Gunnar Myrdal, considered a leading economist and social scientist of his era, left an impression as a reformer, politician, fighter of inequality and developer of the Swedish welfare state. He was one of the leading theorists of international relations and developmental economics. Myrdal had the faith to pierce the roots of conflicts taking place between the American idealism and its racist relations. This Swede was given due respect in his career as a professor of political and international economy. His work on ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem In Modern Democracy’ in 1944 wholly criticized the separate-but-equal philosophy and thus, ceased racial discriminations in schools. He made a mark with his classic book on sociology, titled as ‘An American Dilemma’. His was a name listed among Nobel Prize winners for economics in 1974, which was shared with Friedrich A. Hayek. Get to know more about this Swedish Nobel Laureate and his career and works in this biography.
Gunnar Myrdal’s Childhood and Early Life
Gunnar Myrdal was born to Karl Adolf Petterson, a railroad employee and Anna Sofia Karlsson, on 6th December 1898. He was christened as Karl Gunnar but the first name was later dropped. Gunnar acquired a law degree in 1923 from the Stockholm University. Myrdal practiced law, along with which he also pursued his studies in economics from the same university.
Myrdal was awarded the Juris Doctor degree in Economics in 1927, as a result of which he was nominated as an instructor in the political economy. Along with lecturing, Professor Myrdal was involved in Swedish politics and became a member of the Social Democratic Party in 1934 in the Senate. In his dissertation, he studied the importance of the expected price formation. During 1925 and 1929, Myrdal pursued his studies in Britain and Germany. Following this, he received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Institute and in 1929, he visited the United States.
Gunnar became an Associate Professor in the Post Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. As a successor of Gustav Cassel, he served the position of Lars Hierta Chair of Political Economy and Public Finance at the University of Stockholm.
In 1933, Myrdal was the Social Democratic Member of Parliament. He, along with his wife Alva Myrdal, wrote the ‘Crisis in the Population Question’ in 1934. It was such a great piece of work that the Minister of Social Affairs, Gustav Moller, adopted those measures to support families socially. Another one of his publications was ‘Contact with America’, written in 1941. This was during World War II; he was against the Nazi and praised the United States’ democratic establishments.
He was appointed Trade Minister between 1945 and 1947, in the Tage Erlander Government. It was during this time that he worked as an economics Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics. Myrdal was subsequently criticized for his fiscal agreements with the Soviet Union and he was also held responsible for the monetary crisis in Sweden in 1947. In the same year, Myrdal served as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. He remained in that position for ten years and then, Dr. Myrdal resigned as Executive Secretary in 1957, not before launching leading research centers for economic research and policy development.
Myrdal strongly stood against the Vietnam War and he predicted, in his work ‘Asian Drama’, the distribution of land and other reforms not being favourable to Vietnam. This led to the United States getting into talks with North Vietnam. After he returned, Myrdal was assigned to be the Head of the Swedish Vietnam Committee. He also controlled the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
In 1929, Myrdal got the ‘The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory’ published. In the late 1920’s, mathematical models were prevalent and Myrdal was captivated by it. He helped in the foundation of the Econometric Society, which was based in London. Later, he criticized the flow of uneven distribution of wealth despite economic growth and the use of defective statistics. Myrdal then replaced missing information with Greek letters. He also stated that, ‘Correlations are not explanations and besides, they can be as spurious as the high correlation in Finland between foxes and divorces’.
Gunnar was a great supporter of the thesis ascertained by John Maynard Keynes. He proclaimed saying that the basic idea of presenting national budgets and managing them was either to speed up or slow down economies. This concept was already mentioned in his book, ‘Monetary Economics’, published four year before Keynes’ ‘General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ in 1932.
Myrdal conducted a comprehensive study on the sociological, anthropological, economic and legal data of the different race of relations in the United States. This began in 1938 and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation. One of Myrdal’s best works was ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy’, written in 1944. Till date, this is considered a classic in sociology. The book was a combined effort of R.M.E. Sterner and Arnold Rose and presented the issue of the relations of race as a dilemma and brought to light the ‘Negro question’. His theories of racialism gained momentum when the U.S. Supreme Court was influenced by the verdict on Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Thus, elimination of racial segregation in public schools was seen. Similarly, Myrdal also wanted to work on gender inequality but since that did not receive adequate funds, it was left incomplete.
Under the title, ‘The Beam In Your Eyes’, in ‘Asian Drama’, he brought about the concept of scientific relativism of values, which signified that he did not limit his theories to Economics alone. In his article, ‘Value in Social Theory’, he gave ample importance to political science and considered it to be more descriptive than economics. As a practitioner, Myrdal related the various aspects of political sciences, social sciences and economics.
Gunnar Myrdal met his wife in 1919. Alva Reimer was one of the five children; her father was a contractor who lived 60 miles west of Stockholm. Alva pursued her graduation from the University of Stockholm. Following that, she held a good post in UNESCO and the United Nations and was a diplomat and politician by profession in 1924. Myrdal and she got married in the same year. Alva then became the Sweden’s Minister of Disarmament and Church and also held the position of Swedish Ambassador to India. Together, the couple raised two daughters and a son, Kaj Folster, Sissela Bok and Jan Myrdal respectively. Prior to death, he was hospitalized for almost two months after which he died in Danderyd, a hospital near Stockholm on May 17th 1987. At that time, his daughter Kaj and his grandson Jake were also present.
- The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory (1930)
- Monetary Equilibrium (1939, Economics)
- An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944)
- Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions 1957
- Beyond the Welfare State: Economic Planning and Its International Implications (1960)
- Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (1968)
- Objectivity in Social Research (1969)
- The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Program in Outline (1970)
- Against the Stream: Critical Essays on Economics (1972)
- The Equality Issue in World Development (1975)
- Increasing Interdependence between States but Failure of International Cooperation (1977)
Awards & Recognition
Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in 1974 (Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics): for the theory of ‘money and economic fluctuations and the penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena’. He shared this with Friedrich Hayek.
Myrdal founded and was the chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He was regarded as the ‘father figure of social policy’ owing to his contributions to social democracy. He was also instrumental in the modern, ‘non-equilibrium economics’ through his concept of circular cumulative causation.