The roughly simultaneous, and very welcome, appearance of four histories of economic thinking prompts a question: why now? Perhaps it is because times of crisis in the economy, like the present, are often, although not invariably, accompanied by times of crisis in economic thinking. In a scramble to find better ways of thinking about the problems we face, interest is frequently re-kindled in what earlier economic thinkers might have had to say on the questions we are asking ourselves today. Suddenly, a glance at the history of economic thought seems to offer a potential resource for improvements in current thinking. Each of the four books here under review—although in quite different ways—is representative of this feature of the landscape of uncertainty and dissatisfaction that characterises economic thinking. The book by Backhouse and Tribe is a course of 24 lectures covering aspects of economic thinking from the 17th century to the late 20th century. The lecture topics are organised chronologically to begin with, and then become thematic as the course unfolds. Thus, the later lectures contain an interesting, if brief, discussion of the origins of econometrics (Lecture 18), and an excursus into some of the more important institutions whose faculty have been prominent in the dissemination of economic ideas (Lecture 24). There is also a lecture on a rather nebulous subject called “popular economics” (Lecture 22)—a field which seems to be defined as economic writing directed at the general public. It is suggested that this “popular economics” has increasingly drowned out “the voices of academic economists”. This lecture seems to imply that on the whole this is a bad thing, since it makes it difficult for the public to distinguish between economists who are “taken seriously by the academic community” and “those who are not” (p.343). Unfortunately, if the only arbiter of sound economic thinking is to be what the mainstream of the academic community ‘takes seriously’, then we may be in even more trouble than what many popular writers suggest. Of course, since these lectures are advertised by their authors as being a history of mainstream economics (p. xi), one should not expect to hear much about critics and heretics. Thus, although there is one lecture devoted to “List, Carey, Bastiat, and George”, the student at these lectures will hear little (or nothing) of substance about Cobbett, Carlyle, Ruskin, Cliffe Leslie, Gesell, Myrdal, Prebisch, Singer, Sraffa, Olson, or Schumacher. This strategy, combined with that of choosing to focus only on “work considered important by its contemporaries” (ibid)—a plan not always followed through, otherwise why is there time to mention Roger Babson and not Frank Hahn—also means that women are almost entirely excluded from the subject matter of these lectures. The work of Harriet Martineau, Beatrice Webb, Eileen Power, Barbara Ward, Edith Penrose, Nancy Schwartz, Shirley Almon, Marilyn Waring, and Elinor Ostrom—to name but a few—is noticeable only by its absence. Inevitably, of course, there are also other matters of strategy with which one might take issue. For example, it would have been helpful if the lectures themselves offered the student a little more detail concerning the actual historical contexts within which the various ideas it documents unfolded. Ideas do not develop in a vacuum—and they are not only to be understood as responses to ones that preceded them. The absence of actual historical context sometimes leads to inaccuracies that might have been avoided. One such case, occurs when Ricardo is presented as having been “detached from policy and institutions” (p.91). The problem here is that everything Ricardo ever wrote was about “policy and institutions”. One might wish to claim that Ricardo was not good at it, as Schumpeter famously did when he accused him of perpetrating the “Ricardian Vice”, but to leave the student unaware that Ricardo’s sole purpose in writing economics was to address pressing practical matters verges on the irresponsible. Alessandro Roncaglia’s book represents a different way of approaching the history of economic thinking. If Backhouse and Tribe document the ‘history’ of mainstream economic thinking, Roncaglia concentrates as well upon its ‘development’. His is an attempt to trace a dual development in economic thinking that was set in motion with a series of 18th-century interventions, culminating with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. One of those two lines of development rose to dominance as mainstream economic thinking in the last quarter of the 19th century, the other was submerged and forgotten until the late 20th century. In this sense, it is fair to say that Roncaglia’s book falls into a distinguished tradition—a tradition within which the work of Ronald Meek and Maurice Dobb are exemplars. Like his predecessors, Roncaglia focuses principally upon developments taking place in the theory of value and distribution throughout the 19th century. He charts the rise and fall of the classical approach to distribution, and explains the rise of the marginalist approach in the hands of Jevons, Walras, and Marshall. Interestingly, Edgeworth does not receive much attention in this context. The argument here is thorough and compelling. Monetary theory is also discussed, but its development is