Black, Robert Denis (R. D.) Collison ('Bob') (1922–2008), economist, was born at Morehampton Terrace, Donnybrook, Dublin, on 11 June 1922, the son of William Robert Black, commercial clerk in the grain trade, and his wife Rose Anna Mary (née Reid). The family moved to Waltham Terrace, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, when he was five. He attended Sandford Park School in Dublin, but, dissatisfied with the teaching and impatient to experience university education, he took the unusual step at age 15 of sitting and passing the TCD matriculation, entering Trinity in October 1937.
He enrolled in the commerce course and, in choosing a requisite BA subject alongside his preferred option, spurned the ordinary arts pass degree course, opting instead for the more challenging four-year moderatorship in economics and political science. The moderatorship, which was overwhelmingly concerned with economics, quickly preoccupied him, although he successfully completed his commerce course in 1940. Shy and much younger than his classmates, he devoted himself to study, also serving in the Irish army reserve as a medical orderly.
His economics professor George Alexander Duncan (qv) was an exacting and unorthodox mentor who exposed Black to continental thinkers not normally taught in anglophone universities, particularly those of the Swedish and Austrian schools. After graduating with a first in 1941, Black continued as a postgraduate, researching the theories of Mountifort Longfield (qv), professor of political economy at Trinity (1832–6). Working long hours and through academic vacations, he submitted his Ph.D. thesis in April 1943.
He aspired to academia but jobs were scarce and he was reconciled to the Irish civil service, when Duncan unexpectedly took leave of absence in October 1943. Having previously been a tutor, Black was appointed Duncan's deputy, giving two-thirds of his lectures. Meanwhile, he investigated Longfield's influence over his Trinity successors, confirming his liking for economic history and bearing fruit in 1945 with the publication of a bibliography of the writings of Trinity economists and an influential article in the prestigious Economica journal. When Duncan returned in summer 1945, Black obtained an assistant lectureship in QUB, becoming lecturer a year later. Despite a heavy teaching workload, in the late 1940s he published further pieces on Trinity economists and an official history of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (SSISI). He came out of his shell and befriended other academic economists, particularly benefiting from regular private discussions with George O'Brien (qv).
His early reputation rested on his research into the formerly neglected Longfield, who he contended had departed radically from the orthodoxy, as represented by Ricardo's labour theory of value, in exploring the determination of market prices through the interaction of demand and supply with an emphasis on consumer demand, which was represented as a spectrum of potential buyers, each with different demand intensities. Black concluded that Longfield had devised a complete theory of marginal utility that anticipated by thirty-five years the 'marginal revolution' of the 1870s and inaugurated a Dublin school of economics, united by a more subjective approach to value. He also highlighted impressive contributions to international trade theory made by Longfield and other Trinity economists. After subsequent reappraisals of Ricardo revealed continuities with Longfield, Black admitted in 1971 that he overstated the revolutionary character of the latter's theories, which never included an explicit statement of diminishing marginal utility. Regardless, he lauded Longfield for achieving an inspired reinterpretation, rather than merely a logical development of Ricardo's doctrines.
Fascinated by the interaction between economic theory and policy, Black decided in the late 1940s to root it in a historic context, but was daunted by the range of sources involved and the difficulty of evaluating the indirect political influence of economic thought. His research prospects were transformed when he won a Rockefeller postdoctoral fellowship for 1950–51 at Princeton University, and Queen's permitted a then unheard of one-year leave of absence. His Princeton supervisor, Professor Jacob Viner, inculcated a greater degree of scholarly rigour and steered him towards examining the impact of classical economics on nineteenth-century Irish policymaking before dispatching him on a frenzied trawl of the major American libraries. In September 1951 he returned home with a suitcase full of notes and the benefit of discussions with eminent American economists.
He spent the next seven years fleshing out an in-depth account of the actions and thinking of nineteenth-century British legislators, administrators and theorists in relation to the Irish economy, the forty-five-page bibliography testifying to his exhaustive perusal of primary sources. Published in 1960, Economic thought and the Irish question, 1817–1870 ('ETIQ') represented a landmark not just in the study of applied economics, but also in general Irish history, exemplifying his lucidity, respect for sources, and refusal to be seduced by easy answers. As a case study in the relationship between economic theory and reality, he concluded that there was seepage in both directions, unfolding in a slow and confused fashion.
Advocating a form of economic relativism, ETIQ showed that a preponderance of economists regarded classical doctrines derived from English experience as having general validity and that the consequential promotion of large-scale farming and a purely commercial basis for landlord–tenant relations neglected deep-rooted social and cultural aspects of the Irish situation. Eschewing facile caricatures of laissez-faire dogmatists, and cognisant of the limitations of the nativist alternative of peasant proprietorship, he argued that the Victorians recognised Ireland's distinctiveness and countenanced state intervention, but only for the misguided purposes of imposing English institutional norms, and were too slow to reconsider as the practical difficulties became apparent. He believed that during the great famine (1845–9) it was not so much the original ideas, but their vulgarisation into rigid maxims, that restrained state officials from sanctioning desperately needed humanitarian measures.
