In 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev knocked on Jan Tinbergen’s door in Haviklaan in The Hague. The Soviet Union had collapsed just a few months earlier. Now the last leader of the former superpower came to see the Dutch econometrist. Gorbachev said that his ideas on perestroika (reform) had been partly inspired by the theories of Jan Tinbergen (1903-1994). This is one of the titbits narrated in a brand new biography of Tinbergen written by Erwin Dekker, a historian of economic thought affiliated with Erasmus University. Tinbergen was a ‘leftist’ economist at the ‘rightist’ Netherlands School of Economics (NEH), one of the predecessors of the current Erasmus University. His name lives on at EUR in the Tinbergen Building, which was named after the iconic economist.

Erwin Dekker’s biography shows that Jan Tinbergen was definitely one of the most influential Dutch persons of the twentieth century. As the founder of the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, among other things, he put his mark on our country’s politics, where the models developed by the CPB came to determine the margins of government policies. Dekker shows how this inventor of national macro-economic models (who was honoured in 1969 with the first ever Nobel Prize awarded to an economist) became the architect of the new governance model, in which politicians were told to steer clear of trying to run the economy and leave the job to scientists instead. His work had a huge impact on organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank.

Take matters into your own hands

‘Tinbergen’s work on governance and the ability to control things was informed by the notion that we, humans, can determine our own fate. Tinbergen mocked the idea that we could predict the future. He told us to take matters into our own hands and steer the world and the economy in whatever direction we deemed most desirable. Planning, which was probably the most important word in his vocabulary, means setting goals and performing a rational search for those means we can use to attain those goals. German and Dutch have a great word to describe that hope, or rather that belief: Machbarkeit or maakbaarheid (‘makeability’ – ed.), which is to say, our ability to shape the social world. Modern economic expertise is built on that belief. Tinbergen gave us the language of policy goals and policy instruments, as well as the techniques that go with it.’

Hamer addresses Dekker after she has received the book. Image credit: Amber Leijen

This is how Dekker summarises Tinbergen’s idea of perfect science. Jan grew up in a social-democratic environment and became an active member of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). At the same time he was a member of the Remonstrant Fraternity, a protestant church that was partly founded on Erasmus’s Christian and humanist ideas. Tinbergen was an academic driven by social ideals and felt that academics should serve society. In his case, he believed that his job, as an expert, was to stop politicians from meddling in the economy and create policy instruments that would be devoid of political ideas. However, Erwin Dekker’s biography shows just how ‘political’ this notion of science was, and how it got Tinbergen into trouble.

Painful dichotomy

Not only did the Rotterdam-based econometrist have a great impact on the way in which the Netherlands was run, but his services as a scientist and expert were in high demand in other countries, as well. Dekker shows how Tinbergen served as an advisor to up-and-coming countries such as India, Turkey and Indonesia, and how his opinions clashed with the interests promoted by authoritarian leaders, who used his scientific ideas to further their own agendas. Sometimes the dichotomy between his scientific ideals and political practice was downright painful, such as when, in 1970, Tinbergen accepted an honorary doctorate in Spain, which was then ruled by the fascist dictator Franco. But the academic did know how to build bridges, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit later demonstrated.

After his death in 1994, Tinbergen was called ‘a modern-day saint’ by former CPB Director and VVD Minister Gerrit Zalm. In our country, model-based thinking was mainly popular after Tinbergen’s passing in neo-liberal circles, where his ideas on governance by experts were incorporated into a ‘more-market-and-less-government’ ideology – an ideology that is quite at odds with Tinbergen’s social-democratic ideals. The CPB became a driver of market reasoning, which marked a departure from Tinbergen’s ideas on makeability and social planning.

Erwin Dekker’s biography should be required reading for all the many economists attending and working at this university, but basically ought to be read by all Erasmus University staff and students. The life and work of this icon of our university show how the ‘Erasmian values’ of enterprising, connecting and open-minded world citizens and social engagement can be used in daily practice and what this could mean for science.

Ronald van Raak is Professor of Erasmian Values at the Erasmus School of Philosophy. He previously wrote an article on Sandra Langereis’ biography of Erasmus.


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