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David Miles Bensusan-Butt (1915–1994)

by H.W.A.

David Butt, Professorial Fellow in the Department of Economics, Research School of Pacific Studies, 1962-76, died in London on 26 March, aged 79.

David Butt, who had studied economics at Cambridge under Keynes, was brought to the Australian National University by Sir John Crawford after a distinguished career in the British civil service. He was already known to Australian economists from a year he spent in the Prime Minister's Department under the exchange arrangement which took Trevor Swan to London and from his book On Economic Growth, written on leave as a research fellow at Nuffield College. The book was an innovative contribution to post-1946 theory of economic growth, so closely reasoned in elegant English that a colleague had later to translate it into mathematics to be understood by younger economists.

In his 15 years at ANU, David Butt was an active and valued member of his department, frequently as acting head, supervising PhD students, presenting papers at seminars, attending conferences and providing intellectual stimulus to his colleagues. In 1976 he published On Economic Man, a searching critique of the assumptions underlying neo-classical economic theory. After his retirement in 1976, when he returned to London, a selection from the many profound but also entertaining essays in development economics and the history of economic thought he had written in his years at ANU was published under the title On Economic Knowledge.

Much of his last year in Australia was spent as the most influential member of the Asprey committee on tax reform (1975-76). He persuaded the committee to recommend a drastic shift in the Australian tax structure from complex income taxation to a broad-based consumption tax. He deserves credit for having been the first to propose a GST for Australia. (Ten years earlier he had prevailed on Sir John Crawford to make the Vernon Report much less protectionist than it might otherwise have been.)

David Butt was a product of Cambridge at its best; urbane, cultivated, erudite, but also witty, charming and generous. He was a good linguist, a gifted amateur painter, a competent pianist and a passionate and knowledgeable collector of old books. He read and reread Montaigne and Voltaire, Vico and Croce. He painted in England with Lucien Pissarro (his uncle by marriage), on holidays in Corsica and in the Australian bush. His company gave enormous pleasure to the many friends he made at the ANU, where he stayed at University House, occasionally functioning as acting master, when not in his much-loved cottage at Bells Creek in the Araluen Valley, among the gums and parrots.

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Citation details

H.W.A., 'Bensusan-Butt, David Miles (1915–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Butt, David Miles



26 March, 1994 (aged ~ 79)
London, Middlesex, England

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