EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Defending the History of Economic Thought

Author(s):Kates, Steven
Reviewer(s):Duggan, Marie Christine

Published by EH.Net (November 2013)

Steven Kates, Defending the History of Economic Thought.  Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013. x + 140 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84844-820-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marie Christine Duggan, Department of Economics, Keene State College.

Steven Kates warns us that if the history of economic thought (HET) leaves the field of economics, economics will lose a good bit of its theoretical heart (p. 27).  He makes this argument against two opposing straw men.  The first is those who define an economist as someone who can apply sophisticated econometric techniques to data.  The other is the view among HET practitioners that since HET has been shunted aside within economics by mathematics, the wise make allies with historians.  He views this latter as dangerous to economics as a discipline: “The core issue is whether the subject area of the history of economic thought adds to the study of economics.  The question is not whether there are a thousand other uses of HET” (p. 67).

This book acts as a wake-up call that practitioners in HET may have an honorable role to play in reversing the decline of theory in our profession.  That’s a big task, and Kates certainly has the fighting spirit. He has experience in battle tactics from what he terms “the dark arts” of lobbying. This sound practical advice arrives in Chapter 5, which discusses his successful effort to reverse the decision by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to take HET out of economics in 2007.  He recommends finding out the logic for this decision; explaining the flaw in the logic; and providing an alternative path of action (p. 111). Kates learned that the primary reason ABS thought HET unimportant was because the number of scholars receiving research funding for HET projects was small.  He pointed out that any applied field of economics would tend to result in more research dollars, compared to a theoretical subfield.  Kates then suggested other quantitative methods of comparing the output of a field, such as Ph.D. completions and peer-reviewed publications.

In Chapter 2, Kates explains that he views HET as a method of studying economic theory with contemporary policy relevance.  He turns in Chapter 3 to the debate on the relation of the subfield to economics. ABS had argued that HET did not belong in economics, and Kates is particularly incensed by those within the HET community who seemed to validate that perspective.  He points (p. 49-59) to Margaret Schabas (1992) and E. Roy Weintraub (2002, 2007). A vitriolic debate from the HES listserv is reproduced (p. 57). Kates asserts that the journal History of Political Economy wants scholars to “examine the development of ideas within a historical context, but … must not use the history of economics as a means to debate economic theory” (p. 46).  The truth is that Weintraub and Schabas provide sound advice for individuals attempting to obtain resources and engage in conversations in order to make a solid contribution during short professional lifetimes.  On the other hand, Kates wants to protect economics, not career paths (p. 67).  The heat seemed excessive since both are essential; as a practical matter there are plenty of venues in which to publish policy analysis, and not so many for the history of ideas.  If HET is at the heart of economic theory, then the journal that deserves the battering ram is the American Economic Review.

Chapter 4 is a guide to teaching HET and does not rise to the same quality as the rest of the book. This reader raised an eyebrow when Kates left Keynes off the short-list of HET content (p. 81), and concern mounted when he asserted that neither Marx (p. 94) nor Bohm-Bawerk nor von Mises nor Hayek (p. 95) belonged in an HET course.  Kates here steps away from his own inclusive definition of an economist as someone who uses “an amalgam of theories and techniques to make sense of the ways in which we provide for our material wellbeing” (p. 116) to the narrow position so that an economist is someone who understands modern textbook economic theory (p. 72).  Since neither Marx nor Bohm-Bawerk are found in modern textbooks, out they go.  Instead, Kates suggests a student in HET compare Mankiw’s 2013 textbook with one written a hundred years ago (Taylor 1913).  Eschewing Marx and Bohm-Bawerk for Taylor 1913 is not persuasive. Indeed, in Chapter 3 Kates argues against placating the mainstream, so this chapter seemed at odds with the message of the book.

I would have appreciated data on HET in undergraduate and graduate programs in Chapter 1, “Preliminary Thoughts.” Data on student reaction to his comparative textbook approach to HET in Chapter 4 might have persuaded me to consider it more carefully.  One should note that infatuation with data analysis rather than theory afflicts heterodox departments now in addition to the mainstream.  Chapter 3 is an excellent guide to landmines in the profession for a recent graduate.  In general, if colleagues or deans start taking potshots at HET (or any subfield that you hold dear), take a deep breath, and read Chapter 5 for some sound tactical advice.

References:

Schabas, Margaret (1992) “Breaking Away: History of Economics as History of Science,” History of Political Economy, 24, 187-203.

Taylor, Fred M. ([1913], 2008) Principles of Economics, Second edition, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints.

Weintraub, E. Roy (2002) “Will Economics Ever Have a Past Again?” History of Political Economy, 34, supp. 1, 1-14.

Weintraub, E. Roy (2007) “Economic Science Wars,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 29, 3:1-14.

Marie Christine Duggan teaches macroeconomics, HET, and economic history.  She published “The Laws of the Market versus the Laws of God: Scholastic Doctrine in the Early California Economy” in HOPE 2005, and published in 2013 “Taking Back Globalization: A China-U.S. Counterfactual Using Keynes’ 1941 International Clearing Union” in Review of Radical Political Economy.  She is writing a book on Spain’s colonization of California in the context of the Spanish enlightenment.

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (November 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII