Eulogy for John Pullen, Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia, August 2022

On behalf of HETSA (History of Economic Thought Society of Australia) and colleague of John Pullen I express condolences to friends and family on his death and to speak in celebration of a professional aspect of his life.

John is one of the father figures of the history of economic thought community of Australia, being a major figure in the establishment of HETSA. He was the first editor of the Society’s original journal, HETSA Bulletin, from 1987 to 1991, and was then responsible for re-naming the journal the History of Economics Review when it was re-launched in 1991 and which as Australia’s HET journal it has since continued strongly up to today. The inaugural meeting at which HETSA was established in 1981 was organized and hosted by John at the University of New England. I was told by some who attended that famous first meeting – of which I think there is now only four living survivors – that its great success was much owed to it being held adjacent to an easily accessible and well stocked bar. For it was a character of this newly created society that a number of its senior members (i.e. Professors) were hearty drinkers. Indeed, it was a hallmark of the early bi-annual held meetings of HETSA in the 1980s and 90s that a lot of alcohol was consumed. By contrast, John was always a moderate drinker and it’s a reflection of his even and tolerant temperament that he could get on so well with at times inebriated academic colleagues, especially those boisterous ones from Sydney (some of whom adhered to the ‘theory of critical drinking’). Quietly spoken, John was a real gentleman and one who could take great amusement from observing joyous though at times riotous behavior around him.

There is no doubt John loved attending HETSA conferences and there are few of the 33 that have been held at which he was absent. Besides the inaugural conference, he also organized the 15th conference at the University of New England in 2002, which I recall was a great success. He also contributed over twenty articles and book reviews that have been published in the Society’s History of Economics Review journal. For his great contributions to the society, he was made a HETSA Distinguished Fellow in 2010, of which only seven have been so far awarded.    

Of a later generation, I first met John at the University of Sydney in the late 1980s at a one-day HET conference organized by my mentor and scholarly giant in the international community, Peter Groenewegen. At that meeting John was proudly introduced to me by Groenewegen as an expert on T.R. Malthus (1766-1834), the British classical economist of the early nineteenth century who was famous for his rather pessimistic theory of population. A man of the cloth, who was appointed the first professor of the East India Company in 1806, Malthus was a major figure in the ‘golden age’ of classical economics – only seconded to David Ricardo, his friend and ‘star’ economist of this age.

John became the chief authority on Malthus in the international HET community, relentlessly promoting the contributions of this somewhat neglected classical economist. From his first article in 1978, John authored or co-authored over 35 publications on Malthus. These publications cover nearly all aspects of Malthus’s life from his financial affairs, his relationship with his parents, on his library, on his theological views and how it affected his economics, and of course goes to Malthus’s contribution to economics, on Malthus’s famous pessimistic population theory, on his method of analysis and various aspects of his theory, including his opposition to Says Law, his theory of growth and his position on the distribution of income. In many of his publications John was concerned with correcting misconceptions in the literature about Malthus.  Among his most important published work on Malthus is his Variorum Edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy, originally in two editions of 1820 and 1836, published in two volumes by Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society, in 1989. This variorum edition is a requirement for any serious scholar of Malthus. As joint editor, John was also responsible for bringing to publication the most significant of Malthus’s ‘unpublished papers’ of his collected works held at Kanto Gakuen University, in Osaka, Japan. It was in connection to this work that John cultivated a following among a number of Japanese scholars of Malthus. The other major work on Malthus is The Macroeconomics of Malthus, which he published only recently in 2021. In this work John was intent on presenting the gamut of Malthus’s contribution to the macro aspects of economic thought within the classical tradition and to show their relevance to contemporary debate.

While Malthus was John’s true love in research, he did pursue other interests on which he published. Besides the history of economic thought, John was a longstanding teacher in urban studies at UNE. Early in his career John published on issues connected with urban development and land use and then later took an interest in Henry George and his views on land value and Georgist reforms of property rights and on land tax. Indeed, John published several articles on Henry George as well as the book, Natures Gift, in 2014, comprising the Australian lectures of Henry George on the ownership of land and other natural resources. Another major work by John was his book, The Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution: A Critical History, published in 2009, which both surveyed the literature pertaining to this dominant theory of distribution but also criticized it for neither being valid ‘as a normative theory of social justice, nor as a positive law of economics’. This work reflects John’s deep concern about the distribution of income in society – specifically, with its unequal distribution.  

Only a few years ago I had the good fortune of corresponding with, and, in face-to-face meetings, discuss Malthus with John as a consequence of a draft paper I had written on Malthus’s under-consumption theory of growth. John very kindly made some suggestions to improve the paper and encouraged me to submit it for publication. On one point we had a disagreement in which I tried to press my argument, and while he considered my argument novel which threw an interesting light on interpreting Malthus, he stuck to his position and, in turn, attempted to gently persuade me of its greater validity. Indeed, I recall that in those conversations John enjoyed nothing more than discussing Malthus.                               

John Pullen was one of most collegial and even-tempered men I have ever met. On his collegiality, I can refer to the experience related by Scott Carter, Professor of Economics at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, given in response to the announcement of his death:

I share the sadness of hearing the news of the passing of John Pullen and send condolences to his friends, colleagues, and family. It no doubt takes not a small degree of courage to write in any laudatory manner about Malthus as the Parson is often reviled on all sides of the various theoretical divides. Pullen was very kind when a decade ago in my own effort to better understand Malthus’s contribution to the theory of value I reached out with queries; his counsel was very useful and with it I was able to explore a side to Malthus and ergo the labour commanded theory of value that my own Marxian proclivities and prejudices had not at that point allowed me to pursue with the openness of mind that such study requires.  

To sum up, John Pullen was a ‘gentlemen and scholar’ and he will be forever missed by the HET community and, moreover, he will be missed as a most collegial participant at our annual HETSA conferences.  

Matthew Smith, 8 August 2022