While researching the voluminous economic material relating to nineteenth-century Ireland, he suffered from the scarcity of published bibliographies and the inadequacies of library catalogues. In 1958 he obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to produce a catalogue of all the economic pamphlets published during 1750–1900 held in Irish libraries, enabling him to hire a research assistant. Covering seventeen different libraries, the catalogue was published in 1969, the editing of the material taking as long as its compilation.
Upon examining in 1958 the papers of John Elliot Cairnes (qv), he was intrigued by correspondence with the pioneer of neoclassical economics, W. S. Jevons (1835–82), and, in searching for Cairns's replies, unearthed in July 1959 a trove of Jevons's papers, lecture notes and correspondence held by Jevons's grandniece Rosamund Konekamp. It was decided that the Royal Economic Society would publish a comprehensive edition edited by Black and Konekamp (the latter, however, dropped out in 1968 due to illness). Work began in earnest in 1961, but the first volume did not appear until 1972, followed by another six over the next nine years. Noting that, akin to cataloguing, editing was arduous, painstaking and indispensible, but relatively unrewarding in terms of academic reputation and career prospects, Black admitted that he would never have agreed had he grasped the magnitude of the task, involving not just the laborious massaging of the existing material but also, because Jevons did not keep copies of his dispatches, searches of other archives; discoveries therein necessitated the publication of two additional volumes.
While admitting that his editions contained no ideas of consequence not already in print, he upheld their value for delineating the intellectual, social and political milieu that shaped Jevons and for showing how his ideas evolved. He drew on this in a series of articles that considered Jevons in terms of what he was trying to accomplish and not in terms of what future economists steeped in neoclassical doctrine expected of him, arguing that he was simultaneously inspired and limited by Benthamite utilitarianism and preoccupied with a range of topics beyond value and distribution, notably the periodicity of trade cycles. This research subverted the notion of a 'marginal revolution', suggesting that the transition from classical to neoclassical was more of a process than an event.
Regretting the manner in which economists increasingly disparaged economic history as an arcane and irrelevant sub-discipline, he nonetheless bowed to reality in January 1968 by jointly initiating the first in an annual series of specialist conferences for historians of economic thought. Subsequently, he was involved in the establishment of the twice-yearly publication of the History of Economic Thought Newsletter and in organising a survey and listing of the surviving unpublished papers of British economists of 1750–1950. He was on the advisory board (1969–87) of the first specialist journal, History of Political Economy. Arguing that intellectual progress in his field was at times more circular than linear and driven as much by contemporary circumstance as by internal theoretical logic, he maintained that knowledge of economic history was crucial if practitioners were to avoid unwittingly recycling old ideas as novelties or succumbing to modish enthusiasms.
He enjoyed a distinguished academic career at QUB, being appointed senior lecturer (1958), reader (1961) and professor (1962), acting first as joint (1962–8) and then as sole head of the department of economics until his retirement in 1985, and also teaching at Yale University (1964–5). Conscientiously performing his lecturing and mentoring duties, he tactfully forestalled quarrels that might otherwise have arisen first from his joint authority with Jack Parkinson and then from the transition towards a more democratically administered department. He also undertook wider administrative responsibilities during a traumatic period for Queen's and Northern Ireland, serving as dean of the faculty of economics and social sciences (1967–70) and as pro-chancellor of the university (1971–5).
Appreciative of post-war academia for encouraging ambitious scholarly endeavours of prolonged duration, he lamented the onset of the 'publish or perish' model based on churning out short pieces necessarily limited in scope. That said, parallel and subsequent to his work on ETIQ and Jevons, he produced a stream of articles, ultimately either writing or editing over seventy publications, being facilitated by QUB's employment of research assistants from 1967, and especially by Jacqueline Bowen's continuance as his assistant for sixteen years from 1969.
Researching and writing up to 2002, latterly he ranged around nineteenth-century economic thought with an emphasis on the influence of utilitarianism and of the German historical school on Irish and British economists. Much of his material had a biographical flavour, rescuing from obscurity economists such as the monetary theorist Sir Ralph Hawtrey (1879–1975) and Hyde Clarke (1815–95), who explored the phenomena of natural cycles in economic activity. In his valedictory essay on Cliffe Leslie (qv), he asserted that economists needed to temper their mathematical methodology with the more inductive perspective provided by detailed historical research. Revelling in complexity and cautious in dealing with abstract issues, he accepted the worth of simplification for the purposes of mathematical modelling, but stressed that these had to be simplifications from reality, that data can be unreliable, and that economic situations cannot always be appraised in purely quantitative terms.
He was elected FBA (1974), MRIA (1974), honorary fellow of TCD (1982), and distinguished fellow of the History of Economics Society (1987); received an honorary D.Sc. from Queen's (1988); and was president of the SSISI (1983–6) and of Section F of the British Association (1984–5). Arising from his professorial status, he was involved in the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, was a member of the industrial court for Northern Ireland, and chaired the committee of inquiry into angling in Northern Ireland and the commission of inquiry into the establishment of a wages council in the catering industry in the province. He was chairman (1973–9) of the newly established committee for social research in Ireland. He joined the organisation Protestant and Catholic Encounter and participated in the 'What Price Peace' rallies in Belfast city hall in the 1970s.
In 1953 he married Frances Mary Weatherup. They lived in Malone Court, Belfast, and had two children. He died in Belfast on 7 December 2008. His papers and correspondence, comprising some 8,500 documents, are in PRONI.