Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Fall and Rise of Economic History

Jeremy Adelman and Jonathan Levy describe "The Fall and Rise of Economic History" in the Chronicle of Higher Education
I found this essay particularly interesting because both Jeremy Adelman and I studied economic history at the LSE in 1984-85. If I remember correctly, we were the first cohort to do a new M.Sc. program focusing on Third World economic history. He went on to get his PhD. In history (Oxford); I went on to get a Ph. D. in economics (Washington University).   

I remember a seminar where Jeremy presented the work he was doing on Argentina. The first person to speak was one of the older professors in the department, very much a traditional historian. He said, “That is political history. This is a seminar in economic history.” He then leaned back, laced his fingers over his stomach, and looked around the room, smiling as if he had just said all that needed to  be said.  I know he did not speak for all the professors present, but it was still a very discouraging moment. Like Jeremy, I was interested in economic questions but didn’t believe it was possible to leave politics and ideology out of the answer. I had also just started to read Douglass North’s work on institutions and ideology and thought it might provide the way forward. I decided to pursue a degree in economics. Since then, I think economists (for example, North, Wallis, McCloskey, Mokyr) have continued to make progress in reintegrating politics, the law, and culture into the study of economic history.    

I have, on the other hand, been very disappointed in the “new history of capitalism” that has arisen in history departments. I first thought that this might be the moment for a much needed reunion of economists and historians, but it quickly became clear that that was not what the new history of capitalism was about. Instead of confronting the work of economists directly it is generally ignored or dismissed. People throw around terms like homo economicus, suggesting that economists all think that people care only about maximizing their material wealth and that they do so with perfect information. They seem to believe that the recent financial crisis has undermined the credibility of economic theory because things did not work out well, while a student in any decent principles of economics class could show you the prisoners’ dilemma and explain to you that economic models do not all conclude that everything will work out for the best.  The quality of the historical research is secondary to the author’s stance against capitalism (which is not defined) and economics.
I still hope that economic history will regain a prominent position in both economics and history and that economists and historians will be able to move forward together.

No comments: