Duncan, George Alexander (1902–2006), economist, was born 15 May 1902 in the family home in Bridge Street, Ballymena, Co. Antrim, the second son of Alexander Duncan, a physician and surgeon, and his wife Elizabeth (née Linn). He was educated at Ballymena Academy and Campbell College, Belfast, before becoming a junior entrance exhibitioner in TCD (1919) and a college scholar (1920). In 1923 he graduated with first class honours in both classics and legal and political science, was also moderator in both subjects, and was awarded the Berkeley medal in classics (1924). As a postgraduate, he studied economics, a subject in which he was largely self-taught. He received in 1924 a research fellowship from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, enabling him to study sociology and economics at the University of North Carolina for a year. In 1926 TCD appointed him lecturer in Indian law – the college still provided courses for the Indian Civil Service – and also one of two assistants to Charles Bastable (qv), professor of political economy in the newly instituted school of commerce. He became a fellow of TCD (1930) and MRIA (1932).
Along with Bastable's other assistant, Joseph Johnson (qv), Duncan pressed an unwilling TCD board to establish a school of economics and political science, which eventually emerged in 1932. Duncan was appointed professor of political economy in 1934, and under his vigorous leadership economics became a central subject in the college. Despite his having a heavy lecturing workload, his courses were meticulously prepared and delivered with flair, being notable for his masterly demolition of economic theories with which he disagreed and his unswerving adherence to laissez-faire. He encouraged intellectual curiosity and independence of thought, and was a conscientious mentor as well as a stern examiner: he always set six examination questions that had all to be answered. His most distinguished protégé, William Terence Gorman (qv), learned from him the importance of anchoring his quantitative expertise within a theoretical framework.
Duncan taught an eclectic and unconventional mix of continental theorisers, predominately Swedish and Austrian, such as Knut Wicksell, Gustav Cassel, Gunnar Myrdal, Erik Robert Lindahl, Bertil Ohlin, Eugene von Bohm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, Gottfried Haberler, and Friedrich Hayek. The main conduit for his exposure to these thinkers was the London School of Economics (LSE). Contra classical economics (which maintained a lingering influence within Anglo-American academia), the Austrian and Swedish schools shared a commitment to developing a theory of dynamic as opposed to static equilibrium and, instead of abstracting money and banking from their economic models, explored the manner in which the workings of the financial system created self-reinforcing disruptions to the natural relationship between savings and investment. Duncan eschewed teaching the conventional partial equilibrium approach, which was based on practical, intuitive arguments focused on representative conditions, and instead taught Cassel's general equilibrium theory, typifying the grander, more idealised outlook of the continental schools. Similarly, he taught money and banking in a manner that stressed the importance of institutions.
He published a pamphlet on international trade and occasional pieces in a number of prestigious Irish and English journals, his output progressing steadily from the late 1920s before tailing off in the 1940s. These articles dealt variously with Ireland's public finances, patterns of trade, currency, migratory patterns, population changes, national income, and banking system, as well as the impact of the second world war on the Irish economy. He chose narrow and factual topics and, while marshalling his arguments with care, couched his conclusions in bland and qualified terms, largely suppressing the provocative and bracing characteristics of his lectures and private conversations. His TCD colleague R. B. McDowell (1913–2011) held that the unambitious nature of his publications were not commensurate with his ability, and speculated that he applied to himself the withering criticisms he directed at others.
That said, his output in the 1930s helped to pioneer the move towards a more statistical and mathematical approach to economics in Ireland. In 1934 he published one of the first econometric pieces in Ireland, employing regression techniques and coefficients of correlation in order to estimate the demand curve of wheat in Britain from 1841 to 1929: it yielded what was for Duncan a surprisingly weak correlation between the price level and the supply of wheat. In 1937 he produced a statistical analysis of Ireland's balance of trade for the 1926–36 period indicating that the terms of trade had yet to recover from a sharp deterioration in 1931 and that protectionism had failed to alter the character of the state's foreign trade or to overturn its dependence on Britain. Arising from his work on the banking commission (see below), he published in 1939 an estimation of the national income of Ireland for the years 1926, 1929, 1931, 1933 and 1936–8, later publishing an estimate for 1938–40. Preceded only by the calculation for 1926 made by T. J. Kiernan (qv), this monumental labour suggested that national income at the end of the 1930s barely exceeded 1929 levels, and was cited authoritatively in public debates thereafter. However, some later economists disagree over the accuracy of Duncan's calculations, with some asserting that he understated national income by up to 10 per cent.