not as carefully related to developments in the theory of value and distribution as it might have been. It would have been helpful had Roncaglia woven into his account of value and distribution the parallel history and development of utilitarian thinking over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. The movement from the early Benthamite use of ‘the greatest happiness principle’, through its more subtle deployment by the philosophical radicals (especially J.S. Mill), to its final formalisation in the hands of Edgeworth and Pareto, would have revealed another source of marginalist thinking—apart, that is, from the ‘two sides’ of Smith’s treatment of value—that is often overlooked. Roncaglia mentions this, but does so only in passing. Linda Yueh’s book differs fundamentally from both that of Backhouse and Tribe, and that of Roncaglia. Their books serve up to their readers more traditional fare. They seek to trace lineages of economic thought from some putative beginning down to the present. They examine the substance of economic theories and models of the past along the way, and they do so in detail. Their target audience is one presumed already to be interested in the history of economic thought. In fact, in both their cases that audience probably also needs to have already had some training in economics in order to get much out of them. Yueh targets a different audience. Hers is the airport bookshop market. An audience engaged with, and inquisitive about, current economic issues—but one with no formal background in economics. Hers is a book designed to demonstrate why it is that in the history of economic thought one might find both guidance and insight into the economic challenges we face today. Yueh sets herself a series of questions and, for each, she shows that one of her twelve Great Economists (two more than Schumpeter’s ten) had important things to say about them that might ‘help us today’. She does so with panache. The book is jam-packed with amusing little anecdotes about the life and character of her twelve apostles; together with some quite breath-taking generalisations about their work. Some of these are true, some are half true, and some are mythological. I jotted down a few as I read the book. Smith was in the habit of banging his head against the wall while dictating the Wealth of Nations; John Stuart Mill had never heard of Marx; Keynes and Hayek spent the night together as air-raid lookouts on the roof of King’s College Chapel in 1944; Keynes nominated Hayek, rather than Joan Robinson, for election to the British Academy in 1944 (these last two on the same page); Adam Smith had been a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford; Robert Solow “laid the foundations for understanding economic growth”. These, and many others like them, add to the attraction of the book, and enhance its readability, even when their veracity is not always assured. It has to be said that Yueh’s strategy of telling us what her 12 apostles had to say about a particular pressing problem that confronts us today is a sure and certain way of bringing the relevance of older thinking home to a discipline that is almost entirely ignorant of its own past. However, it also has its limitations. To begin with, it would be easy for the uninitiated reader to come away from her book thinking that the main contribution of each of her apostles was limited to what they had to say about that particular problem. Thus, Irving Fisher, the man who brought Walras and general equilibrium theory to USA, might instead be thought by such a reader to be important primarily for his work on the quantity theory and debt deflation. David Ricardo, who established the grounds for a monetary and fiscal orthodoxy that is with us to this day, and whose theory of value and distribution has been a constant source of either annoyance or admiration, is recognised principally for his approach to the gains from international trade. A globaliser before globalisation he may have been, but he is also more than that. Alfred Marshall, rather bizarrely in my opinion, is presented as someone who taught us about inequality. In a similar way, in Yueh’s book we encounter a Hayek who is presented as the purveyor of business cycle theory and spontaneous order—his weakest features. There is almost nothing about his much more profound (and influential) work on the economics of incomplete information and knowledge. The most egregious distortion of all, however, comes when Yueh points us to Joan Robinson. She is supposed to be helpful to us today because she wrote a book on imperfect competition—a book she thoroughly repudiated as a wrong turning. By proceeding in the manner she does—question-by-question, answer-by-answer, and apostle-by-apostle—at the end of the journey, Yueh’s reader is left with a host of different opinions, sometimes on the very same subject, but with no real means of determining which might be the best guidance to follow. This is especially so with the problem of economic crisis—where we given quite contradictory guidance by, in turn, Fisher, Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman. The same is no less the case with the problem of inequality—where our guides might be Marx, Marshall, or Robinson. In the end, it seems to me that these difficulties arise because Yueh’s reader is given