s.

The Robbins Report was commissioned by the British government in the 1960s to look into the future of higher education in the United Kingdom. The Committee on Higher Education was chaired by Robbins from 1961 to 1964. After its publication, the government accepted and implemented its conclusions.

The report recommended immediate expansion of universities, and that all Colleges of Advanced Technology should be given the status of universities. Robbins also asked the government to subsidize qualified applicants for higher education who would not otherwise have money to attend the university. Consequently, the number of full-time university students was to rise from 197,000 in the 1967-1968 academic year to 217,000 in the academic year of 1973-1974 with further significant expansion thereafter.

Later work

In the latter part of his life, Robbins turned to the history of economic thought, publishing various classic studies on English doctrinal history. Robbins' LSE lectures, as he gave them in 1980 (more than 50 years after he first taught the subject upon his appointment in 1929), were published posthumously.


As the leader of the 1930s debate between London and Cambridge, Robbins is greatly responsible for the shift of Anglo-Saxon economics from its Marshallian approach toward the direction of economists in continental Europe, particularly the Austrian school.

His Robbins Report was the overture to the reforms of the higher education in the United Kingdom and the establishment of its modern university system. It led to the foundation of the "plate glass universities," notably the universities of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, York, and Warwick, as well as prompting substantial expansion in the existing universities in the U.K. The term "plate glass universities," so called by Michael Beloff in his book The Plateglass Universities, reflects their modern architectural design, which often contains wide expanses of plate glass in steel or concrete frames. According to Beloff, his choice of the name is not only "architecturally evocative; but more important, it is metaphorically accurate." These universities, in response to the Robbins Report, were established not only to make places available for an increasing number of students, but also to make the education relevant to the needs of the developing British society:

The role of Plateglass in reviving a belief in the need for and virtues of higher education is especially important. Plateglass universities gives the lie to the view that universities are conservative, unchanging institutions (Beloff 1975).


  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1926. "Dynamics of Capitalism." Economica, Vol. 16, 31-39.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. [1932] 1984. Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. New York, NY: New York University Press. ISBN 0814773893
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1934. The Great Depression. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1952. The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1958. Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1963. Politics and Economics. New York, NY: St Martin's Press.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1966. The University in the Modern World. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1968. The Theory of Economic Development in the History of Economic Thought. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Robbins, Lionel C. [1970] 2007. The Evolution of Modern Economic Theory. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 0202309193
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1971. Autobiography of an Economist. London: Macmillan and Co. ISBN 0333125088
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1976. Political Economy, Past and Present. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231041284
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1979. Against Inflation. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333259742
  • Robbins, Lionel C. 1980. Higher Education Revisited. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333286065

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beloff, Michael. 1975. The Plateglass Universities. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 9780838675502
  • Blaug, Mark. 1992. Harold Hotelling (1895-1973), Lionel Robbins (1898-1984), Clark Warburton (1896-1979), John Bates Clark (1847-1938), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Aldershot, Hants, England: Elgar. ISBN 1852785047
  • Howson, Susan. 2004. "The Origins of Lionel Robbins's Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science." History of Political Economy. Vol. 36, No. 3, 413-443.
  • O'Brien, Denis P. 1988. Lionel Robbins. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 031201998X
  • O'Brien, D. P. 1989. Lionel Robbins and the Austrian connection. Durham, NC: Duke University.

External links

All links retrieved October 29, 2022.


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