John Gould brought a new professionalism to the study and promotion of economic history in New Zealand. The New Zealand university economics curriculum had long had a component of economic history, and New Zealand economists in the first half of the twentieth century made serious and significant studies of history. John Gould, however, introduced a much stronger base of integration with international thinking in economic history itself. He did so without, as happened in some
European centres of economic history, losing the advantages of the earlier homespun linking of economic history with economics as a whole. While consistently denying that he is an economist, he used economic thinking to advance knowledge, taught economists the value of understanding the historical context in which they worked, and himself added to knowledge of important economic processes in both New Zealand and internationally.
John’s education in London and Bristol was extended by war service. His final examinations extended in the English manner to material studied several years earlier and separated by demanding military duties. That nevertheless provoked nothing more than a wry smile as he listened and responded with his characteristic deliberation and fairness to student complaints about the extension of examinations over a few weeks. He even retained his equanimity as he listened to complaints about two examination papers being scheduled on one day, having himself sat 10 papers in 5 days within an 8 day period.
John’s first employment was in what was then called “adult education”. He brought to it a social passion which has never been extinguished and which sometimes surprised colleagues who thought that his courteous manner and apparent caution were indicators of political conservativism. He also brought to it a scholarly insistence on enquiry and respect for empirical observation. Among his earliest publications was a careful study of exactly who was most likely to participate in university opportunities for mature students.
It was a post in Adult Education at the University of Auckland which brought John to New Zealand. However, he maintained his research in economic history. His first studies were in Tudor and Stuart economic history, involving many hours in libraries and archives, and focusing on locating and interpreting evidence which enabled one to discriminate among competing hypotheses about economies very different from modern ones. But there were links to modern economic thinking too – one of John’s early discoveries was that Thomas Mun’s England’s Treasure by Foreign Trade, an important precursor of the thought that came to dominate modern economics as the theory of comparative advantage, was written about 40 years earlier than commonly thought and owed a great deal to commercial experience in England in the 1620s. Most of the big discoveries in economics have come from studying the world with economic knowledge rather than from seeking to resolve puzzles in the literature. More generally, the institutional thinking which so strongly influenced economic theory from the 1970s onwards came as no surprise to those who were introduced by John to the economic history of Tudor and Stuart England. His work in the area culminated in his The Great Debasement (1970) which would still be enormously valuable to many who write about seignorage and inflation taxes. His insistence on clarifying different questions is exemplary.
So was the way he kept abreast of his discipline. While inclined to call himself a “steam-age” economic historian, his response to new applications of economic and statistical techniques was to assimilate their results into knowledge, recognising their merits and exploring their limitations. His “comment” on an early piece of econometric history, in which he relied on logic, arithmetic and respect for historical sources, was unanswerable. It was also positive in advancing knowledge, not destructive of innovatory techniques.
His continued research and growing reputation in economic history led to John’s transition in 1961 to a Senior Lectureship in Economics at Victoria University of Wellington. In 1963, when a second chair of Economics was established, he was appointed as New Zealand’s first Professor of Economic History. For over twenty years, he developed courses in economic history which served the subject itself and also kept it alive for economists, historians and others with an intelligent interest in human affairs. He also played significant administrative roles, eventually being a member of the University Grants Committee and then writing a history of its first 25 years, which gained added significance when those proved to be almost the same as the UGC’s last 25 years.
John’s scholarly interests turned towards New Zealand economic history and the international experience of economic growth. His acquaintance with the leading edge of scholarship in economic history, especially his expertise in combining theoretical constructs with documentary sources, enabled him to make significant advances in our understanding of how New Zealand grew economically. So we gained new knowledge about how pasture formation related to capital formation in the nineteenth century, and we learned a new perspective on how the distribution of landholdings related to both market incentives and political campaigns. While the “bursting-up of the Great Estates” as the triumph of certain politicians lives on in romantic nostalgia, scholarly knowledge was changed forever by John’s work. His article in the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand remains one of the best vehicles for distinguishing romanticism from historical reality in assessing the impact of the First Labour Government and his studies of The Rake’s Progress: The New Zealand Economy Since 1945 (1982) and The Muldoon Years (1985) will endure as informed and judicious analyses.
Although he always put New Zealand in its international context, John’s research interests also extended directly to experience elsewhere. His Economic Growth in History (1972) is a major achievement in bringing historical knowledge to bear on the major issue of the time, the experience of economic growth. It is essentially an application of the production function approach to the historical record and it can be seen as being in the tradition of Belshaw’s study of the consumption function and the earlier tradition of an interest by leading New Zealand economists in historical experience. But it is interesting to compare Economic Growth in History with Simon Kuznets Modern Economic Growth (1966), the culmination of Kuznets’ work on the empirical record of national income accounting over time, The Kuznets work is rightly celebrated but here is more sense of change over time in Economic Growth in History. It is a product of its time, and later developments have altered the balance of attention to be given to the decisions of producers relative to the choices of consumers, and to the responsibility of governments to manage risk relative to utilization of market instruments, but interest in Economic Growth in History will never be entirely confined to antiquarians.
In John’s study of both New Zealand economic history and the international experience of economic growth, migration was especially significant. He had both a personal and a professional interest in the process of migration. As always the professional dominated. John’s studies of migration were appropriately nuanced on questions such as whether receiving economies always benefited, but there was relatively little tension between personal and professional interests as he explored the motivations, mechanisms and consequences of international migration as a whole. His five linked articles in Journal of European Economic History constitute a monumental achievement.
Since his formal retirement, John has continued to research and publish on significant issues which attract his attention and interest. His work is always characterized by rigorous logic and careful observation. That remains true when venturing into an area which can be controversial and even incendiary such as how we define and measure the number of Maori and other issues of ethnicity.
John says that he has investigated and written about whatever interests him. He has also said that his first preference was to be a concert pianist but that he rightly accepted advice that he would have more material comfort in other pursuits. Nevertheless, he characteristically retained his skills as a pianist, and has recently combined his interests and skills by analyzing the repertoires of piano recitals in the nineteenth century.
We have benefited from John Gould’s wide interests and varied expertise and even more from his ability to bring them to bear on whatever interested him and which also contributed significantly to our understanding of New Zealand and its place in the world. John Gould is rightly acknowledged as a Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists.