|Ohlin, Bertil (1899-1979)|
was born into an upper-middle class family in a village in the South of
Sweden in April, 1899. It was a large family with seven children, a large
house and a home which was very hospitable and open to friends and relatives.
There was a private school which was not very particular about the knowledge
entering children had acquired. Normally, they should have had three years
of preparatory studies but many of the children had only two years. For
some reason, I was given only a little private teaching and prep school
for one year before entering the school at the age of seven. Hence, I
passed the "baccalaureat" in the classical line in the city of Halsingborg
rather early. As mathematics had been my best subject at school, my parents
proposed - and I accepted - studies at the University of Lund in mathematics,
statistics and economics. The choice of the latter subject is said to
be due to the fact that at the age of five years, I was very fond of calculating
the cost of the various cakes my mother used to bake.
Having seen in a newspaper a review of a book about the economic aspects of the world war - written by professor Eli Heckscher, who was professor at the Stockholm Business School - I suggested to my parents, that I should take up studies there. This I did and was much stimulated by Heckscher's teaching. He was always helpful and friendly although we started with a cleavage of opinion about the correct economic principles for the right time to cut trees in forestry. With the aid of differential calculus I solved a fairly obvious profit-maximization problem.
Having finished the
two years' course at the Business School, where my studies included the
French and Russian languages, I moved to the philosophical faculty of
Stockholm University where my teachers were Gustav Cassel and G?sta Bagge.
I also took up work for the State Tariff Committee. Cassel and Bagge were
not quite so stimulating lecturers as Heckscher but they sacrificed a
great deal of time for private discussion, which was exceedingly fine
teaching. Like Heckscher, they did not discuss my thesis before its first
version was ready.
Already, in 1918,
I had become a member of the "Political Economy Club" which had been created
a year before. This was a small gathering of trained economists who were
interested in scientific work in economics. Apart from my three main teachers,
also Professor Sven Brisman, Knut Wicksell, David Davidson and half a
dozen "docents" were members. The total membership was about 20 of which
4 were graduate students. One of the latter was Per Jacobson who later
became head of the International Monetary Fund. The meetings of this club
were certainly the most stimulating "seminar" one could imagine. One of
the members opened a discussion and then followed a free exchange of opinions.
The subjects were chiefly theoretical. Knut Wicksell, who was 67 years
old when I became a member, was probably the most stimulating participant
of all the members. I shall never forget his questioning and modest attitude
even when the problems concerned his speciality, which was monetary theory
and financial policy. When meeting him privately in the library, he would
sometimes ask Jacobson or me if we could help him to understand a difficult
My main teachers
were Taussig and John H. Williams in international relations, Carver in
agricultural economics as well as Alleyn Young in the history of economic
doctrine. I rapidly came to the conclusion--as I had done several times
before--that I was lucky in getting teachers who were brilliant, friendly
and stimulating. Instead of reading well-known books for the courses,
I wrote some chapters on my thesis and a paper on the laws of production
which, later, however, I never published. When I looked at it a couple
of years later, I found that my friend, Ragnar Frisch, had presented a
superior analysis in his first non-published compendium, which later became
his well-known book on the Theory of Production. There was no need to
publish my version.
Having returned to
Stockholm I dictated the later part of my thesis in English. However,
I found it wiser to publish the thesis in Swedish, translated it, and
got my doctor's degree and the position as docent ("Assistant Professor")
in May 1924.
It would take me
too long to attempt a description of the intellectual and scientific stimulus
given to me in the fine university, and in Copenhagen, in general, in
the five years I remained there. Coming from the south of Sweden I felt
at once at home. Among the economists, Dr. L. V. Birck, who combined a
sharp intelligence with an exquisite sense of humour, exercised the greatest
influence on me. But I think that I learnt as much from the students and
those who had recently been students as from my colleagues. To this category
belonged Carl Iversen, Thorkel Christensen, Jorgen Dich and J?rgen Pedersen,
all of whom later made important contributions to economics and international
Apart from the general
approach indicated above, the book was characterised by an attempt to
pay more attention to how factor supply reactions, location, taxation,
social policy, and risk affect international division of labour. The static
factor proportion model was only a beginning.
