John Bates Clark

The American economist John Bates Clark (1847-1938) was the first economic theorist from the United States to achieve an international reputation.

John Bates Clark was born and raised in Providence, R. I. In 1872, after an absence due to his father's illness and death, Clark graduated from Amherst College. Abandoning earlier plans to enter divinity school, he turned to economics. From 1872 to 1875 he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Karl Knies, leader of the German historical school, and at the University of Zurich.

On his return Clark participated actively in the creation of a "new" economics, becoming the third president of the young reformers' American Economic Association. He was professor of history and political economy at Carleton College until 1882. He then taught at Smith College, Amherst, and Johns Hopkins University. From 1895 until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1923, Clark was part of the influential faculty of political science at Columbia University, where he edited the Political Science Quarterly (1895-1911). After 1911 he devoted himself to pacifist causes and served as the first director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Near the turn of the century, rapid industrial development and serious discontent, especially with the anomalous distribution of wealth, prompted Clark to examine problems of production and distribution. The indisputable influence which he exercised upon at least a generation of economists lay more in his development of analytical tools than in the conclusions he drew from them. Through his marginal utility principle, developed independently of Léon Walras, Carl Menger, and W. S. Jevons, Clark became the leading theorist of a marginal productivity theory of distribution which idealized the relationship between income and an individual's contribution to goods or services.

Clark's first important work, The Philosophy of Wealth (1885), attacking the hedonistic and atomistic assumptions of classical economics, attempted to tie economics to social ethics. Clark's major contribution, The Distribution of Wealth (1899), discarded his early reformist tendencies to present a deductive system of economic harmony based upon the competition of rational, self-interested men inevitably progressing. Clark began by assuming that society was a biological organism subject to collective moral judgment. Then he divided economics into "static" and "dynamic" analysis, a distinction which continues to characterize American economics. Clark's own analysis was a static description of economic laws in an unchanging society where perfect competition led to economic equilibrium. Static phenomena were not analytical abstractions but real economic forces isolated from dynamic laws of social change so that the mechanics of distribution were revealed. Dynamic laws, to be discovered by future generations using refined empirical techniques, were formulated tentatively by Clark in the last chapters of Distribution and in his later Essentials of Economic Theory (1907) on the basis of static economics and an optimistic justification of the status quo. To Clark, population growth, improvement in tastes, capital accumulation, technological innovation, and industrial organization were dynamic, necessarily progressive forces.

Clark's other important works included The Modern Distributive Process (with Franklin H. Giddings, 1888); The Control of Trusts (1901); The Problem of Monopoly (1904), influential in the antitrust legislation of 1914; Social Justice without Socialism (1914); and A Tender of Peace.

Further Reading on John Bates Clark

There is no biography of Clark. The essay on Clark in Paul T. Homan, Contemporary Economic Thought (1928), remains the clearest exposition of his economic theory. The discussion by Clark's distinguished economist son, "J. M. Clark on J. B. Clark," in Henry W. Spiegel, ed., The Development of Economic Thought: Great Economists in Perspective (1952; abr. ed. 1964), is warm, filial, and defensive but not very useful. John Rutherford Everett, Religion in Economics: A Study of John Bates Clark, Richard T. Ely, Simon N. Patten (1946), lifts whole sections from other commentators without adding anything new. Jacob H. Hollander, ed., Economic Essays Contributed in Honor of J. B. Clark (1967), which includes a brief memoir by Hollander, shows the development of Clark's thought.

Additional Biography Sources

Henry, John F., John Bates Clark: the making of a neoclassical economist, New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995.