In the comments of the previous post (“Days of Future Passed”), Tiago Mata suggested that my vision of History of Recent Economics and History of Old Economics is influenced by my desire to write THE history of recent economics, which I understand as the “true” history. Of course my first move was to resist this claim. Such accusation I would make against one who argued that some of my claims about Friedman were mistaken because he was influenced by his Mont Pelerin membership rather than by his understanding of the Great Depression or his childhood; I do not believe that it is possible to disentangle the personal motives underpinning such and such article clearly enough to choose between them. But my statement that studying Cowles, Rand, and the Chicago School rather than MIT, the IMF, the NBER, the Brooking Institute or the Fed result in biased (maybe I should have written “partial” instead) history is not as strong as these statements on Friedman, and not even of the same nature.
Tiago’s remark is nevertheless true in some sense, for I do not agree with his vision that writing history is about “pick[ing] interesting threads out of…social science in action, social science as a fundamental resource in the shaping of our societies… [I] will not worry if it offers me THE thread or the right weight of threads to encompass the history of recent economics.”
Do you know the tetralogy of novels The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell? It’s the same story (and a lengthy one where cultural, psychological, political motive are interwoven in a complex set) from four viewpoints, four different individual perspective. The whole is subtle enough so that it is extremely difficult to answer this question: “can these four accounts of the same set of events be true at the same time.” The accounts contradict each other, so that they cannot be viewed as part of “multifaceted” history. At the same time, I do not view them as mutually exclusive. Put together, they make the main characters appear as complex and sometimes inconsistent in their reasons. It’s Durrell’s Quartet, not Samuelson or Stigler’s histories that is my ideal. I don’t dream of writing THE right history, but to find THE four histories of such and such event. I dream some days I’ll be skilful enough to picture an economist with all his intellectual inconsistencies and ambiguities, and that the story would nevertheless be understandable. I would read with pleasure an altogether different account by another historian, possibly acknowledging that each of them own part of the truth, but I would still have this “truth” yardstick, however complex, inconsistent, and certainly forever buried this truth is (and if our histories turn out to be incompatible, yes, I may even think “I’m right” and “he’s wrong”).
Am I inconsistent in my quest?