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Alexander Hesketh Shand (1921-2001)

Mises Daily: Tuesday, April 10, 2001 by

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[Editor's note: Alexander Shand was an outstanding economist, a lecturer at Manchester Polytechnic, and a friend to the Mises Institute. His two books contributed mightily to then-available literature on Austrian economics. From the perspective of economic science as well as morality, he demonstrated that the subjectivist tradition in economic thought had far more to offer than its mainstream alternative. Both books are still widely read and cited, and will continue to be. As his headstone reads: "We live by what we leave behind." The following tribute to Professor Shand was delivered by his son at a memorial service.]

Alexander ShandWe are here to remember the life of Alex Shand, and to say goodbye to him. He died suddenly in the night on January 24, aged 79, spared what he would have liked least: a long degenerative stay in hospital with his independence whittled away. He will be buried alongside his wife Muriel, whom he loved, in Stretford Cemetery. She left Alex widowed in 1992.

Alex was born in Stretford in 1921 and attended Stretford Grammar School. By the time he was sixteen, both his parents were dead, leaving him alone with his younger sister Barbara, whom he did his best to protect. They were in supportive contact throughout his life. In order to escape the narrowness of his life in Stretford, he boldly joined the Royal Air Force as the Second World War began. Initially in the Photographic Section, dealing with photo reconnaissance, he took another bold--and, as he said, not really very well thought out--step and volunteered for Air Crew in 1943, as much for the change and excitement as anything else. He trained as a navigator and reached the rank of flight sergeant.

He tried to be a pilot, but after a few hair-raising circuits and bumps in Tiger Moths, the Air Force decided his abilities would be better exploited elsewhere. Initially he was a navigator on Wellington bombers. Then, after Heavy Conversion Unit, he was in the crew of a four-engined Halifax bomber until the end of the war. He was remarkably modest about his wartime experiences and the courage it required, putting down his sangfroid to the blind optimism of youth. Later in the war, he met Muriel. It was courageous of them to strike up a relationship, as Muriel’s first husband, Norman Marian, had been killed earlier in the war when he also was a navigator in bomber command. Alex and Muriel married soon after meeting, and to describe them as inseparable is pretty much the truth.

In 1947, their first son, Norman, was born. Alex entered teacher training when he was demobbed, teaching at various schools. Soon after the war, he bought the family house on Barlow Moor Road, in which he lived for the rest of his life. Money was short initially, and he said that on entering the house the first evening, there were no lightbulbs or carpets, hardly any furniture, and the place was full of mice. He remembered sitting on the stairs, wondering what on earth he had taken on while the house creaked around him as what little furniture there was settled, and sending Muriel off down the road to buy at least a couple of bulbs.

In 1956, his second son, John, was born. And while holding down a full-time school teaching post in history, he started to take an external London University degree in economics at the London School of Economics, which at that time was full of particularly distinguished academics. To get his degree, he had to work late into the night after work. He often wondered later where he found the energy.  He got a remarkably good 2:1 and was told he would certainly have got a first if he had had the advantages of a full-time internal student. To have gained the degree he did under the circumstances was a remarkable achievement. He got a post in the early '60s at the Manchester College of Commerce. This later became the rather grander institution of Manchester Polytechnic, and Alex worked as a senior lecturer in economics there until his retirement in the early 1980s. He was a remarkably fine lecturer, and for a man who was not overly gregarious, he used to love holding the student’s attention in the big lectures.

During this time the family went on many happy summer holidays, most often in the Lleyn Peninsula but also to East Anglia, just as a contrast. These were everything a holiday should be and not what so many holidays have become; not terrible trips to some theme park with laid-on things for the children to do, but rather messing around on beaches and in lanes, in rock pools, and on walks.

Having hardly the time to do much research while teaching at the Polytechnic, he had an indian summer of writing in the 1980s. Having been a socialist early on, he came to reject the efficacy of the collective State and wrote two books defending free-market, laissez-faire liberalism. This reflected particularly his admiration of the thinkers Adam Smith and Friedrich Von Hayek and the so-called Austrian School of economists. He thought that apart from the maintaining of the rule of law, people were usually best left alone to conduct their lives according to free individual choices in an economy ordered by the invisible hand of the free-market, without the interference of the State. The titles of the books Alex wrote, The Capitalist Alternative and Free Market Morality, indicate his concern to do something to convince people of the ethical justification of the market in preference to other alternatives. The market was pretty much what naturally happened when you left people alone, and it was the best way to free people from poverty and political tyranny.

