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E.G. West: Champion of the Market for Education

An Appreciation of His Long Career

JUNE 29, 2010 by CHARLES ROWLEY

(Editor’s Note: Professor E. G. West, the distinguished economist and historian of education, died last October 6 at the age of 79. His most recent articles in this magazine, “The Spread of Education Before Compulsion: Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century” and “Classical Libertarian Compromises on State Education,” appeared in the July and October 1996 issues, respectively. What follows is an appreciation of his long career by a friend and colleague.)

Eddie West was born on February 27, 1922, at Goldthorpe in Yorkshire, England, where his father ran the local cinema. The family later moved to Exeter in Devon, where Eddie attended Hele’s School. After leaving school during the Second World War, he worked for the Ministry of Transport in Exeter until 1946, when he entered University College, Exeter, successfully completing a bachelor of science degree in economics in 1948. He then spent three years as a schoolteacher in Staffordshire before becoming a lecturer in economics at Guildford College of Technology in 1951. In 1956, he moved to the Oxford College of Technology as senior lecturer in economics. To strengthen his academic credentials, Eddie enrolled for the degree of master of science as an external student at the University of London, graduating in 1959.

In 1962, at age 40, he was appointed to a lectureship in economics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne by Stanley Dennison, one of only a handful of senior free-market economists in Britain at that time. This was his first university appointment. Evidently, he had hoed a very long and difficult row in order to achieve his lifetime ambition from relatively modest beginnings.

Very quickly, West began to offer insights into the enduring relevance of free-market economics for the wealth of nations. Now enrolled at the University of London as an external doctoral student under the supervision of Lionel Robbins, he commenced work on his magnum opus on the relationship between education and the state, completing the degree successfully in 1964. His first scholarly article, published in 1964 in the Journal of Political Economy, analyzing the classical economic dispute on the relevant roles of the public and the private sectors in education caught the eye of Milton Friedman. Within a year West was off to the University of Chicago as a postdoctoral fellow, on his way, we now know, to international recognition as a major contributor to classical-liberal political economy.

His one-year stay at Chicago coincided with the apogee of the Chicago School, focused on the fruitful tension provided by the interactions between Milton Friedman and Harry Johnson over issues of monetary theory and the emerging scholarship of the Chicago School in social economics (Gary Becker), transaction-cost economics (Harold Demsetz), the economics of regulation (George Stigler), and law and economics (Ronald Coase). This visit opened avenues of intellectual exploration that had been entirely closed down by the xenophobic Keynesianism that then still dominated a backward economics profession in the United Kingdom. It all but guaranteed that West’s return to Britain in 1966 as reader in economics at the trendy leftist University of Kent at Canterbury would be extremely controversial.

I first encountered Eddie West in 1966 in Canterbury, where we occupied adjoining offices in Eliot College. Although I fortunately had avoided the extremes of Keynesian economics, and had the benefit as an undergraduate in reading the writings of Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Kenneth Boulding rather than those of Paul Samuelson, Alvin Hansen, and Joan Robinson, I was not fully conversant at that time with the exciting new scholarship in monetary economics, law and economics, and Public Choice that had been initiated at the universities of Chicago and Virginia. In a matter of weeks the scales had fallen from my eyes as Eddie educated me in the new political economy that would become an abiding part of my own scholarship.

Seminal Book

West’s return to England was rendered particularly controversial because his seminal book Education and the State had been published in 1965 by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Prior to this book, the conventional view of nineteenth- and midtwentieth- century education in Britain was that of the Hammonds, the Webbs, and the Coles, to the effect that democracy and education were inescapable partners. A free society could not be orderly unless it was literate. A self-governing society could not progress unless it was educated. Private schooling could not provide the quantity and quality of education required by these goals. Therefore, universal, compulsory and “free” state-provided education was necessary. The Forster Act of 1870, which purported to initiate such an education system, and the English Education Act of 1944, which consolidated it, therefore, were both entirely justified.

By a process of meticulous and original research, West demonstrated that this conventional wisdom was historically unsupported. He chronicled the significant growth of literacy in Britain during the first third of the nineteenth century and the hostile reactions of successive governments that obstructed the development of the free press by fiscal and legal sanctions. By 1838, 87 percent of children could read and 53 percent could write at least to some extent. These statistics, certainly for the ability to read, compare favorably with those for the United States at the turn of the 21st century if the requirement is literacy in the English language.

Prior to 1870 education in England and Wales was provided primarily through private and parochial church schools financed by fee-paying parents and by church philanthropy. This education was supplemented by the Sunday schools and by a wide range of private institutes and literary and philosophic societies. The principle of state subsidies to schools had been accepted only in 1833, by which time the above-mentioned high levels of literacy had already been achieved. “It seems reasonable, therefore, toinfer that when the government made its debut in education in 1833, mainly in the role of subsidizer it was as if it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping,” West wrote.1

There is no evidence that the Forster Act accelerated the rate of growth of education services, as measured in terms of school attendance or literacy, although it effectively initiated the displacement of private and parochial schools by state alternatives. According to West, the percentage of national income spent on schooling children under 11 years of age in 1833 was approximately the same as in 1965.

