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Elizabeth Durbin

Elizabeth Durbin

Elizabeth Durbin, the daughter of Evan Durbin and Marjorie Durbin, the daughter of Charles Ernest Green, a teacher, in 1937. Her father was a Labour Party activist and had written The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940). (1) Durbin believed that socialism meant not just a more productive society, but a living world in which "men and women may sing at their work and children may laugh at their play". (2)

According to his biographer, Catherine Ellis the marriage was a happy one: "He (Evan Durbin) thrived on family life, enjoying the company of his wife and their three children, two daughters and one son. His openness and capacity for enjoyment attracted a wide circle of friends, among them historians, sociologists, and political scientists. He loved the countryside and the cinema, enjoyed playing racquet sports (though with little skill), and had a passion for detective stories." He once remarked to a friend, "The three greatest pleasures in my life are food, sleep and sex". (3)

Evan Durbin became the Labour MP for Edmonton in the 1945 General Election. Evan was on holiday in Bude, with his wife and three children, Jocelyn (11), Elizabeth (10) and Geoffrey (2) in the summer of 1948. On 3rd September, 1948, the family were on the beach at Crackington Haven when Jocelyn got into difficulties in the sea. Durbin raced in and saved his daughter from drowning. He then returned and brought out another young girl, Tessa Alger. A doctor on the beach reported that after "placing the child safely on a rock" he returned to save other children in difficulties. Unfortunately, he was caught in a strong current and swept out to sea. (4)

Elizabeth Durbin attended Somerville College and received her B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University. She then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University. In 1970 she became Professor of Economics at the Graduate School of Public Administration, New York University: "In addition to serving with distinction at NYU, Professor Durbin served as visiting professor to the Ukrainian Academy of Public Administration, the University of Rome and Bocconi University in Milan. A social activist and a champion of the rights of women and minorities, she devoloped an innovative curriculum on the role of women in management in the public sector at the Wagner School, and served as a convenor of the Children and Families at Risk in the City project at the NYU Taub Urban Research Center." (5)

In 1985 Durbin published New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985). The book looks at a group of economists who in the 1930s undertook a deliberate search for a viable economic programme to introduce democratic socialism to Britain. This included her father, Evan Durbin, Hugh Gaitskell, Hugh Dalton, George Douglas Cole and Richard Tawney.

Elizabeth Durbin died on 25th January, 1999.

The tragic death of Evan Durbin has come as a great shock to me, as I had a great admiration and affections for him. He gave unstinting service to the movement generally and, during a period when I was a member of the War Cabinet, he gave me not admirable service, particularly in relation to many economic matters...

He had a brilliant academic career at Oxford. His writings reveal wide knowledge and, in my view, great wisdom. He was an admirable exponent of democratic socialism. He was showing great promise in his work as a Junior Minister and would, undoubtedly, had he been spared, have attained high office.

This book examines in detail the intellectual process of economic policy making within the British Labour party during the 1930s. There are two central issues which all democratic political parties face in designing an economic policy: how they should respond to the demands of the electorate, and how they propose to intervene in the economic system. Parties committed to major social reform must also deal with a third issue - how to introduce those changes. Opinions about economic policy are thus influenced by the political and social views of the policy makers and by the nature of the economic, political and social problems which the society faces.

The interactions between economic thinking and policy making are complicated, yet they receive little systematic attention from economists and remain something of a mystery to non-economists. Economic theories shape the causal explanations which economists bring to analyse the economic problems, while political, social and moral values determine their goals and thus influence their policy recommendations. However, the focus on particular problems, the choice between different economic means, and even the use of one economic model rather than another, may also be affected by the values of the economic adviser and by the policy process itself. A second objective of this book is therefore to clarify these complexities and to understand the limitations of economics in policy formation. It is hoped that by using this period as a kind of case study more general conclusions can be drawn about the problems of finding consistent economic policies which may reduce economic and social injustice and help bring about change in advanced industrialized democracies.

