Tony Atkinson was one of the greatest persons I have been privileged to know. His brilliant intellect and exceptional creativity combined beautifully with his warmth and his extraordinary moral priorities. W.B. Yeats has claimed in one of his poems:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work.
Tony provided a proof – what mathematicians would call a “constructive proof” – that Yeats might have been wrong. Tony did perfect work in a life that came as close as possible to being morally perfect. Reinforced by his remarkable partnership with his wife, Judith, Tony did everything he thought he should do – to help others and to help the world – while being robustly engaged in solving the difficult problems that could tempt and engage an outstanding economist.
While the impact of Tony’s contributions to economics can be seen in a great many different areas in the subject, our understanding of inequality has been totally transformed by his foundational work. The reach of his research covered at least three different fields within the study of inequality: first, the theory behind the evaluation and measurement of inequality; second, the exploration and use of empirical information to generate practical understanding of the extent of – and indeed the penalties resulting from – economic inequality; and third, guidance to policy making to reduce – and when possible eradicate – inequalities in the economy and society. And in addition to doing his own work, Tony provided definitive guidance to the work of others, particularly on inequality and poverty. Several of my own writings were - what I would call “Atkinsonized” (that is, radically improved by Tony’s constructive suggestions and guidance).
Support for inequality – often even of gross inequality – typically survives through a belief that the removal of inequality would hurt all, rather than helping all. Dr. Samuel Johnson made the famous remark, “It is better that some should be unhappy than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.” In addition to his contributions to policies that generate more equality, an underlying theme of Tony’s far-reaching intellectual investigations is that there is no reason whatsoever why we should make that Johnsonian presumption. If Tony’s life was based on the conviction that our happiness need not depend on the unhappiness of others (and that we can be happier together), his work provided solid intellectual support for that powerful understanding.
I end by adding my voice to the celebration of the fact that the world of theory as well as practice has greatly benefited from being Atkinsonized. And on a more personal note, one of the greatest gifts that I have received in my own life is the opportunity to know Tony Atkinson well. The best things in life may indeed be free.