Alex was not religious and did not believe in the existence of God, in however nebulous a form. He did not believe he would survive death. In fact, in later life he became increasingly angry at what he saw as the claims of religion for which there was no evidence. This was directed partly at what he saw as the complete lack of evidence for the metaphysical fact of God’s existence, partly at the hypothetical ethical argument that there couldn’t be a God given the level, and unnecessarily fiendish ingenuity, of the suffering that human beings undergo. His belief was that anyone who thinks rationally about the world must do so on the basis of decent evidence and reject nonsense. That evidence pointed to science as giving the most accurate picture of what the world is really like. But not only that: The picture of the universe given by science was one of a marvelously interesting world; the reality was far more remarkable than anything delivered by the imagination born aloft by the fancies of human wishes as to how one would like to be. It was not a picture of a cold world where, as Keats put it, the rainbow was stripped of its wonder, but a full-blooded emotional world of color, light, and fascination.

Having said this, he loved some of the trappings of the Church, the soaring cathedrals, and accepted that it had given rise to great art, particularly the music of such artists as Tallis, Palestrina, and Victoria, and that it could motivate people to goodness. He also came to appreciate the kindness shown to him and Muriel, particularly by some members of Manchester Road Methodist Church, during Muriel’s final illness, and, after her death, the kindness shown to himself. In addition, while abhorring the deadly moral sanctimoniousness which religion may give rise to, he came to worry about what would in fact replace the moral sanction of religion.

Alex was a passionate man--a man who could be quick to argumentative anger. But he was also a humorous and generous man, with a keen sense of the absurd and a dislike above all of tight-spiritedness and pomposity. To paraphrase what was once said about someone else: All interesting men are difficult to know sometimes. In the years before his last illness, he was a vigorous and fit man. He could be something of a show-off in the right circumstances, and where enthusiasm ran to rashness, Muriel often prevented unwise ventures. He did a tremendous amount of work on the house--although he came to think that not all of it was well-directed, being amused by the fact that he could have been seduced by fashion into such follies as hard-boarding over perfectly good Victorian panel doors and stairs. But he made a house and garden full of life and interesting corners, remarkably indulgent to the tendency of his sons to make a mess. He valued the cars he had, too--which were always Fords--and the wonderful freedom and independence they gave. Without being beholden to others--something that had dogged his childhood and early manhood after his parents died--the cars allowed him to go where he wanted when he wanted, and he frequently did just that, taking the family on ambitious outings.

He loved books and music. Always an excellent writer and proud of his natural spelling ability, sometimes wishing he had been a journalist. He liked the more romantic and sensual composers, such as Rachmaninov, Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Ravel, but also more testing twentieth-century composers such as Martinu, Prokofiev and Bartok. He liked to play the violin, which he’d learned at school.

He was a strong, involved, characterful father--sometimes too much wanting to dominate and see his sons adopt his own attitudes, but this was always balanced by his keenness to discuss, argue, and educate; to expose his sons to ideas and free thought. There was a combative tradition in the family to set aside formality and argue things out, sometimes with pyrotechnic results. He delighted in seeing his granddaughter Sarah born, and regretted only that Muriel wasn’t there, too.

In the 1980s, Muriel became ill, and partly in an attempt to make up for lost time after a busy life, Alex and Muriel went on several delightful holidays abroad--to Crete, Madeira, and Portugal. After my mother died, he missed her terribly. During this time he would not have managed at home without the daily practical help and companionship of son Norman. While there was no question of anyone replacing Muriel, he valued the friendship and company of women, their grace and charm and their emotionality, as opposed to what is often the awkward, lumpen, false-clubbyness of men.

I think it correct to say that Alex will be missed by those who knew him. He would not want anything flowery or untrue to be said about him, about life, or the world in which we find ourselves. He would merely want this day to be one done with style and with dignity. He always appreciated things done well. While he wouldn’t want any talk of false hopes when someone dies, he wouldn’t want anyone to be too hurt by today. The truth is the truth, and, if we are honest, we have to learn to live with it. He would want it known that he regretted leaving life. He would not want a hagiography; but he thought that all round in life he had contributed substantial and good things, things to be proud of, and he had done his best to understand the world through reason and proper use of evidence. He would wish his friends and family well, hoping that harm fails to befall them as much as possible in a difficult but richly exciting world. He would want us to simply say goodbye, and for him, despite faults, to be thought well of.

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