The left-wing intelligentsia was agitated by West’s challenge to the historical record. It was infuriated by his willingness to countenance the complete dismantling of compulsory, “free” and state-provided schooling in Britain and to allow parents a free choice, in terms of willingness to pay, whether or not, and how to educate their children. This radical reaction provoked The New Statesman, then under the far-left editorship of Paul Johnson, to libel West, claiming essentially, that he was a fascist.

The IEA sued for libel, and on July 22, 1966, The New Statesman published a minimal apology. Forced to go further or face High Court sanctions, the magazine apologized in more detail on July 26 for what it now described as its “unjustified attack” on West and the IEA. The review, it now admitted, gave a “totally misleading impression of West’s arguments.” It is noteworthy that Johnson, who later converted from near-Marxism to Thatcherism and who subsequently wrote about the arrogance of leftleaning intellectuals,2 has never acknowledged his own unjustified left-leaning intellectual arrogance with respect to Education and the State.

In any event, Education and the State has been a huge success, constituting as it does “the single most outstanding intellectual challenge to public education.”3 It was republished with additions in 1970 and once again in 1994 in a beautiful, revised, and expanded version by Liberty Fund. It is Eddie West’s finest work. Its arguments are as convincing now as they were 35 years ago: “It is today, as it was in 1965, an appropriate point of departure for thinking about the future justification for government schools, compulsory education, and a host of other issues pertaining to educational reform.”4 Together with West’s companion volume, Education and the Industrial Revolution, 5 it provides a devastating refutation of all preceding scholarship from the late nineteenth century onwards that attempted to rationalize public education provision as a necessary condition for economic progress. Eddie West was aware that any dismantling of public education provision, despite the tax reductions that would become available, might leave the children of the poor in a disadvantaged position regarding access to education. For this reason, he became a forceful advocate of public-finance subsidies in the form of education vouchers that would enable parents to purchase private education for their children at schools of their choice. A sequence of papers developed arguments in favor of the voucher proposal and countered the paternalistic arguments of critics who had no respect for the ability of parents to secure the education interests of their offspring. Voucher proposals remain a serious policy option in the United States at this time, although the federal government has never mustered the courage to ignore the sustained lobbying of the teachers unions in favor of continued public provision.

The political economy of education provision would remain a central feature of West’s research agenda for the remainder of his career, with important contributions published in such leading journals as the Journal of Political Economy, Philosophy, Journal of Law and Economics, Southern Economic Journal, Western Economic Journal, Economic History Review, Public Choice, Canadian Economic Journal, History of Political Economy, and American Economic Review. Yet this was but one of several classical-liberal research programs that he felt compelled to pursue.

Classical Economics Resuscitated

A second major research program resuscitated writings by such giants of classical economics as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, and launched long-discarded economic logic with devastating effect against the smug socialist doctrines of mid and late twentieth century Western political economy. In this respect, West’s works on Adam Smith are particularly important. His biography, Adam Smith: The Man and His Works,6 was adopted by the Conservative Book Club of It was reprinted by Liberty Fund in 1976.

His seminal works on the relevance of Smith’s economics for the late twentieth century and beyond, Adam Smith and Modern Economics: From Market Behavior to Public Choice7 and Adam Smith into the Twenty-First Century,8 delighted in hypothesizing how Smith might have approached the difficult policy options facing modern society. West was not afraid of quarreling with Smith “whenever he considered it necessary.”9

By the 1990s West had become so immersed in the mindset of the maestro that he effectively became the Adam Smith of our day. Indeed, in 1994 The Region actually interviewed West as Adam Smith. West’s signal contribution was to demonstrate that Smith’s ideas are not restricted to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but rather are relevant for all times. It was always a privilege to meet and to talk with Eddie West during the 1990s and to feel that one was gaining insights into the mind processes of Adam Smith himself.

Of course, Eddie West was aware that he must communicate Smith’s views through the medium of modern economics. To this end he published essays on Smith’s ideas in leading economics journals, notably, Economica, Oxford Economic Papers, Journal of Economic Issues, History of Political Economy, Canadian Economic Journal, and Journal of Money, Credit and Banking. In a wider sense, of course, almost everything that he wrote communicated the views of Adam Smith.

It should not be thought that Eddie West’s career was devoted exclusively to classical liberal political economy. He was a first-rate public-finance scholar who wrote extensively on technical issues in that literature, publishing substantive theoretical and empirical articles in such journals as the Journal of Political Economy, Kyklos, Economic Inquiry, Public Choice, Southern Economic Journal, Canadian Journal of Economics, Econometrica, American Economic Review, Public Finance, Public Finance Quarterly, and Journal of Public Economics. Two of Eddie West’s most recent papers were published in the American Economic Review, the world’s most highly ranked economics journal, as late as 1999 and 2000. This was an entirely fitting finale for a distinguished economist who never retired from his life’s work.

