U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Economists’ Views of the History of Economic Thought

“David Glasner has been making a series of posts on the legacy of Milton Friedman, some of them in response to Scott Sumner; they’re interesting if you want to delve into the intellectual history. I’m not personally big on such things — in general, what people thought Keynes or Friedman meant ends up being more important than what they turn out, on close reading, to (maybe, possibly) actually have meant.”

– Paul Krugman, “Milton Friedman, Unperson,” August 8, 2013.

I’m generally fascinated by the way members of various academic fields view their own fields’ intellectual history.  In recent weeks, there have been a spate of interesting conversations among blogging economists about the history of economic thought, which have led me to think, more specifically about the way economists think about such things.

Of course, historians of the 20th century have recently been showing an increasing interest in the history of economic thought, especially conservative economic thought, both because such ideas have had important political and policy consequences and because, much more broadly, economic ideas have found their way into American thought and culture.  “In an age when words took on magical properties,” writes Dan Rodgers at the start of Chapter 2 of Age of Fracture, “no word flew higher or assumed a greater aura of enchantment than ‘market'” (p. 41).

How then are economists’ ideas about the history of economic thought like, and unlike, historians’ ideas about the history of economic thought?

I should note, off the bat, that my observations about this question are extremely tentative. I don’t have a deep academic knowledge of the role the history of economic thought within the economics profession. And, in a way as importantly, I don’t even have much anecdotal / experiential sense of it.  Since entering graduate school in 1988, I have spent very little time hanging out with groups of economists (though I have a fair number of friends who are economists). I mention this because such hang-out time is often when members of a particular field informally reveal their sense of their relationship to their field’s history.  In contrast,  I have spent a lot of time hanging out with, e.g., groups of political scientists, philosophers, and literary scholars. And my understanding of the place of their fields’ pasts in their discipline is consequently richer.

All of this is to note something else as well: like many blog posts, this one is also implicitly something of a bleg…which I’ll make more explicit at its end.

I started this post by quoting that passage–from the first in a series of posts Krugman has recently done on the (declining importance of the) legacy of Milton Friedman–for a couple reasons. First, Krugman clearly associates “intellectual history” with determining what economists in the past “really” thought.  Second, Krugman says he isn’t interested in this. What he is interested in is the impact of (what are taken to be) past economists’ ideas.  Krugman certainly doesn’t mean that Milton Friedman means whatever anyone thinks Milton Friedman means (in another post, he takes Rand Paul to task for not fully grasping how different Friedman’s view of, e.g., the Great Depression was from the Austrians’). Rather, I think, his explorations in the history of economic thought are first and foremost practical: what past ideas have had (and continue to have) impact on later economic ideas and, especially, on policy making?

Such a practicality also seems to mark John Quiggin’s recent Crooked Timber post that attempts to chart a change in Krugman’s own economic thought.  Indeed, Quiggin has written extensively in this practical mode of the history of economic thought. In many ways, his book Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton, 2012) is an extended exercise in measuring out the cash value of certain old economic ideas…and finding them wanting.

Of course, economics is, in certain basic ways, a field that is oriented toward history.  Although history was certainly more important in economics past,  history still supplies the major data that the field works with (to the extent, that is, it works with data).  It’s no accident that one of Milton Friedman’s key works was A Monetary History of the United States.  Of course, economic history (as written by economists) is quite distinct from the history of economic thought (as conceived by economists).

The practical and internalist (as opposed to contextualist) focus of Krugman and Quiggin’s apparent interests in the history of economic thought is, I think, fairly typical of academic disciplines’ understandings of their own histories.  Lawyers’ versions of legal history and scientists’ versions of the history of science, for example, tend to be internalist and Whiggish accounts of the growth of knowledge.  Economics, I think, suffers less from the Whiggishness, in part because just about any current school of economic thought—saltwater, freshwater, or heterodox—can point to some period over the last hundred years or so during which, in their school’s estimation, the mainstream of the discipline went off the rails.  Certainly there’s little Whiggish about Quiggin’s Zombie Economics or Krugman’s musings about the decline of the legacy of Friedman (who Krugman presents as relatively rational and empirical compared to many conservative economists today).

