John Bell Condliffe was one of the first generation of students trained in economics under James Hight at Canterbury College, Christchurch, and went on to become one of New Zealand's best-known international economists. He was born at Footscray, Victoria, Australia, on 23 December 1891, one of four children of Margaret Marley and her husband, Alfred Bell Condliffe, a craftsman potter. He attended schools in the Bendigo area before moving with his family to Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1904. There he attended Ōpawa School and Christchurch West District High School.
At the age of 16 Condliffe took up a cadetship with the Customs Department in Christchurch. He continued to study part time at Canterbury College and it was during his undergraduate years that he first met James Hight, the professor of constitutional history and political economy. Hight encouraged Condliffe to study economics, and in 1915 he graduated MA in economics and won a senior university prize. His thesis, published that year in the New Zealand Official Year-book, was the first systematic account of New Zealand's economic history using trade statistics.
The war years were eventful for Condliffe. He was actively involved with Hight in the establishment of the WEA in Christchurch and began the first economics course by lecturing on his thesis topic. During the early years of the WEA in Christchurch and Wellington, he tutored many future Labour leaders: Walter Nash, Peter Fraser, Tim Armstrong, Ted Howard and Harry Holland. In 1915 he was transferred to the Census and Statistics Office in Wellington as part of an experiment to bring economists into the public service. In 1916 Condliffe was enticed back to Canterbury to a lectureship in economics under Hight, and for the next year he taught a variety of courses: statistics, economic geography, constitutional history, economic theory and economic history as well as WEA classes. He married Olive Grace Mills at Russells Flat, Canterbury, on 20 June 1916; they were to have two sons and a daughter.
In late 1916 Condliffe volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served in Europe, where he was wounded outside Ypres (Ieper) in February 1918. After recovering he was assigned to teach economics at the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital at Hornchurch, London, and in 1919 was awarded the Sir Thomas Gresham scholarship at Cambridge University. This was Condliffe's first real taste of university life and it impressed him greatly. Contact with leading British economists, especially J. M. Keynes, reinforced Hight's early teaching that economics should be used for solving economic and social problems.
Condliffe returned to New Zealand in 1920 as professor of economics at Canterbury College. He initiated research into the New Zealand economy, and in collaboration with several students, notably Horace Belshaw, published seminal work on the agricultural sector and trade cycles. His interest in contemporary policy issues led to the establishment of a relationship with the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce whereby economists (invariably Condliffe) would provide a monthly analysis of economic events and policy. He published A short history of New Zealand in 1925. In addition he completed doctoral research on industrial organisation in the Far East and was awarded his DSc in 1927. He also completed most of his research for New Zealand in the making (1930), one of the first economic histories of the country.
In about 1925 Condliffe was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the first conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), and about 1926 he was invited to organise a New Zealand branch. At the end of 1926 he was offered the newly created job of research secretary in the IPR. Although based in Honolulu, he travelled extensively in China, Japan, Europe and America, organising research projects and conferences. In 1931 he was invited to join the economic secretariat of the League of Nations, where he wrote its first World Economic Survey; he wrote five subsequently, for which he received the Henry E. Howland memorial prize from Yale University in 1939.
Condliffe became part of an eminent group of economists who collectively shaped international discussion on trade, monetary order and economic policy in the three decades after 1935. He expounded his view that continued expansion of world trade was a necessary condition for peace and prosperity – paradoxically, at a time of increasing protectionism. In 1938 he became a lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, but remained active in international economic discussions; he prepared background papers for the International Chamber of Commerce congress in Copenhagen (June 1939) and engaged in research on world trade regulation. In 1939 he accepted a professorship in economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
After an exciting wartime transatlantic crossing, Condliffe and his family arrived in the United States in October 1939. Having spent many years of changing residence (Honolulu, Geneva, London), the family settled in California, although John remained active during the summer months with consultancies to the Institute of International Studies at Yale, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations and the Ford Foundation. He was an active member of many academic and commercial societies. His interests in economic problems, internationally and in New Zealand, remained with him. In 1950 he published his magnum opus, The commerce of nations. After a prolonged stay in New Zealand in 1957, he published The welfare state in New Zealand (1959) and a revision of his New Zealand in the making. In 1958 he retired from teaching.
The many contacts Condliffe had made during the interwar years led to prestigious consultancy positions on his retirement. Between 1959 and 1960 he was economic adviser to the Indian National Council of Applied Economic Research and from 1961 to 1968 economist to the Stanford Research Institute. An extended visit to New Zealand in 1968–69 resulted in a report on the state of the New Zealand economy (in which he made strong arguments for trade liberalisation), but the subsequent book received a mixed reception. In 1971 he completed a biography of his friend Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), and in 1977 he received an honorary knighthood (KCMG) for services to the Commonwealth. Condliffe died at Walnut Creek, California, on his birthday in 1981, survived by Olive and two children.