Seligman, Edwin Robert Anderson (1861–1939)
Seligman was born in New York City on 25 April 1861 and died on 18 July 1939 at Lake Placid, New York. An economist of unusual erudition, energy and wide-ranging interests, Seligman successfully combined a life of distinguished scholarship with philanthropy and active participation and leadership in a variety of reform causes. Raised in a talented and wealthy New York Jewish business family, Seligman studied privately under Horatio Alger Jr. and at Columbia Grammar School before graduating from Columbia in 1879. After three years’ study in Berlin, Heidelberg (under Karl Knies), Geneva and Paris he returned to Columbia obtaining MA and LLB degrees in 1884, the Ph.D. cum laude in 1885 and a full professorship in political economy at age 30, a post he held until retirement in 1931. Dignified, wise and balanced in outlook, Seligman personified the best in late 19th-century efforts to blend orthodox classical and German historical economics. His original studies of neglected British and American economists, and his compilation of perhaps the world’s greatest library of economic works, reveal his lifetime devotion to doctrinal history, while his widely read and durable Economic Interpretation of History (1902) testifies to the breadth and sensitivity of his historical knowledge. Like Henry Carter Adams, with whom he created the field of public finance in America, Seligman was influenced by Adolph Wagner. But he was more of a theorist than Adams, and his concepts of ‘faculty’ or ability to pay, and benefit, were the first systematic modern efforts to develop theoretical criteria of taxation. A severe critic of Henry George, Seligman nevertheless favoured taxes on land values and progressive inheritance taxes, and advocated proportional income taxes as early as 1894. Sympathetic to labour unions, federal railroad legislation, effective central banking measures and other moderate reform proposals, including deficit finance and public works during the depression of the 1930s, Seligman also advocated US aid to Europe after 1918 and the cancellation of their debts.