Wanted: historical punchline

Last week I attempted to enlighten some thirty potential future students into the arguments of economics in a promotion tour of the university that pays my bills. My department’s catch phrase is “more than economics,” which I translated into a “you have to know the history of economics to understand present economics.” A student then raised his hand and asked “how so?” Such a valid question. Why am I so deeply convinced that history of economics is important? I can’t explain.

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5 thoughts on “Wanted: historical punchline

  1. I imagine that everyone has his own answer to that question, or some clues to many answers. History can be a narrative for socialization, reading the giants, you are invited to love your profession. Maybe a narrative of possibilities, reading the lost pasts, you understand that there are multiple framings for thinking about the economy. But for me, the best, is the cultural narrative of what economists have done for society and, how where we are is the outcome of that work. Since I don’t know what will make one a better economist, for all purposes, for all times, maybe one should have all of the above in the intellectual portfolio.

  2. The people who choose the curricula for economics programs have not kept up with the literature. These people must still blindly believe in the neoclassical world of perfect competition (with the occasional market failure). If you are trained in that kind of old-fashioned economics, you don’t really need history of thought.

    Say, if there existed a market for economics (in which economic knowledge were offered to people with economic problems they wanted to solve) and this market were in a unique and stable equilibrium, then all the current economic knowledge would already include all the potentially relevant economic knowledge and there would be no need for history.

    Almost no economist nowadays sticks by the neoclassical model and, if pushed, most economists argue for a need to change it (off the records, that is). Yet, I believe that most economists would argue along the line that we don’t need history because current economic knowledge already includes all that is worth knowing in economics.

    If you could keep an economist listening long enough to show that the conclusion follow from assumptions he doesn’t buy into, then he would at least have to drop the nonsensical “no need for history”.

    Not quite a punchline, I guess…

  3. Thanks for both your comments. It’s true of course that the students I encounter are, consciously or not, very much ingrained in that old so-called neoclaasical economic theory. Given that starting point I very much appreciate the idea of advancing in stages. The first stage might constitute Tiago’s ‘narrative of socialization.’ One would inevitably loose a few who can;t be bothered anyway. But who wouldn’t like to once read the giants of her profession? Subsequently, the next stage could be the ‘framing narrative,’ which offers the past as source of inspiration while at the same time showing there to exist multiple frames for looking at the economic world. For those who would like to go to the final stage, the ‘cultural narrative,’ Tiago would be flown in.

  4. A sales pitch could be that by studying history of economics, you have a unique occasion to get the “broad picture”.
    Economics is usually taught in scattered modules, and is seldom presented from a generalist point of view. Students might complete their studies without understanding what is the underlying unity behind those different topics. By unearthing the roots of the discipline, and explaining their interconnections – even with neighbouring disciplines – one gets a better comprehension of what economists try to achieve. A (Marshallian) punchline could be: traditional economic modules give you the trees, history of economics show you the forest!

  5. Let me offer a different and weaker element or perspective –implicit in some of the comments made– to this discussion: the past has different uses and modern economics, mostly through its textbooks, promote one of them, i.e., the rational reconstruction of theoretical arguments used nowadays (increasingly in a very limited way). Therefore, it is not true that modern economics gives no room to “the past”: it just patronizes, explicitly or not, in some places and with some value, one of many possible uses of the past. Historians are interested in different uses of the past (no need to develop this further, just to note the difference). In asking “why is it true that economics students should know HET in order to understand present-day economics”, we have to qualify what we mean by “HET” and how to teach it. Different ways of teaching it will emphasize different uses of the past and thus will serve to some of the different goals already mentioned: be a “narrative of socialization”, a “framing narrative”, a “cultural narrative”, a thesaurus of unanswered questions (the idea is that not all of the “good” knowledge is incorporated into the theoretical frontier, so scientists may learn “interesting things” by reading old texts), and so on. In any case, history offers us some humility we need as scientists and human beings.

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