All of which gets me to my sort of bleg (“sort of” only because I don’t have any larger academic interest here…this has little if anything to do with my work at the moment):  do any of our readers have any more experience with the way economists think about the history of economic thought than I do?  I suppose I’m particularly interested in how, if at all, this relationship has changed over the last half century or so.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I certainly would not presume that I have “any more experience with the way economists think about the history of economic thought than [you] do.” That said, I think economists “over the last half century or so” have displayed a profound lack of interest in and corresponding ignorance of, the history of economic thought. I’ll invoke one authority far more knowledgeable about such matters than me, namely, Deidre McCloskey, in a series of books dating back to The Rhetoric of Economics (1985) (penned as Donald McCloskey) has long lamented the breadth and depth of her profession’s historical ignorance in this regard (as well an insufficient appreciation, with a few notable exceptions, of the importance of economic history). She classifies such constitutional disciplinary ignorance as greater than “venial sins, easily forgiven” (like the myopic focus on ‘self-interest,’ narrowly conceived, unlike, say, its conception generally in the history of Liberal political philosophy as narrated by Stephen Holmes) but one among other “numerous weighty sins requiring special grace to forgive” (‘but sins not peculiar to economics’), including “institutional ignorance,” “crude barbarism,” “high-school versions” of positivism and ethical philosophy,” and last but not least, “arrogance in social engineering.” Personally, I’ve always looked to those outside economics history for narratives of economic history, folks like A.M. Amadae, Nicholas Xenos, and (especially) Philip Mirowski, for example. There are some contemporary economists with a finely tuned historical sense of their field’s history: Partha Dasgupta, Amartya Sen, and Meghnad Desai come quickly to mind (no doubt there are others, but I’m most familiar with their work).

    As to how matters have changed or may be changing, I’m not sure. One would think the current “crisis” in the profession, such as it is perceived in at least some quarters, would prompt some disciplinary self-examination and a renewed concern for historical topics and questions, but Mirowski, for one, does not see think that has occurred, hence the title of his latest book: Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2013) (one need not, and should not, equate neo-classical economics with neoliberalism, but the point remains).

  2. I’ve been following the discussions over at Crooked Timber and I’ve learned a lot, specially from Quiggin and the debates regarding Robin’s over-reaching but still fascinating piece on Nietzsche and the Austrian school. Part of the issue is that establishment economists sell their practice as scientific, as a hard science, so in that sense a historical account isn’t taken seriously. There’s an interesting piece in the Stone about this issue, though I think it has some problems in how it defines the hard sciences (no mention of the scientific method; mostly alludes to its predictive capabilities, which are not infallible at all) and how it maintains economic theory cannot be predictive (it actually can be in many of its forms). It also doesn’t consider how the ideology behind mainstream economics. Still, a good read because it tries to frame these issues through the lens of the history of science. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/what-is-economics-good-for/?ref=opinion

  3. Good points, but Krugman’s distinction between what economists actually meant and what they were believed to have meant (or what people claimed they meant) still interests me quite a bit. And I think they’re important historically.

    For example, Ronald Reagan annoyed me incredibly in the 80s (when I was a libertarian of sorts) by claiming that Ludwig von Mises was his favorite economist, and then trying (as many did) to apply “Austrian” ideas to macroeconomics. One of Mises’s core tenets in texts like Human Action was that value is subjective, and thus CANNOT be aggregated in any meaningful way. That means, no econometrics and no macroeconomic policy.

    Ooops!

  4. When I studied History of Economic Thought at ANU (one of very few of my cohort to do so, and I doubt that the subject is even taught now) my lecturer mentioned that the field had been described as “the wrong ideas of dead men”.

    More seriously, I’m with Krugman. The history of ideas matters, but ideas only matter in a social context. The Keynesian ideas that dominated policy for decades are best illustrated by what the economics profession in general did with them, not by whether they are consistent with a close reading of the General Theory.

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