R. Max Hartwell, 1921-2009

Max Hartwell died at his home in England on March 14. He leaves a loving family and a legion of admirers and friends. I was blessed to know him—and to love him—for forty years.

A native of Australia, Max enjoyed a long, eventful life. Born and reared in the outback of New South Wales, he progressed to teacher training, school teaching, service in the army during the war, graduate training, and a life of productive scholarship in England and the United States. He was an outstanding economic historian and contributed greatly to the “Standard of Living Debate,” defending the view that the Industrial Revolution, far from having been a Marxist nightmare for the working class, was the means by which they were gradually lifted from the poverty that had been their lot from time immemorial. Max spent the heart of his career at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he trained a number of outstanding economic historians. Later, after his retirement from Oxford, he alternated between teaching at the University of Virginia and teaching at the University of Chicago.

Others will write full-fledged obituaries for him, I am confident. Here I wish only to recall how much I admired and loved him. He was one of the most decent people I ever knew. To be around him was always a joy, because Max was the very embodiment of a positive outlook and of sheer joie de vivre.

I met Max in 1969, when he came to Seattle during the summer, and he and I team-taught a graduate seminar in European economic history at the University of Washington, where I had joined the faculty the previous year. One of my first publications was a somewhat controversial review article we wrote together for the American Historical Review. Later, he invited me to Nuffield as a visiting fellow, and the time I spent there during 1971-72 was a landmark of my life and career. He delighted in advising and encouraging me, and in protecting me. More than once, at tea time at Nuffield, Max would sit silently while his fellow dons huffed and puffed about something in their characteristically arrogant way. Then, suddenly, Max would explode: “Bullshit!” Which always moved the conversation in a more illuminating direction.

I cherish countless stories Max told me of his life, career, travels, and people he knew. Max was the classical liberal’s classical liberal—always level-headed, always recalling the pitfalls that await every species of single-mindedness. I eventually became more radical than he, but I never lost an ounce of respect for his opinions. In the early 1990s, I was glad to participate in a Festschrift conference for him at the University of Virginia, where the assembled celebrants included some of the world’s leading figures in economics and economic history, each of whom held Max in the highest regard. Max would refer to me in public as his “co-author,” and I was always honored by this recognition. A longtime member of the Mont Pelerin Society, Max served as its president and wrote an excellent history of this important classical-liberal association, which I reviewed in an early issue of The Independent Review.

No one can replace Max; he was one of a kind. He was, in more ways than one, a brightly shining light in a world of darkness. He lived life to the full, and he was fortunate that his days were long and filled with the love of his family and his friends. Rest in peace, old friend.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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