Cultural economics and the history of economic thought

I have submitted a paper to a conference on cultural economics and have been asked to explain how a paper on the history of economic thought belongs in a conference on cultural economics. Since the premise of the letter to me was, in the words of the conference organiser, “the more the merrier”, the query was entirely friendly. This is my reply:

I am all for the more the merrier and I must tell you that attending the conference does seem a very copasetic way to spend a few days in Montreal at the start of summer. So I will begin by saying that I have approval to attend your conference since I am already attending the HES conference in the previous week and my confreres will be there already. Nevertheless, I would very much like to help chisel out a bit more territory for cultural economics which is what I am hoping to do with my paper.

The notion that lies behind it came to me in this review of my Defending the History of Economic Thought written by my friend AW whom I am sure you know very well. There he wrote (using the initials IH for Intellectual History):

“More fruitfully, Kates reminds us that HET can be ‘a conversation with economists of the past on contemporary questions.’ Now we are talking IH, the opportunity cost of which needs to be justified. In my opinion, the value of IH to the apprentice economist depends on what kind of economist we are training. There is a large demand, in both the private and public sectors, for skilled technicians in essentially subordinate positions. IH is of no more professional importance to them than Shakespeare or Mozart. But if we are training high-status economists – the Krugmans and Stiglitzes of this world, who play a large part in public affairs and in elite universities – then we must encourage a wide and humane culture: literary, philosophical, historical, artistic and scientific. IH certainly belongs in the mix here. The great Paul Samuelson was a better economist (of this kind) for his ‘conversations’ – often quite disputatious – with Quesnay, Hume, Adam Smith, Thünen and Marx. At his Nobel Prize banquet he listed among the conditions for academic success in economics, fourthly: ‘you must read the works of the great masters.’”

In my book, I did not entirely neglect this side of the issue but I cannot say that I explored it thoroughly either. And while I completely agree with AW in relation to its necessity amongst the elite of the profession, I am not sure that I would wish to stop there since when someone is an undergraduate, or even a graduate student, it is impossible to know who is going to be at the elite of the profession 20-30 years hence. So that is why my abstract is written as it is:

“There is a growing recognition that economists need to study the history of their subject not just because it helps to understand how economies work, but also because it is part of the transmission of cultural traditions. It is not just that knowing the works of the great economists of the past, such as Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill, is valuable for their economic insights, but may be even more valuable for the traditions they represent. This paper looks at the importance of the history of economic thought in terms of the cultural transmission such studies represent. From that premise, it goes on to suggest how the history of economics should be taught so that both the economics of earlier times is understood as well as providing deeper insights into the cultures of both their own times and, by way of contrast, our own.”

Nor should you think that this is a late conversion. As part of the course I teach which is based on the book I wrote, there is a major section on the history of economic thought whose importance I explain not just in relation to helping them understand the theory we teach but also this, which is quoted from my Free Market Economics (Kates 2011: 181):

“It is also important, as a matter of general cultural awareness, to know the great economists of the past who have had an influence on the way in which we think about economic matters. For good or ill, these people have influenced our lives more than any other people in the social sciences because it is based on their theories that our economic structures are organised. This is true irrespective of the kind of economic system one happens to live within.”

I am always struck by how little any of my students know about the historical and intellectual traditions of their own culture. All of the following make at least walk-on appearances although most are treated at length: Adam Smith, J.-B. Say, T.R. Malthus, David Ricardo, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Stanley Jevons, Karl Menger, Leon Walras, Alfred Marshall, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and J.M. Keynes. On more minor members of the economics tradition, I throw in Robert Torrens, Walter Bagehot, Henry Clay, Fred Taylor, Gottfried Haberler, Paul Samuelson, Gary Becker and William Baumol. It will not, of course, surprise you that even in my class of graduate students, the only one that any of them have ever heard of is Marx. To encourage someone to speak up, I always say (as a joke but they can’t be 100% sure) that I will give an automatic “A” to anyone who can tell me a single historical fact about John Stuart Mill. I have had only one taker in the last five years. Their cultural knowledge is pitiful. My course is a tiny experiment in trying to do better. And I might note that as I begin this three hour class on the history of economics, I always say to them that for some this will be the longest three hours of their lives but for others it will be amongst the best experiences they will have in a classroom during their entire university career. And at the break, around half don’t come back but the half that remain feel they have learned something worthwhile which gives them some sense of what they have missed out on had they actually had a genuinely liberal education.

Anyway, I hope you find this interesting as a subject for a paper. I have already written up some of what I intend to give but will leave it in your hands whether space can be found for me to present at the conference. I do, in any case, look forward to being there in June.

With kindest best wishes