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A Little History of Economics

Author(s):Kishtainy, Niall
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

Niall Kishtainy, A Little History of Economics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. vi + 249 pp.  $25 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-300-20636-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This book, one in the Yale University Press “little histories” series, seems to follow a formula for brevity; thirty-nine of forty chapters number just six pages long (the one miss is by a few short sentences). Kishtainy gets around this artificial limit by giving some topics or economists another look in second chapters (e.g., Keynes and the 1960s policy-Keynesians). Generally, a chapter focuses on one or two representative thinkers; if the topic is thin, Kishtainy may introduce related economists to get to six pages.

The book is chronological, from early Greek philosophers to twenty-first century economic psychologists, inequality researchers, and others, who are clearly different from the mid-twentieth century mainstream. Overall, Kishtainy gives significant attention to economic thinkers who were outside the consensus of their time.

Kishtainy is guest teacher at the London School of Economics, and has advised UK and UN agencies on economic policy. His selection of topics and economists is broadly international, but with a definite Eurocentric tilt.

This book is primarily about economic ideas, especially as related to the economic life and policies of their times. Often, this historical context promotes greater appreciation of old ideas that otherwise might be dismissed lightly. Conversely, when an economist published predictions, Kishtainy may remind readers of subsequent history; some economists, say, Malthus, don’t fare so well by this measure. However, Kishtainy is not heavy handed, and tends to leave criticism implicit.

The intended audience seems to be high school students in advanced-placement courses or undergraduates in introductory economics or history-of-ideas courses. Perhaps elders, reading for enrichment, would also like this book. Kishtainy does an excellent job for this audience. The writing is crisp, to the point, and almost journalistic.  Although brevity and simplicity risk omission or oversimplification, there seem to be no blatant errors.

At the outset, Kishtainy announces key elements of his own understanding of economics. First, he says, is an emphasis on scarcity, and the corollary need to make choices. Second, is the positive-normative distinction, (overly) simplified by quoting Alfred Marshall that economists need “cool heads but warm hearts.” Third is the distinction between capitalist and traditional economies, while noting that the predominant focus of modern economics has been on capitalist markets. Fourth, he writes, that to Marshall’s “head and heart” must be added self-critical eyes. That is, readers of economics should be alert to cultural or class biases in economics.

The first two of these elements are standard in textbooks (i.e., scarcity, positive/normative); and they are stated here in an unexceptional way. The third element (capitalist/non-capitalist economies) reflects Kishtainy’s selection of topics, apparently with an eye to giving pre-capitalist and non-capitalist thought its due. The fourth element (critical eyes) is good advice for readers of economics. (Economists, however, tend to have critical eyes only for the work of other economists.)

A look at some chapters gives a flavor of Kishtainy’s work. Chapter 3, on early Christian economic thought, seems in places somewhat reductionist. He points to the concept of, and rationalization for, economic scarcity in the Bible; but he ignores incongruent biblical texts about abundance — such as manna in the wilderness or Jesus’s feeding miracles. Also, Christian economic thought is reduced to one chapter on pre-Reformation thought; and yet, there is ongoing research about the impact of the Reformation on economics. As this may be inevitable in such a very brief presentation, a reductionist tendency is not a fatal criticism — however, one should be aware of it. On the positive side, the sketches of everyday life (say, under feudalism) make old ideas seem relevant to their times.

In his treatment of the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth, Kishtainy casts his net wide — except for the relative neglect of Americans. Alexander Hamilton is briefly mentioned; however, not really in his own right, but to introduce Friedrich List. Even so, List is an example of the German historical school, which had followers in the United States; yet these are ignored. And, although Kishtainy does give a chapter to Thorstein Veblen, he says nothing, about another — equally iconoclastic – American, Henry George.

At one point (p. 72), Kishtainy looks at the methodological conflict between a focus on single-minded data collection and pure theory. He minimizes the conflict with the standard textbook harmonization of the two approaches: theory guides us where to look to make sense of mountains of otherwise mostly uninterpretable data. Actually, this common textbook gloss seems in peril in view of the Big Data revolution: computer intelligence sifting masses of data quickly, generating potential hypotheses by induction. Contrary to textbook wisdom, guidance from theorems (usually) based on universal maximization assumptions, might not be so necessary at all.

Given that Kishtainy points to the positive-normative distinction as an element to understanding economics, I am surprised that he does not give welfare economics a full chapter. My view is that welfare economics was the attempt to use the ideas and methods of positive economics to deduce values consistent with positive economics. In the end, all that was achieved was what one would expect: efficiency is the only good thing economics can endorse. That is, efficiency is privileged over equity. That would have been worthy of six pages by Kistainy.

Although I think this book might have been improved, I still give it high marks. After all, the author of a short book is forced to make choices that not everyone will favor. And Kishtainy’s choices could be defended.  The purpose is to give a brief, historical perspective to readers who are laypersons in the subject of economics. Kishtainy has written a book that should hold the interest of his audience and leave them the better for having read it. Hopefully, this book will encourage some to read at greater depth.

Donald E. Frey is author of America’s Economic Moralists (SUNY Press, 2009).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Time Period(s):General or Comparative