little or no inkling of the over-arching economic vision of each of her apostles. Each had a pre-analytic vision of what constituted the central feature of the operation of a market economy—a general framework of concepts so to speak. These visions were sometimes complementary, and sometimes not. For Marshall, it was the mutual interaction of the forces of demand and supply; for Hayek, it was the informational efficiency of decentralised markets; for Keynes, it was the operation of effective demand; for Schumpeter, it was the circular flow of economic life; and for Walras, it was the interdependence of markets. By largely ignoring their visions, and concentrating instead on often only one aspect of their thinking, Yueh paints an unfinished picture of her apostles. Which brings us to Niall Kishtainy’s Little History of Economics. This book is part of a series of “Little Histories” of various disciplines that their publisher describes as being “vivid storybook introductions for young and old”—designed, the publisher tells us, as “perfect bedtime reading”. A storybook this certainly is. Quite how young, or old, one might need to be to find it “engaging” and “charming” (the publisher’s words) is anyone’s guess. The familiar phrases of those famous German story-telling brothers—‘in den alten zeiten’ or ‘es war einmal’—would certainly not feel out of place at the opening of almost any of its chapters. Kisthtainy’s book is reminds me a little of Jane Marcet’s Conversations of two centuries back. Like Marcet back then, Kishtainy has an impressive grasp of the subject and an undoubted facility for presenting it all in a simple, homespun, style. The sheer range of his territory almost takes one breath away. The reader is taken on an odyssey that runs from Aristotle to Arrow; from Socrates to Sen; from Plato to Piketty; from Alexis de Tocqueville to Amos Tversky. And it is not just an odyssey of ideas. We travel from Ancient Greece to Castro’s Cuba; from New Lanark to New York City; from Mesopotamia to Mexico. In this little volume history unfolds, as well as ideas. Then there are the models and theories. From marginal utility to the madness of crowds; from acid rain to austerity; from Fourier’s phalansteries to Buchanan’s bureaucracies; from comparative advantage to the Prebisch-Singer Hypothesis. It is no mean feat to have achieved all this in under 300 pages, and in a style accessible to all. Like Yueh, Kishtainy is keen to keep his reader engaged by anecdotes—often apocryphal—about the lives and characters of his subjects. They are supplied in abundance. We find Adam Smith wandering about Kirkcalday in his pyjamas; Marshall writing economics among the alpine glaciers of Europe; Kydland and Prescott hatching their theories late at night when everyone else had gone home; Pigou sitting outdoors on a deck chair reading the paper, while everyone else is sheltering from a possible air raid; and Gary Becker discovering the value of time by parking illegally. If you know anyone aged about 15 who is thinking of pursuing economic studies, and you wish to encourage them, give them a copy of Kishtainy’s Little History. Of course, remarkable as its coverage is—and I have not mentioned Feminist Economics, Marxian Economics, Institutional Economics, Behavioural Economics, Rational Expectations, Keynesian Economics (Old and New), and Monetarism—this Little History suffers from the same defect as Yueh’s book. In the end, the reader is left with a vast array of ideas and arguments without being given any basis whatsoever to judge their relative merits. It is almost as if the reader could toss a coin to choose between often quite contradictory arguments. Robert Graves once proposed that the Devil’s advice to storytellers was that they should ensure that there was always a “nice contradiction between fact and fact”, since that would “make the whole seem human and exact”. Kishtainy seems to have followed that advice. But it is easy to quibble. With each of these books, the reader gets exactly what it says on the tin. Kishtainy’s Little History is a storybook spanning a couple of millennia of economic thinking. It is for the neophyte. The lectures by Backhouse and Tribe provide an introductory guide to mainstream thinking over the last three centuries. The book is for undergraduates already reading economics. Roncaglia’s Brief History charts how and why mainstream economic thinking today has come to be what it is, and whether something valuable might have been lost along the way. It is for students of economics (and of cognate fields) who wish to think more critically about the present state of the discipline. Yueh’s Great Economists is for everyone—or at least for everyone who is grown up. I suspect that were I to be looking for a single book to place in the hands of anyone in order to illustrate the value of attending to the history of economic thinking, and the utility of economic studies, it would be Yueh’s book. By turns exhilarating and infuriating, it will garner a wide readership—and it will leave them wanting more. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Cambridge Political Economy Society. All rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Contributions to Political Economy – Oxford University Press
Published: May 9, 2018
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