Beveridge and Economic Theory: The Problem of Unemployment
If Beveridge is not honoured as an economist that is because in economics, as in most theoretical discourses, prestige is accorded to those figures, like Keynes, whose texts propose major reconceptualizations of the objects of the discourse. From this point of view, through his work on unemployment, Beveridge played an important secondary role as a promoter of the reconceptualizations which others had initiated. Three of his major texts, spread over 35 years, deal with the problem of unemployment. Unemployment: a problem of industry, published in 1909, was Beveridge's most important work of the Edwardian period. In 1930 this text was reissued in a new edition which reprinted the old text along with seven new chapters which analysed the phenomenon of persistent unemployment in the 1920s. Towards the end of the Second World War, Full Employment in a Free Society took an altogether fresh Keynesian look at the possibility of abolishing unemployment. In all three texts Beveridge accepted the premisses and conclusions of the prevailing economic orthodoxy but, characteristically, he worked at the radical edge of this orthodoxy and as it changed so Beveridge modified his views about the nature and causes of unemployment. At the same time, the three texts on unemployment offer much more than a fluent up-to-date commentary on changing economic doctrines. In all these texts, Beveridge tries to find a space for the operation of new policy instruments which could curb unemployment but he seeks to do so without upsetting either economic
theory or the real economy. Although this task defeated him in 1930, in their very different ways both the 1909 and 1944 texts were full of practical suggestions for a better (liberal) world. Beveridge's real inventiveness as an economist was manifest in his proposals for new policy instruments. If economists now show so little interest in evaluating these proposals, that is because their discourse has become a scholastic way of understanding the world rather than a practical way of changing it. To his credit, Beveridge held a different concept of the discourse.