Sometimes, laziness produces great exchanges of ideas. During one of those lazy afternoons, the kind of days when you realize that your PhD dissertation will not benefit from another turn of the screw, I had a fascinating conversation with Beatrice Cherrier in which we tried to identify all the subjects of interest that have barely been investigated by fellow historians of economics. We soon agreed on the fact that it is puzzling that so many of our friends who are graduate students or young scholars conduct works in empirical and applied economics, not in economic theory, whereas few historical accounts have been written on the subject. We went on enumerating all the novelties a history of recent applied economics would bring to the big picture. For example, it might unveil the role of women in the history of economics, because we know it is a fact that the vast majority of theoricians are men, whereas so many women work in the various institutions providing the information and the tools that crucially contributed to the latest developments of the field. Moreover, such a study would offer a good opportunity to mix sociological, biographical and institutional elements, paving the way for a defense of the contextual history of economics we want to construct. After that invigorating conversation, Beatrice and I both returned to our respective works, which deal with the history of economic theory and of those theoricians who see curves, functions and equilibria everywhere but do not waste their time in conducting the empirical works that might help estimate it.
Because we have had this conversation before, I was not suprised to read E. Roy Weintraub’s post on the HES List and all the reactions that followed, involving some of the most respectable members of our profession, including those who usually avoid posting on the list, by fear of being lost in the midst of a thousand messages on “Mises and the rational economic agent”. Yet I understand Roy’s initial message as a plea for the history of recent economics, more than a simple argument in favor of more studies on the NBER and the other institutions that contributed to the advancement of empirical economics. In his mind, I suppose, “recent” should be understood as the economics of the last three decades and not only as the history of economics during the three decades following WWII that himself and others contributed to construct.
I am amazed by how many people want to resist to Weintraub’s discourse and by how many arguments they invoke to justify that we should be interested only in famous dead economists … scientific distance, objectivity and all that (the most fallacious argument being: “it has already been done before by …”). In fact, it really looks like “the revolt of the idle”, because actually, studying recent economics requires a lot of work. Not only you have to find the proper archival materials, but moreover you have to deal with people who are alive and who do not want to be considered as history. Plus, you have to show clearly that your work belongs to the field of history, that you are constructing the present “as if” it was the historical past, and not as a contribution to modern economics. In other terms, if you study recent economics as a historian, you have to adopt the externalistic point of view, otherwise you’re not a historian anymore but an economist.
This proves that studying recent economics can be a very good vehicle for the promotion of the contextual method in our field. Yet there’s something that worries me a little bit in this discourse : it tends to be taken the other way around, that any good contextual history of economics should be about recent economics. If we read it that way, I think that we run two risks. First, we would tend to forget that a lot of contributions that have been written on earlier economic theory have benefitted from the confusion existing between analytical and historical reconstructions of the past, so that a lot of this history would need to be revisited (Loïc Charles’s works on Quesnay constitute a perfect example). Second, we take the risk of giving too much credit to people whose plea for a history of recent economics has nothing to do with the defense of the externalistic method. For example, if one reads Nuno Palma’s answer to Weintraub’s post on the HES list rather quickly, he will think that Palma is in complete agreement with what Roy suggested. In fact, Palma’s argument is really different. Palma thinks that we should study recent economics if we want to be read and taken into consideration by fellow economists. He doesn’t pretend that we should study recent economics because the latter is of particular historical interest, but because it is good for getting us a good position as historians of economics (and in his mind, a good position is a position in an economics department, of course). If Palma’s posts on the HES list look rather ambiguous on that matter, I would suggest the reading of his recent contribution on the future of HET, published in the JHET.
In our initial conversation, Beatrice and I considered the study of recent empirical economics as interesting per se, and not because it would get us a good job or particular attention from the (economics’) profession. It might sound too naive (or romantic), but that’s what we want to do, rather than transforming ourselves into marketing counsellors.