One of my great personal and professional disappointments was the brevity of my collegial association with Eddie. The University of Kent at Canterbury became an increasingly hostile intellectual environment for both of us during the late 1960s as faculty and students combined to demonstrate increasing disdain for individual liberty, private property rights, limited government, and the rule of law.

For a time, Eddie encountered considerable difficulty in making himself heard in undergraduate lectures as students attempted to drown out his voice by beating their desks with their shoes, Khrushchev-style. The mere utterance of such neutral economic terms as “markets,” “speculation,” and “capitalism” was enough to set off the alienated sons and daughters of Surrey stockbrokers into a frenzy.

Eliot College, where we resided, appeared to be little more than a people’s republic of Marxists, fellow travelers, and Fabian socialists. The economics program itself (in conformity with leftist thinking there were no departments) was dominated by the thought of the more extremist Cambridge disciples of Keynes and by the command economy doctrines of Kenneth Arrow, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Paul Samuelson.

Of course, neither Eddie nor I would allow such dirigistes to extinguish our still small candle of liberty. However, we were both well aware of Karl Popper’s warning about the closed society: “Once we begin to rely upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel the call of personal responsibilities, and with it, responsibility of helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit submission to tribal magic.”10

West to Canada

As anti-capitalist campus violence erupted during the late 1960s, periodically closing down teaching and research throughout the university, it became clear that the University of Kent at Canterbury had ceased to be an institution of scholarship. In the autumn of 1970 we both resigned. Eddie left for Carleton University in Canada, and I departed for the University of York, the one remaining bastion of free-market economics in the United Kingdom.

Carleton University proved to be a perfect fit for Eddie West. His large corner office in the Loeb building became a magnet for the eager and receptive minds of faculty and students, anxious to obtain exposure to his ideas on free-market economics. By the time that he formally retired in 1992, he had become one of the university’s most distinguished and revered members. Retirement, of course, did not change his way of life. He continued to work productively from his office in the university until his death.

Right until the end, he traveled regularly to meetings and conferences. Accompanied by his family, he accepted visiting professorships at the University of California at Berkeley (1974), at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1975-77), at Emory University (1983-84 and during the spring semesters 1985-88), at the University of Western Australia (1991), and at the University of Kentucky (1995). Many of these trips to warmer locations were designed no doubt, to mitigate the harshness of the Canadian winters for one who had lived much of his life in a more temperate climate.

He was a long-time member of the Mont Pelerin Society; he was active in Liberty Fund colloquia; and, for over a decade, he served as a judge for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation’s prestigious Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Awards. He was a greatly valued member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Locke Institute from its inception in 1990 until his death.

Eddie was much more, however, than a distinguished scholar. He enjoyed life to the full. He remained a mean tennis player almost to the end of his life. He was a devoted husband to his wife, Ann, whom he married in 1959, and a loving father to his three children, John, Sarah, and Caroline, all of whom survive him. The last time that my wife and I spoke to him, at a conference, he was hurrying home to his family, including by then his grandchildren, cheerfully telling us that he could not bear to be away from home for long because he was caught up in “the tender trap.”

He bore his lengthy illness with courage and dignity, telling only his intimate friends that he was unwell. As one of his closest colleagues at Carleton University, Stanley Winer, noted at his remembrance ceremony: “Professor West, the happy political economist, did what he wanted to until the end.”11 Those of us who knew Eddie West will always treasure our time with him. His work stands as his testament. His passing was blessedly peaceful: “God’s finger touch’d him, and he slept” (Alfred Lord Tennyson).

1. E.G. West, Education and the State (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1965), p. 138.
2. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper & Row, 1988). 3. Myron M. Lieberman, back-cover quotation, in E.G. West, Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy, Third Edition Revised and Expanded (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994).
4. Liberman, “Introduction,” ibid., p. xx.
5. E.G. West, Education and the Industrial Revolution (London and Sydney: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1975).
6. E.G. West, Adam Smith: The Man and His Works (New York: Arlington, 1969).
7. E.G. West, Adam Smith and Modern Economics: From Market Behavior to Public Choice (Cheltenham and Brookfield: Edward Elgar, 1990).
8. E.G. West, Adam Smith into the Twenty-First Century, The Shaftesbury Papers, 7, The Locke Institute (Cheltenham and Brookfield: Edward Elgar, 1996).
9. Stanley Winer, “Remembrance of Edwin West,” Econews, Carleton University, November 2001, p. 7.
10. Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.
1 (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1971 [1945]), p. 200.
11. Winer, p. 7.

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