HETSA symposium on the future of the history of economic thought

We’ve just had a symposium on my book, Defending the History of Economic Thought, at the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia meeting here in Auckland. I’m no fan of economics in the form of running a line through a set of dots, although I’m not an enemy either. But the astonishing transformation of economic theory from a philosophical study to social physics may be all right for the academic world – may be – but it’s not so all right for those who need to understand what’s going on if they’re trying to make policy.

Economics has a vast store house of approaches that are different from the mainstream, some bundled into different schools, such as Austrian economics, and some just part of an array of models that had been part of the mainstream in the past but have been sidelined for one reason or another. No natural science, for example, has ever had some concept from the past return in the way that Malthus’s early nineteenth century theory of over-saving and demand deficiency was resurrected as Keynesian economics and remains embedded in Y=C+I+G. The challenge to today’s mainstream provided by discarded theories and different schools has seen an effort made to push HET out of the economics classification and, as was attempted in Australia in 2007, to blend it into a category that was to be called, History, Archaeology, Religion and Philosophy, as far as possible from economics itself. My book is about that attempt, and a similar one in Europe in 2011. And the interesting part for me, during this symposium, was to find how many even here in Australia, want to make that transformation.

Why that is, I still cannot fully understand. There’s plenty of sociology in HET even as it stands, but there is also a good deal of rethinking old ideas as well. In the present structure you can do both. If HET became history and philosophy of science, the traditional form of HET would disappear, even as it is already shrinking in North America.

The contrast between our meeting in Auckland and the American HET meeting in Montreal at the end of last month was incredible. You would think that with economic theory at such a low ebb, that there would be many papers looking at the pre-Keynesian theory of the cycle, as just one example. As it happens, there was not a single paper in Montreal on either Keynes (or Marx for that matter), and very few that dealt with economic theory as in what did economist A say about issue B. There instead remains a systematic effort to reward sociology of knowledge. Here in Auckland, however, there have been just the kinds of papers that interest me, on both sides of these debates, and there are knowledgable people who can offer truly in-depth analyses and critiques.

It is, in fact, my wish that HET become in part what it never quite has been able to be, become a proving ground for older ideas that are tested in a pit of criticisms by people who are interested in these issues and know an immense amount about these ancient theories. It now happens in a haphazard way, but I think it should become institutionalised. There is, in fact, a new on-line journal that has opened called “History of Economics and Policy” which in my view is the direction things should go.

At the symposium, there were many things said from the floor that I found very useful and interesting, but amongst them was that MIT is about to make a history of economic thought course compulsory for its PhD candidates. If that is actually true, HET will be back within a decade.

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