The Irish Times described him as 'a controversialist whose pungent taste for Gauloise cigarettes matches his astringent analysis of politico-economic aberrations' (17 May 1951). He found much to criticise in Irish government policy, particularly in attempts from the 1930s to use trade tariffs to promote indigenous industries, often in uneconomically remote rural locations. Maintaining that Ireland could only prosper through agricultural exports, he condemned protectionism as reflecting a sentimental, nationalist-driven mentality. As the great depression gathered momentum in the 1930s, he expressed the unpopular view (widely held within Ireland's economics professoriate) which maintained that the boom–slump sequence was an ineradicable feature of capitalism and that a period of austerity was necessary and inevitable as the market liquidated surplus stocks and investments. In opposition to this, prominent political, trade union, industrial, and religious elements accused the commercial banks of wilfully starving the domestic economy of capital and agitated for a 'social credit' policy, whereby a state-controlled banking system would provide additional credit to stimulate purchasing power, production and employment.
Duncan contemptuously dismissed social-credit advocates as unqualified cranks whose mystical conception of the workings of credit creation accorded bankers much more power than they actually possessed. His opinions on banking drew on both a strong indigenous tradition of financial conservatism and the business cycle theories of Mises and Hayek, which attributed depressions to unsustainable over-lending relative to the supply of savings and a concomitant misallocation of capital. He acknowledged that the financial system served to propagate and even to exacerbate the effect of business cycles, but denied that it generated them. Much to Duncan's approval, successive Irish governments tacitly sanctioned the banks' role as outlets for the exportation to Britain of most of the private capital accumulated in Ireland: he seemingly regarded Ireland's continued incorporation within British banking structures as an indispensible restraint on a feckless post-colonial polity. In 1944 an opposition spokesman was substantially correct when commenting that Duncan had long supported the government's financial and banking policies (or the lack thereof).
Reflecting this concurrence, he was appointed to the commission to inquire into banking, currency and credit, which sat from 1934 to 1938, and was largely comprised of conservative economists and bankers. In appendix 7 of the report, he estimated Irish national income for the years 1929 and 1931–5, demonstrating that the economy had declined, while in appendix 13, he outlined a detailed rebuttal of the social-credit principles elaborated by C. H. Douglas, which blamed the depression on a deficiency in the quantity of money. Duncan denied Douglas's claim that banks created income, contending instead that by providing credit facilities to customers, banks merely enabled them to anticipate expected income. Furthermore, he wrote personal addenda to the report that made severe judgements on state guarantees for trade loans of private businesses and on the establishment of state enterprises, and was particularly anxious that publicly supported companies be held to account by the dáil.
The report's mooted establishment of a central bank was ostensibly a radical step, and Duncan allowed that an independent central bank could usefully moderate fluctuations in the credit cycle, but he and his colleagues envisaged a weak institution controlled by private bankers and whose main function would be to pressure the government into balancing the budget, not to regulate the banking system. When a central bank was belatedly founded in 1942, he protested that, contrary to the banking report's advice, the government claimed the right to nominate a majority of the board of directors and that the central bank was given powers such as the right to demand a deposit from licensed bankers.
The 1938 banking commission report dashed widespread hopes for an interventionist monetary policy: some commissioners dissented from the findings and three minority reports were produced. In the ensuing furore, Duncan robustly defended the report and fulminated against a fairly minor rise in public debt, gaining notoriety as the most rigid and doctrinaire economist in the country. Further to his work on the banking commission, he sat on a commission on inquiry into Irish agriculture in the late 1930s, and wrote a government report in 1946 showing that the real wages of senior civil servants had halved since 1914 and advising against further steps to reduce civil-service wages; he also served briefly on the commission on demographics in 1948.
His synthesis of the Swedish and Austrian schools had placed him at the forefront of received economic opinion before the triumph of Keynesian macroeconomics in the late 1930s. Whereas his fellow travellers at the LSE were converted almost to a man, Duncan remained immune, maintaining that Keynesianism took an overly mechanistic view of the economy, privileged the demand for labour over maintaining an appropriate capital structure, and gave insufficient weight both to the qualitative distribution of government financial stimuli and to the importance of expectations in determining the success or failure of such stimuli. His suspicion that public investment programs would become wasteful sources of political patronage coloured his attitude towards Keynes (whose prescriptions assumed a more technocratic and less parochial-minded governing elite than that possessed by Ireland).
Duncan persisted in teaching and holding forth in an unrepentantly anti-Keynesian vein, impervious to the scorn of colleagues who, particularly from the 1950s, regarded his course material as hopelessly outdated. A two-year sabbatical (1943–5) from TCD working within the Ministry of Production in the UK helping to direct the British wartime economy conspicuously failed to reconcile him to state planning. He was elected to the council of the Irish Management Institute (IMI) in 1958, to the board of the Economic Research Institute (ERI) – latterly, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) – in 1960, and to the executive committee of the Irish Council of the European Movement in 1965, but did not play a significant role in any of these bodies, all exponents of the prevailing model of state-managed capitalism.
