Heckscher, Eli

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Heckscher, Eli



Eli F. Heckscher (1879–1952) was from the beginning of his academic studies at the University of Uppsala (Sweden) both an economist and a historian. A distinctive feature of his life work was his insistence on the importance of both economic theory and statistical evidence to economic history. He first stated this position in his dissertation Till belysning af jarnvagarnas betydelse for Sveriges ekonomiska utveckling (1907; “The Contribution of the Railroads to Swedish Economic Growth”) and later expressed it in the acknowledgment of his debts to Alfred Marshall and William Cunningham, one a theorist and the other a historian.

In 1909 Heckscher became the first professor of economics and statistics at the new business school in Stockholm, and twenty years later a personal chair was created for him as the head of the Stockholm Institute for Economic History.

Heckscher’s passionate involvement with the central issues of Swedish economic and social policy throughout the first half of the twentieth century produced a steady flow of pamphlets and articles, and even an incomplete bibliography contains 1,148 items (Ekonomisk-historiska Institutet, Stockholm 1950). As a publicist he was independent of political parties and spoke from a position of laissez-faire liberalism. He considered state intervention proper to few areas other than education and basic social legislation, although he did advocate strong government measures to maintain competition. He was orthodox in monetary and fiscal matters; he championed the restoration of the gold standard in the 1920s and objected to deficit finance in the 1930s.

The application of economics to problems of policy and history was more congenial to Heckscher than the development of pure theory. His most important theoretical contribution, an article entitled “The Effect of Foreign Trade on the Distribution of Income” (1919), was, in fact, provoked by Knut Wicksell’s review of a collection of his essays on Swedish economic policy. In this article Heckscher stressed the role of factor endowments in giving rise to comparative advantage. His purpose was to establish that free trade, possibly combined with a policy of redistributive taxation, was preferable to protection, which would give rise to economic loss for the country as a whole. Elaborated by Bertil Ohlin, the argument came to be known as the Heckscher-Ohlin theorem about the tendency, on certain assumptions, for the prices of factors of production to move toward equality as the result of trade in commodities.

In his teaching, articles, and essays, Heckscher roamed the entire span of Western economic history, but he made his main scholarly contributions in two specific fields. His active concern with public affairs led him first to the historical study of economic policy. His Continental System (1918), written during World War i concurrently with a study of war economics, remains the classic interpretation of Napoleonic policy, although he has been charged with dismissing too lightly the potential danger to the English economy. It was, however, as the author of the monumental study of Mercantilism (1931) that Heckscher secured a lasting international reputation. Conceived as a study of the intellectual history of European economic policy between the Middle Ages and the coming of laisSez-faire, this extensive analysis of the objectives and the rationale of mercantilism united strands of earlier appraisals. Like Schmoller and Cunningham, Heckscher regarded the pursuit of power and national unification as the main spring of mercantilist policy; like Adam Smith he found protectionism and erroneous monetary conceptions to be central and objectionable features of the “mercantile system” of commercial policy.

In spite of his exposure of the intellectual crudeness of mercantilist doctrine and despite his own distrust of regulatory policy, the doctrine emerged in Heckscher’s treatment as a comprehensive view of economic life rather than a system of random fallacies. Indeed, since he believed that the concept of “mercantilism” explains the general characteristics of European history at that time, he stressed the uniformity rather than the diversity of national economic policies. Later criticism and controversy arose from Heckscher’s emphasis on economic ideas, i.e., his refusal to explain economic policy in terms of particular conditions and interests, which he regarded as of secondary importance compared to the prevailing conception of economic facts and relationships.

Heckscher’s second field of major achievement was his pathbreaking economic history of Sweden. His magnum opus on Sveriges ekonomiska historia fran Gustav Vasa (1935–1949) was to remain unfinished; but his shorter history of Swedish economic growth (1941a) constitutes the first survey of its kind. The backwardness of the medieval Swedish economy relative to the European continental countries and the lateness and rapidity of Swedish industrialization were the problems that Heckscher attacked, with a rare attention to both details and the grand design. Although his humanism and erudition led him into every branch of historical inquiry, his scholarly credo stressed the importance of quantifiable evidence. The relatively rich material on Swedish demographic conditions since the early eighteenth century provided him with especially valuable material, but he also studied every aspect of the economy by his creative statistical use of archival sources.

Heckscher’s view of Swedish economic history has on several points been revised by later research. (See the appendices to the second Swedish edition of Svenskt arbete och liv 1941b.) This does not detract from its significance as a point of departure for any interpretation of the growth of the Swedish economy. Some of Heckscher’s statistical analyses —for instance, his studies of the role and prevalence of “natural economy” in fiscal administration and of the structure of Swedish foreign trade in the sixteenth century, and his Malthusian analysis of Swedish population movements in the eighteenth century—have, of course, been modified or replaced. However, such revisions are in the spirit of Heckscher’s own achievement and are therefore a tribute to it rather than a rejection.

Goran Ohlin

[Directly related are the entriesEconomic thought; article onMercantilist thought; International trade; and the biographies ofCunningham; Mar shall; Smith, Adam.]


1907 Till belysning af järnvägarnas betydelse för Sveriges ekonomiska utveckling. Stockholm: Centraltryckeriet.

(1918) 1922 The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation. Edited by Harald Westergaard. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Milford. → First published in Swedish.

(1919) 1949 The Effect of Foreign Trade on the Distribution of Income. Pages 272-300 in American Economic Association, Readings in the Theory of International Trade. Philadelphia: Blakiston. → First published in Swedish.

(1929) 1953 A Plea for Theory in Economic History. Pages 421-430 in Frederic C. Lane and Jelle C. Riemersma (editors), Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History. Homewood, 111.: Irwin.

(1931) 1955 Mercantilism. 2 vols., rev. ed. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published in Swedish.

1935-1949 Sveriges ekonomiska historia fran Gustav Vasa. 4 vols. Stockholm: Bonnier. → Volumes 1-2: Före frihetstiden. Volumes 3-4: Det moderna Sveriges grundläggning.

(1941a) 1954 An Economic History of Sweden. Translated by Goran Ohlin, with a supplement by Gunnar Heckscher and a preface by Alexander Gerschenkron. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published as Svenskt arbete och liv.

(1941b) 1957 Svenskt arbete och liv fran medeltiden till nutiden. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Stockholm. Bonnier. → See especially the appendices to the 1957 edition.


Coleman, Donald C. 1957 Eli Heckscher and the Idea of Mercantilism. Scandinavian Economic History Review 5, no. 1:3–25.

Ekonomisk-histobiska Institutet, Stockholm 1950 Eli F. Heckschers bibliografi: 1897–1949. Stockholm: The Institute.

Gerschenkron, Alexander A. 1954 Preface. In Eli F. Heckscher, An Economic History of Sweden. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.