Crazy Foucaltian historians of economics, says DeLong

Blogging is a highly perishable medium. It lasts less than yellowing newsprint. But google searching inadvertedly resurrects discarded text, say a 2005 post by Brad DeLong. Alongside his pristine academic credentials, De Long is one of the dominant economist bloggers, only surpassed by the Freakonomists.

In 2005 De Long was in a heated battle with poststructuralists, postmodernist hordes, verbal jiu jitsu the web hosts with pleasure. Unfortunately, De Long lacked the insider status to offer the damning criticism of the reformed sinner. Economists don’t read cultural studies, they are too straight. De Long is exceptional, he tells us that in the days of yore,

I would rise late, eat a strange late breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with cottage cheese (a kind of breakfast which I ate only from November 1981 through January 1982, never before, and never since), and then walk across the Charles River footbridge to the Kress Collection of the History of Economic Thought in Baker Library.

De Long has done that thing called history of economics. He explains: “It was Associate Professor of Social Studies Michael Donnelly’s fault. He knew I was trying to write an undergradute thesis about the British Classical Economists and how they understood the economy of their time.” Unsurprisingly, by the tone and the high cholesterol breakfast, we learn that De Long did not cherish the experience. The guilty one was not Donnelly as much as it was Keith Tribe.

Tribe had read and been hypnotized by Foucault–specifically The Order of Things and _The Archaeology of Knowledge. I began to read Keith Tribe. He said very strange things. He said that the Wealth of Nations that economists read was not the Wealth of Nations that Adam Smith wrote. … There wasn’t, Tribe argued, an economy that an economist could write a book of economics about until the 1820s or so.

From Tribe, De Long extracted a method:

1. Read not just one or two important books, but a whole bunch of books …
2. … look with fresh eyes on what they are talking about.
3. Examine what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves are common within the examples you have of this “discursive formation.”
4. Think hard about what … moves you would think you would find in these books–but don’t.
5. Think hard about what … moves you do not expect to find prominently in these books–but that you nevertheless do find.
6. Present to the world, in as clear and straightforward a way as you can, what this particular form of discourse was–what it thought the world was like, what it saw as important, what its particular blindnesses were, what its particular sharp points of insight were.
7. Do not, ever, grade a discursive formation of the past by how much it falls away from the ideas of the bien-pensant of today. The past is another country.

At this point of De Long’s narrative I was pretty pleased. He had an understanding of what we do. But one paragraph down I find to my horror that:

Tribe’s (and Foucault’s) methodology collapses when we work back to Books II and I of the Wealth of Nations. For Adam Smith is not the prisoner of the discursive formation of Political Oeconomy. He is not the simple bearer of currents of thought and ideas that he recombines as other authors do in more-or-less standard and repeated ways. Adam Smith is a genius. He is the prophet and the master of a new discipline. He is the founder of economics.

Self-love suddenly runs away with reason. We don’t care to study Adam Smith if it dilutes the message that he is “our man.” For De Long this revelation was a triumph, he had mastered Tribe and Foucault and they were his tools, following his bidding. Proof of triumph comes when the reader reaches the end of the post, signed “J. Bradford DeLong, B.A. in Social Studies summa cum laude, June 1982.” Kudos to Brad.

3 thoughts on “Crazy Foucaltian historians of economics, says DeLong

  1. It is funny to see how much Bradford DeLong sticks to the narrative structure of revelation (ego)tales: I have been a sinner I read Foucault (Ouh!) and Tribe (Oh?!) and like it (No?!), but in the end Jesus, I mean Adam Smith, appeared to me and showed me the way (Yeah!). I wonder how DeLong’s stuff would look when turned into a gospel.
    By the way, I read Tribe’s important book (Land, labour and Economic Discourse) and I work back to book I and II of the Wealth of Nations and its methodology did not collapse at all but on the contrary worked very effectively. I guess this is why I defined myself an sinner historian rather than a faithful economist.
    Rev. Loïc Charles

  2. DeLong’s text sounds a little bit like the people who tell you they are racist because they don’t like black people, but that those of the second floor of their building are quite nice so that they shouldn’t fall into that category … It seems that Adam Smith is DeLong’s 2nd floor black neighbor ! Constructivism is good but not in the case of Adam Smith because Smith defies any understanding of science … I had read Robert H. Nelson’s book on economics as a religion and remember I wasn’t impressed by the author’s argument, Yet after reading this, I have the impression that there are some serious grounds for his thesis.
    One of these days, brothers, we too will see the light !!

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