His intellectual isolation was offset by his membership of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international gathering of free-market economists that met annually from the late 1940s: members included Hayek, Mises and Milton Friedman. Reacting against the Keynesian orthodoxy, Hayek and Mises renewed the school of Austrian economics as a self-consciously heterodox, aggressively polemical and sharply distinct alternative. This development contributed towards Duncan's increasingly assertive libertarianism after 1945 and distrust of empirical statistical methodology as fundamentally unsound due to the ambiguity of economic data. In particular, he perceived the calculation of national aggregates as enabling Keynesian macroeconomics because by providing a simplified and reassuringly static economic vista, it lured policy makers into thinking in collectivist terms and believing they could successfully manipulate a market driven by subterranean microeconomic forces. Bound up with this was his distaste for economics' ongoing metamorphosis into a highly mathematised and specialised quasi-science, an attitude common among economists of his generation, most of whom had an undergraduate background in law or the humanities.
In the 1940s, debates of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (the main forum for serious economic discussion in Ireland) polarised between the competing worldviews of the pure economists and statisticians present, and particularly between Duncan and the head of the Central Statistics Office, Roy Geary (qv). In opposition to Geary's inductive methods, Duncan asserted the superiority of deductive reasoning derived from a broad set of immutable principles that are held to be self-evidently true. These philosophical differences were exacerbated by a personality clash between the prickly Duncan and the impish Geary, who believed his antagonist was in thrall to elegant theories that bore no relation to real-world circumstances.
Increasingly preoccupied with administration responsibilities within TCD during the latter part of his career, Duncan described himself as a vigorous internal critic of the complacent gerontocracy that controlled the college. Following the election of A. J. McConnell (qv) as provost in 1952, he was an important lieutenant to his fellow Ballymena man as he forced through much-needed constitutional reforms that overthrew the senior fellows' strangle-hold over the college administration. During this crucial period, Duncan served the college as registrar (1951–2), bursar (1952–7) and pro-chancellor (1965–72). As bursar, he demonstrated both his independence and his parsimonious approach to finance by refusing to authorise the purchase of a new Worcester china dinner set for the provost's house until McConnell agreed to pay for half the cost. In 1956 he also provoked a minor crisis by blocking the provost's nomination of a new registrar.
He retired from lecturing in 1967, dying in his home at Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin, on 14 January 2006. In 1932 he married Eileen Stone; they had a daughter, Margaret. His lengthy retirement bore witness to the high tide and abrupt retreat of Keynesianism amid renewed confidence in the self-regulating capabilities of free markets.
Although Duncan was too accepting of Ireland's status as a peripheral, agricultural economy, his relentless admonishments that the government should do no harm served at the outset of his career as a valuable corrective to the popularity enjoyed by eccentric, and innately anti-materialist, economic doctrines driven by underlying religious and nationalist agendas. Thereafter, ideological rigidity prevented him from responding constructively to the post-war emergence of a more pragmatic attitude towards economic development. The calcification of Duncan's early, intellectually vigorous progressivism into a self-enclosed, and at times wilfully contrarian, dogma is indicative of the manner in which the Austrian school's exponents shrank from the interventionist implications of their business cycle theories. Further confounded by the Keynesian macroeconomic dynamic, his fraternity reverted to a wholesale repudiation of statistical aggregates in order to shore up an unashamedly a-priori commitment to free markets. Many of his philosophical and practical objections astutely skewered economists' misplaced confidence in their ability both to capture economic realities and draw appropriate policy conclusions from the study and manipulation of data. But this methodological fundamentalism proved inherently self-marginalising at a time when his discipline's scientific pretensions were integral to its identity and prestige. Thus, his positive contribution to Irish life was curtailed and he was consigned to the status of an intellectual curio.
His published works include: 'Rural industries: an example from North Carolina', Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, xiv, no. 4 (1925–7), 331–51; 'State ownership versus private enterprise', Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, xxii, no. 88 (Dec. 1933), 576–90; 'The determination of demand curves in relation to wheat', Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, xv, no. 4 (1933–4), 43–60; 'The trade statistics of the Irish Free State: recent trends', ibid., xvi, no. 1 (1937–8), 1–6; 'The social income of the Irish Free State', ibid., xvi, no. 3 (1939–40), 1–16; 'The economics of war', Hermathena, xxviii (1939); 'Banks, central bank and state bank', Journal of the Institute of Bankers in Ireland (Apr. 1940), 84–97; 'Savings and investment', ibid. (Apr. 1941), 90–108; International trade (1946); 'Marshall aid', Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, xxviii, no. 3 (1949–50), 293–311; 'Growth delusions' in Friedrich August von Hayek (ed.), Towards liberty: essays in honor of Ludwig von Mises (1971), 133–9.