What price is the history of economics?

John Lodewijks


March 7th, 2014

John Lodewijks details the benefits of learning about economic history and its importance to the success of economists, present and future.

The master economist must possess a true combination of gifts … He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words.  He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought.  He must study the present in light of the past for the purpose of the future.  No part of man’s nature or its institutions must lie entirely outside his regard.  He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

– John Maynard Keynes

Keynes certainly demanded high standards for economists. At least there are plenty of books available to get us up to speed on the history of economics. The most entertaining introduction to the history of economics is provided by Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, first published in 1953 and reported to have sold over 4 million copies.  It now has a rival, Sylvia Nasar, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Nasar has written a sweeping historical drama that starts with Charles Dickens in 1842 and ends with Amartya Sen in 2002. The Grand Pursuit is a story of how economic ideas can be developed and used, by very talented individuals, to promote economic security (raising living standards, eradicating poverty and expanding the range of choices and opportunities available to all) despite the economic calamities of war, depressions, financial panics, hyperinflations and social conflicts.  The story begins at a time when the mass of humanity was condemned to poverty, to lives of drudgery with little prospect of advancement. The account she offers is shaped through particular economists that have led exceedingly colourful, and sometimes tragic, lives. It is a mixture of economics, biography and history, and written in an entertaining and at times sensational way, presenting a heroic picture of how economics rescued humankind from squalor and deprivation, how ‘genius’ thinkers transformed the world for the better.

Every economics graduate should have some acquaintance with the history of their discipline. Unfortunately, the opportunities to study the history of economic thought are diminishing. The history of economic ideas is increasingly being crowded-out of the economics curriculum, replaced by more technical and quantitative offerings. But it is worse than that. Over the last seven years, history of economic thought in Australia has faced two near-death experiences.

In 2007 the Australian Bureau of Statistics proposed relocating the History of Economic Thought and Economic History into a category of ‘History, Archeology, Religion and Philosophy’. They were to be deleted entirely from the Economics research classification. This had dire implications for the study of the field as a whole and for its practitioners in terms of tenure, promotion, access to research funding and even possible redundancy. If research in the History of Economics no longer counted as Economics research then its days in the discipline were numbered.

Pressure, however, was applied on the ABS to change their position. Very high profile economists from Australia and overseas wrote to voice their disapproval, including those that were Chairs of our various Economics Societies. For example, the President of the North American History of Economics Society, sent off a letter to the ABS co-signed by nine others including Past Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Executive Committee Members. In part the letter, which is on the public record, stated that:

The result will be costly both for the economics profession as a whole and also for the students we teach.  The history of economic thought has always been an important component of the literature on economics. It has shown the richness of the roots of economic theory and provided a base for the debate and discussion of the competing schools of economic ideas. … A relocation of the History of Economic Thought and Economic History will privilege technical approaches over the literary approach. We suggest that economics needs both approaches.  … In recent years the mathematical and quantitative sides of economics have been emphasized at the expense of areas such as the history of economic thought.  … The typical economics professor today has had little training in moral reasoning or civic engagement, and his or her interests are narrowly defined by formal modeling and statistical testing.  … At the national level in the United States, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has strenuously made the case for increased breadth in our undergraduate education.  An education in economics that includes room for historical approaches to economic thinking, falls squarely within the AAC&U recommendations and offers students opportunities for applied moral reasoning and policy analysis.

Fortunately, with this backlash of disapproval, the ABS changed its position and both the history of economics and economic history remain part of economics proper.

In 2013 the history of economics again came under assault. The Australian Research Council had ranked the leading journal in the field, the History of Political Economy, as an A* journal – the highest ranking possible.  When the ARC stopped ranking journals, the Australian Business Deans Council stepped in and provided their own ranking system and downgraded HOPE to an A.  In 2013 they re-ranked their journals and downgraded HOPE to a B. A health economist from UTS went even further and suggested it should be a C – the lowest ranking possible. Again, it was battle-stations.  We enlisted the help of the editors and internal advisory board of the journal and they wrote, and it is on the public record, that this ranking would:

undermine a serious field of academic research. Australian scholars in the history of economics are amongst the finest in the world and do not deserve to be undermined by an ill-conceived institutional judgment. … To let this decision stand would be to commit an act of academic vandalism, which in effect tells Australian historians of economics that, because their field is specialized, it is not valued.  It would set up incentives that would ultimately militate against the very existence of the field in Australia.  Surely, that is not the intent of your council.  So, we urge you to reconsider and to apply your own announced standards to the ranking of HOPE with the aim of giving wholly deserved support to the distinguished community of historians of economics in Australia.

Again, in the face of sustained opposition, the ABDC backtracked and reinstated HOPE to an A ranked journal. We had won another battle.

We encourage students, when possible, to take subjects in the history of their discipline and economic history, to broaden their understanding of the subject. We will leave the last word to Ian Macfarlane, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, who has written that “I regard both of these areas as being intrinsic to the study of Economics … and came increasingly to rely on them to help with practical policy decisions …I felt this was of more use to understanding the current economic situation than any other approach”.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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