The numerous honours he was awarded, the generous homage paid to his writings, the supreme, though belated, accolade of the Nobel prize, should not be allowed to disguise the opposition often confronted by Maurice Allais.
His tireless combat against “established truths”, carried on in utter independence and as a rule against the tide of the prevailing ideas of the day, coupled with his own uncompromising character were a source of many trials for him.
As he was to say himself in his speech on the occasion of the celebration of his Nobel Prize for Economics, 23rd March 1989, at the Sorbonne:
“Throughout my career I have generally found myself in opposition to prevailing ideas, and as many of you know, I have had to confront a great deal of incomprehension, a great deal of opposition, a great many obstacles, a great many setbacks – some of them very painful.”
Some striking examples of the difficulties met with by Maurice Allais
A difficult election to the chair of economics at the École des Mines in 1944
“In 1944, in the wake of the strong opposition roused by my use of mathematics in economics, I came close to not being elected Professor at the École des Mines. Today, of course, the use of mathematics is in no further need of defence. Indeed the contrary excess is what we observe (…)”
(Extract from a letter of 30th January 1986 addressed to Professor Bertrand Munier, co-editor, with Marcel Boiteux and Thierry de Montbrial, of the work Essais en l’honneur de Maurice Allais. Marchés, capital et incertitude [Essays in honour of Maurice Allais. Markets, Capital and Uncertainty], published in La passion de la recherche [The passion for research], 2001, Editions Clément Juglar).
Failure of his application for the Chair of Economics at the École Polytechnique in 1959
“My application to the École Polytechnique in 1959 failed owing to a relentless campaign based on the “danger” my liberal ideas were liable to give rise to for the generations of polytechnicians. Yet these liberal ideas simply foreshadowed those which are generally admitted today as obvious truths.”
(Extract from the same letter from Maurice Allais to Professor Bertrand Munier, 30th January 1986)
In the view of some of his friends, Maurice Allais was at this time the target of a veritable antiliberal cabal. His iconoclastic work in physics may also have injured the chances of his application.
Thus, Louis Rougier, then Associate Professor at the University of Caen, denounced this “powerful antiliberal cabal” in a text entitled Scandal at the Polytechnique (Imprimerie des Tuileries, 354 rue Saint-Honoré, Paris, also published in Les Écrits de Paris, 1959) in which he wrote:
“For teaching of this sort, the choice of professor should be based on two basic criteria : his qualities as an educator and his qualities as a researcher. (…) A body responsible for recruiting teachers in higher education must take these two factors into account (…). But in no case, upon no pretext, may it, without gross abuse of its power, set aside a candidate who is unanimously recognized to possess the twin qualification of outclassing his rivals both in scientific terms and as a teacher. Yet this is precisely what has just happened with regard to the polytechnic chair to be filled.”
With hindsight, Jean Tirole, who was elected to fill the place left vacant by Maurice Allais’s death as a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, remarks in his Notice on Allais’s life and work, read during the session of Monday 26th November 2012:
“Yet a bad mark in his academic career: in 1959 a civil servant, regular attendant at Ministry Cabinets meetings was preferred to him to teach economics at the École Polytechnique. To add insult to injury, the Poltechnique’s Development Board unanimously recognized that in view of his stature it would be unreasonable to rank him second and … therefore decided to name a third candidate as runner-up (such practices are still found – for instance I observed a similar strategy some fifteen years ago when a great North-American economist made the mistake of settling in France). Maurice Allais was deeply wounded by this very unjust decision on the part of his own alma mater which he venerated and had been a springboard for him in social terms.”
Two ill-starred applications to join the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in 1956 and 1979
Maurice Allais twice ran, without success, as a candidate for membership of the prestigious Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, in 1956 to succeed Charles Rist and in 1979 to fill the place left vacant by Jacques Rueff.
Only in 1990, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, was he at last admitted as a member of the Academy, as successor to Guillaume Guindey.