Sunday, 25 November 2012

Economist of the Week - William Ashley

Economics is the social science "written in the language of mathematics" (to paraphrase Galilei). In such a discipline, it is  fundamental that economic theories and explanations of phenomena should be testable - yet the world economy with it's dynamic, ever-changing pattern rarely offers us controlled experiments. It is hence quintessential that economic phenomena of the past are deeply explored and explained. This is the task of economic historians, and William Ashley was one of the first of them.

Source: Wikimedia

Early life

William Ashley was born in 1860 in the Bermondsey area of South London, at the time infamous for it's slums. His father, a travelling hatmaker was repeatedly employed and unemployed in a vicious cycle. They were very poor - this has likely influenced Ashley's later thinking, who was sceptical of free-trade economics.


Despite their difficulties, Ashley was well-educated; being an exceptionally devoted student, studying at his local grammar school, he managed to obtain a scholarship in History to Balliol College, Oxford in 1878 (the once-loathed college of Adam Smith). Upon graduation, he choose to pursue an academic career; he started teaching at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1885.

All around the world

Ashley's typical career took an unexpected twist when he married in 1888 - for a honeymoon, the couple took off to the University of Toronto, where he became the Professor of Political Economy and Constitutional History. His first lecture was given in honour of Gustav Schmoller, the leader of the younger, more radical German Historical School of Economics. In 1892, he moved to the USA, to the Harvard University; there, he became the first ever Professor of Economic History in the English-speaking world.

Back to home and fame

Ashley, continuously teaching, returned to England in 1901 for the newly founded University of Birmingham. which he basically helped to establish from scratch (not unlike how Alfred Marshall helped the University of Bristol). Starting out with six students and two classrooms, the university has quickly became a hub for contemporary education in Business, with Ashley taking the chair of Commerce himself.
More importantly, it was during these years that Ashley has produced his most famous works, the two volumes of An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory. Writing separately about the Middle and later ages, the book is a masterpiece; it's understandable tone is supplemented by a myriad of notations and references, and it is part of the economic history curriculum in many courses to this day.

Ashley has remained at Birmingham until 1925, where he was instrumental in establishing the first ever Business School in the UK, separating Business from Economics based on his American experiences.
 His aim was not to create an institution not of the "rank and file, but of the officers of the industrial and commercial army: of those who, as principals, directors, managers, secretaries, heads of department, etc., will ultimately guide the business activity of the country."


After Ashley retired from the university in 1925, due to health concerns. Despite this, he never stopped working; he devoted his final years to the creation of the Economic History Society, the first of it's kind in Britain. After a year of preparation, he became the chairman of the society upon it's creation in 14 July 1926; he died a year later.
Ashley is somewhat an outlier of this series, being more historian than an economist; nonetheless, his career and his magnum opus vividly represents the emergence of modern economic history, and the field's early contribution to the development of the economic sciences. (Economic history remains an influential field of economic research to this day; the most known example is Ben Bernarke, the current FED chairman, who used to research the Great Depression.)


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