Politics as History of Economics

Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.

But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.

Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….

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4 thoughts on “Politics as History of Economics

  1. Floris, I beg to (strongly) disagree. When you say that Economics is a “self-perceived body of value-free objective knowledge”, I as an economist: i)do check to see who you are, ii) do classify and spin that information in the way that most accords to my own view of HET.

    Mind you, the problem here is not HET, nor you in particular. I go through the same process when I lay my hands on a new research article by any economist: who is this guy; in what journal is he publishing; who’s the likely editor; where is the journal based; can I identify the editorial board as pushing an agenda; can I identify the article with a style/region/approach. Less conspiratorial questions will also come up: why is the data (if any) diced this particular way; why is he/she using this sample and not another; why is he/she choosing to report these statistics and not others that could look different.

    That info is at least as important in shaping my own view of a paper as is the actual content/idea and it informs the way in which I relay the contribution, say to a colleague or a student. While this process might not be made explicit, it is common knowledge that everyone is doing this when they follow this and not that approach, when they quote this but not that contribution, when they bash x but not y, etc etc.

    This is in no way objective or value-free. It means taking a stand on the stock at hand, picking and dicing the way you see fit. Of course, I’m going to tell the audience mine is the best possible stand as I see it. At the same time, everyone in the audience knows that next week it can very well happen that someone will come in with the opposite view. I know it as well and try to anticipate this by conditioning the view of the audience as much as I can.

    To assume otherwise is to assign a level of naivete to your subject of interest -economists and economics- that seems to me ultimately counterproductive for your study.

  2. Let put it this way: it is not because one believes that there is no absolute truth, that one should stick to the belief that there is nothing but rethorical moves to be found and commented upon and that at the end of the day everything is politics. As an historian, I am a skeptic not only of those who preach for the truths we should learn from science, but also of those who preach we should stop worrying about scientific truths and do politics. I am not taking any sides, I am trying to write things that stand the test of time. Are you?

  3. Points well taken chicago boy, you’re probably right. But let me give an example from my local politics shop. Whenever we recieve information about the number of homeless in our city, or the number of children in poor families, we will immediately ask where the information is coming from and adjust the information accordingly. The economists (who provide the number of poor children) find that insulting – and as an economist I cannot but agree. These are people with no political affiliation simply trying to provide us with the best possible information. Still, as local politician – but also as historian of economics – I cannot but adjust the information for the source that provides it. The different realms seem to be doing different things somehow, is all I’m saying.
    Loic: I am, but I do so very consciously by giving MY best historical interpretation.
    But maybe this is all just one big red herring – I don’t know….

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