I was asked to deliver the Marshall Lectures at Cambridge in 1936 which gave me an opportunity to summarize the Swedish theory and make some comparisons with Keynes' work. A considerable part of the lectures was published in the Economic Journal, 1937, under the title, The Stockholm Theory of Saving and Investment. It led to a discussion with Keynes, D. H. Robertson and R. G. Hawtray, chiefly about the theory of interest.
A year before, I had published a volume on International Economic Reconstruction which was part of an international investigation into world economic problems organised by the International Chamber of Commerce and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In 1938, I became a member of the Swedish Riksdag. As I continued to teach at the Stockholm School of Business in the coming years, I had only little time for scientific work. The scope for political work during a world war is almost unlimited even in a neutral country.
However, I took a
few weeks off to lecture at Columbia University in January 1947. A somewhat
modified series of lectures was given at Oxford in the autumn of the same
year. The lectures were published in 1949 under the title, The Problem
of Employment Stabilisation.
As I became leader of the Liberal Party from 1944--and for the rest of the war, a member of the government--and as I continued to teach from 1945 to 1965 and remained party leader until 1967, only little time was available for scientific research. From 1946 until my resignation from the leadership, the Liberal Party was the leading opposition party, except for an interregnum of two years after a setback at the municipal election in 1958.
This is not the place for a discussion of my political activity as leader of a political party for 23 years. The Swedish two-chamber system made the vote in municipal elections affect the composition of "the first chamber" many years after the vote. This chamber was elected through "indirect" elections by municipal councils--one eighth of its members every year. In some periods the social democratic government owed its majority in the Riksdag to the "overrepresentation" the advantages this electoral system brought and to the support from the Communist Party. The attitude of the Liberal Party was all the time positive to social reforms but negative to nationalisation of Swedish industry or unnecessarily detailed central state control of economic life. It is worth noting that in the four decades before 1970, practically no nationalisation took place in Sweden--much less than, e.g., in France, Italy and Austria. A constitutional reform in 1968 ended the two-chamber system and led to a 50-50 position in 1973, and a non-socialist majority in 1976. The earlier existence of "the first chamber" had prevented that such a majority in 1957 led to a new government.
During the greater part of the time as party leader, I contributed articles to one or two leading Swedish newspapers. All in all I published about 1200 newspaper articles in the years 1919-1977, of which around 700 appeared in the years from 1931 to 1943.
Since I left the Riksdag in 1970 I have had more time for scientific articles and lectures. I have also written newspaper articles based on some research into monetary theory and the distribution of income as well as "inflation-protected taxation" and international economic problems.
It gave me great satisfaction when the Nobel Foundation--using a grant from the Bank of Sweden--as well as grants from the Marcus Wallenberg and the Handelsbanken Research Foundations--in 1974 decided to add a symposium in economic science to the symposia in natural sciences, international peace problems, and literature which had been organized in the preceding decades. The "Prize Committee" in economic science decided to choose as subject, The International Allocation of Economic Activity. As chairman of the organizing committee, I was grateful for the friendly reception of our invitations. The Symposium took place in Stockholm in 1976, and a volume edited by P. O. Hesselborn, P. Wijkman and myself appeared towards the end of the following year. It contains contributions from a large part of the most prominent economists in this field. However, monetary aspects of international trade relations found no place on the agenda as several international symposia had in recent years taken up this subject for debate. On the other hand, scientists who have come from economic and social geography to a study of the international division of labour or have specialised in regional economics were well represented. One of the chief aims of the symposium was to avoid arbitrary border lines between different approaches to research into local aspects of production and trade.
To sum up a personal reaction: It has not been easy to combine scientific work, teaching, journalistic writing and political leadership. All of these types of activity have no doubt suffered from my attempts to do too many things at the same time. However, I have found it all to be a fascinating business.
From Nobel Lectures, Economic Sciences 1969-1980.
Addendum: Bertil Ohlin died in 1979.