Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Giffen, Robert
GIFFEN, Sir ROBERT (1837–1910), economist and statistician, born at Strathaven, Lanarkshire, on 22 July 1837, was younger son of Robert Giffen, a small merchant and an elder of the presbyterian church, by his wife Janet Wiseman. Robert was educated at the village school and was put in charge of the Sunday-school library with an elder brother, John, who, destined for the ministry, died prematurely of consumption. The boys read all the books they could find, and wrote anonymously short articles and poems for a Hamilton newspaper. In 1850 Robert was apprenticed to a lawyer in Strathaven. Three years later he removed to a lawyer's office in Glasgow, and remained there seven years, attending lectures occasionally at the university. William Black [q. v. Suppl. I], the novelist, was one of his closest Glasgow friends (Reid, William Black, p. 18). In 1860 he definitely adopted journalism as a profession, becoming a reporter and sub-editor of the 'Stirling Journal.' In 1862 he came to London as sub-editor of the 'Globe' (1862-6). After serving for a time with Mr. John (afterwards Viscount) Morley on the 'Fortnightly Review' he joined the staff of the 'Economist,' under Walter Bagehot [q. v.], as assistant-editor (1868-76), writing the City article from 1870 to 1876. He was also, from 1873 to 1876, City editor of the 'Daily News,' contributed to 'The Times' and the 'Spectator,' and was one of the founders of the 'Statist' in 1878. Goschen, in his classical 'Report on Local Taxation' (1871), acknowledged indebtedness to Giffen for assistance in the collection of historical material and in the compilation of the tables in the appendices. In 1876 Giffen was appointed to the board of trade as chief of the statistical department and controller of corn returns. In 1882 the commercial department of the board of trade, the main work of which had since 1876 been entrusted to the foreign office, was restored and united to the statistical department under Giffen, who became an assistant-secretary to the board. In 1892 a third department, the labour department, was added, and Giffen became controller of the commercial, labour, and statistical departments. He retired from the board in 1897 and removed to Chanctonbury, Haywards Heath. His varied services proved of great value to the board. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, when president, in a minute written after the passing of the Bankruptcy Act of 1882, described Giffen as 'to a great extent the real author of the measure, to whose exhaustive memoranda on the subject I owe the best part of my own knowledge.' He served on various departmental committees, was a member of the royal commissions on the depression of agriculture in Great Britain (1893-7), and on the port of London (1900-2), and gave important statistical and economic evidence before numerous royal commissions, notably the depreciation of silver (1876), the London Stock Exchange (1878), gold and silver (1886-8), and local taxation (1898-9).
When accepting office in the civil service, Giffen obtained permission to continue to publish his views upon matters of economic interest. From 1876 to 1891 he edited the 'Journal of the Royal Statistical Society' (of which he was president, 1882-4), and wrote numerous articles and a regular contribution of City notes till his death for the 'Economic Journal,' the organ of the Royal Economic Society, of which he was one of the founders in 1890. Twice president of the section of economics and statistics of the British Association (1887 and 1901), he gave on the first occasion an address on 'The Recent Rate of Material Progress in England' and on the second an address on 'The Importance of General Statistical Ideas' (both afterwards published). Weighty and sagacious in debate, he was a pillar of the Political Economy Club from 1877 to 1910. Though he endeavoured to avoid political partisanship he presented on occasion the unusual spectacle of a civil servant criticising in public the policy of ministers of the crown. His examination of the finance of Gladstone's home rule proposals in 1893 was considered a 'most powerful and damaging indictment,' and led to the appointment of the royal commission on the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland (1895-6) before which he was a witness. He regarded Ireland as overtaxed in comparison with Great Britain. Starting as a liberal, he became successively a liberal unionist in 1886, a unionist free-trader, abstaining from support of either of the great parties, in 1903, and finally 'on balance' a supporter of the unionist party owing to his dislike of the budget of 1909-10 as trenching too heavily upon capital and direct taxation, a view which he recorded in the 'Quarterly Review' for July 1909. Giffen was made an honorary LL.D. of Glasgow in 1884, and was created C.B. in 1891 and K.C.B. in 1895. He died of heart failure at Fort Augustus on 12 April 1910, while on a visit to Scotland, and is buried at Strathaven.
He married (1) in 1864, Isabella (d. 1896), daughter of D. McEwen of Stirhng; (2) on 25 Nov. 1896, Margaret Anne, daughter of George Wood of Aberdeen. He had no children.
Giffen, a prolific writer on economic, financial, and statistical subjects, possessed a luminous and penetrating mind, great stores of information, an intimate acquaintance with business matters and methods, and shrewd judgment. His instructive handling of statistics and his keen eye for pitfalls contributed greatly to raise the reputation and encourage the study of statistics in this country, though he did not develop its technique by the higher mathematical treatment. A sturdy individualist, Giffen viewed with suspicion any infraction of the maxim laissez-faire. He believed in the 'patience cure' for many social and financial evils. Though a strong free trader, he conceded that a slight customs' preference to colonial imports might be justified by political considerations. His frame of mind is reflected in his opinion that investors should inform themselves and judge for themselves, and not be guided by the advice of their bankers, brokers, or friends. He was in favour of 'free-banking,' under which a cheque might be drawn upon any person whether a banker or not. He advocated the reduction of the representation of Ireland in the imperial parliament, and the boring of a tunnel under the Irish Sea with a view to closer union.
His principal published writings, apart from separate addresses and pamphlets, are:
- 'American Railways as Investments,' in Cracroft's Investment Tracts (1872; 2nd and 3rd edits. 1873), written at the suggestion of Mr. Bernard Cracroft of the Stock Exchange, who provided him with materials. This work served to dispel some of the indiscriminate mistrust of American railways by the British public. A French translation by E. de Laveleye was published at Liège, 1873.
- 'The Production and Movement of Gold since 1848,' 1873.
- 'Stock Exchange Securities; an Essay on the General Course of Fluctuations in their Prices,' 1877.
- 'Essays in Finance' (contributions to periodicals), 1st series, 2 editions, 1880; 6th edit. 1890; 2nd series, 1886; 3rd edit. 1890.
- The 'Statist' on Ireland; reprint of 'Economist's' [R. G.'s] letters to the 'Statist' on the Irish land and home rule questions, and of editorial comments thereon, 1886.
- 'The Growth of Capital,' 1889.
- 'The Case against Bimetallism,' 1892; 2nd edit. 1892.
- 'Economic Enquiries and Studies' (contributions to periodicals), 2 vols. 1904.
Giffen contributed 'Growth and Distribution of Wealth, 1837-1887,' to vol. ii. of T. H. Ward's 'Reign of Queen Victoria' (1887), and added a chapter to Lord Farrer's 'The State in its Relation to Trade' (1902). He left completed in manuscript a 'Handbook of Statistics,' not yet published.
[Personal knowledge; information from Lady Giffen; Statistical Soc. Journal, May 1909 (with excellent engraved portrait); Economic Journal, June 1909.]