Under the threat of war with the fascists, Durbin was also concerned about the personal motivations which led to aggressive behaviour. In close collaboration with John Bowlby and George Catlin, he pursued research into its psychological causes. They organized a symposium on war and democracy, and invited contributions from their friends and fellow discussants. The result was published as a book in 1937. According to Bowlby, all the reviewers remarked on the very varying quality of the papers. Consequently, in 1938 the publisher decided to reprint only the Durbin and Bowlby papers under the title, Personal Aggressiveness and War. It is an impressive study, the first of its kind. Bowlby is still proud of its contribution, although he now thinks rather differently about the content. In the Politics of Democratic Socialism, Durbin built on this work to identify the social institution of government as "a potent cause of peace" and to emphasize the unconscious emotional education and the irrational motivations of social groups. He concluded that "the categories of rational thought and conscious purpose are not sufficient by themselves to make social behaviour intelligible or the choice of policy well grounded".

It is clear from his rediscovered notes that Durbin defined efficiency more broadly than did orthodox economists, and more scientifically than Cole. Under a chapter heading, The General Conditions of Economic Efficiency, he listed six problems which any system faced: the distribution of human resources including such matters as training, selection and "the random distribution curves of human gifts"; the provision of the best incentives; the best organization of the production units; the principles of sound and economic accountancy; and the preservation of adequate investment, full employment and foreign trade. The most innovative contribution in these notes is undoubtedly his lengthy discussion of the necessary forms of organization and motivation to make the system operational; even today its approach is unique and many of its conclusions prophetic.

Durbin considered that the questions of organization and motivation in the planned economy were inseparable, and raised four main problems: (1) How the representative production unit is to be organized; (2) How will the central machinery of planning be constructed; (3) The general problem of incentive; (4) Particular problem of workers' control.

He also believed that these questions were all fundamentally psychological in origin, and that their answers were dependent upon the existing nature of political institutions. Thus, Durbin introduced psychology and political science to his analysis of efficiency. However, he hastened to point out that as yet there were no general theories of individual or group behaviour; in particular, he warned economists against dogmatism on the issues, taking Professor Robbins to task for assuming that "people will always behave stupidly in the mass" and resist changes in the common interest. Since the contemplation of dictatorship of the communist or fascist type made him "feel sick", Durbin concentrated his own analysis upon democratic forms of incentive and control.

For the purposes of his investigation Durbin assumed that planned democratic economics would preserve the principle of "earnings differing according to ability", and that discipline in the workplace could not be solved by the direct election of workers (democracy does not mean that "the unruly crowd elects its own policemen, criminals elect their own wardens"). Managerial efficiency would require decentralized administration to provide responsibility and a central inspectorate to assess efficiency, to guard against bureaucratic red tape and to ensure accountability. He concluded that the necessary machinery and incentives for individual production units were clear. He also believed in a comprehensive system of consultation, an extension of the works councils, and even some workers' involvement in "the normal conduct of discipline". However, he was adamant that on all cost matters of common social concern, such as wages, hours and the mobility of labour, "the last word must rest with the representives of society - and not with the sub-groups of economic interest within it".

The dean, faculty, students and alumni of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU mourn the sudden passing of our esteemed colleague. Professor Durbin received her B.A. from Oxford University, and her Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University, as well as numerous academic honors, including a Fulbright Travel Grant and President's Fellowship from Columbia University. In addition to serving with distinction at NYU, Professor Durbin served as visiting professor to the Ukrainian Academy of Public Administration, the University of Rome and Bocconi University in Milan. A social activist and a champion of the rights of women and minorities, she devoloped an innovative curriculum on the role of women in management in the public sector at the Wagner School, and served as a convenor of the Children and Families at Risk in the City project at the NYU Taub Urban Research Center. She wrote extensively on the issues of poverty and welfare, and the political struggles of the British Labour Party. Her most recent book, ''New Jersualems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism,'' chronicled the British Labour movement through the 1930s, and in the post-war era. Her late father, Evan Durbin, was a Labour Party Member of Parliament and one of the leaders of a group of Labour Party economists who helped design the party's platform that was carried out by the post-war Labour government.

(1) David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007) page 38

(2) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 114

(3) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) The Birmingham Daily Gazette (4th September, 1948)

(5) The New York Times (28th January, 1999)

John Simkin


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