Is the history of economics economics?

There is a review of my just published Defending the History of Economic Thought on the History of Economics website written by Marie Duggan. She didn’t quite get it but she got much of what matters. But I cannot help myself so have written this response:

I am grateful for Marie Duggan’s timely review of my Defending the History of Economic Thought and while I don’t think she quite conveys the urgency that went into its writing I think she conveys much of what the book is about. But if I may, I would like to supplement what she wrote.

The central question addressed by the book is this: should the history of economic thought be classified as part of economics? That is, when someone is undertaking research into some aspect of HET, is their work part of the study of economics or is it something else?

Here is the supposed parallel. When someone studies the history of physics, they are not classified as physicists. When someone studies the history of chemistry, they are not classified as chemists. So the argument has been, that when someone studies or writes on the history of economics, they are not economists, but are perhaps philosophers of science or historians. Therefore the history of economic thought should be removed from the economics classification and be placed somewhere else amongst the humanities for example.

Does this matter? I posted a note a few months back on the OECD’s redesign of its Frascati Manual which must seem to most people on this site as of absolutely no relevance to them in any way. In the manual at present, economics is classified as a social science while the history of economics is classified as part of the humanities. That is, the two areas are completely distinct with no overlap of any significance. Does that sound right to you? It doesn’t to me.

We here in Australia wrote a submission to the OECD, a submission which was endorsed by a number of other societies. We have in this way established a position that will need to be taken into account by those who are redesigning the manual and which will also provide the basis for a response if the new manual continues with the same structural division found at present.

I therefore wrote the book to explain just how precarious the History of Economic Thought is. The review only discusses our lobbying efforts with the Australian Bureau in 2007. It surprisingly ignores the more important of these lobbying efforts which was with the European Research Council in 2011. In Australia we were able to persuade the ABS not to make the change. In Europe, the change was made. The ERC removed HET from the economics classification. The effort was therefore devoted to asking the ERC to reverse a decision that had already been made which was ultimately successful.

This is from the original ERC decision. The concern referred to – our concern – is that HET would be removed from the economics classification:

“Addressing your concern, “history of economics” is divided between SH1 and SH6 (“The study of the human past: archaeology, history and memory”).”

If you would like to know what happened both before and after that decision, you will have to read the book. But if you think that you, as a historian of economic thought, are an economist undertaking economics work, try explaining that to your head of department when the official classification has you listed as working in an area described as “the study of the human past: archaeology, history and memory” (and in Australia the classification would have been, “History, Archaeology, Religion and Philosophy”). And to the extent that you could get funding for your work, these would be the panels you would need to apply to.

These, moreover, are not battles won. These are battles we remain in the midst of. Right now, even as I write, there is an attempt being made here in Australia to reclassify History of Political Economy from its current position as an A*-journal, which is our highest classification, to B-level, which is our third tier. The Journal of the History of Economic Thought has already gone from an A to B. This is not happenstance, this is deliberate and there are economists who favour this change. But the effect is obvious. There is a restricted academic reward in pursuing the study of HET. Do something else instead. You are wasting your time with these historical studies of dead economists of the past.

The reviewer says that I have invented straw men opponents of HET. Would that were the case. The history of economic thought has enemies. If HET is removed from the economics classification, it won’t be by accident.

The intent of the book was therefore to explain, as I had done in submissions to the ABS and ERC, why historians of economics are intimately involved in the development of economic theory. It’s not a subject undertaken by or read by non-economists. This is a specialist area in which economists write for other economists. We as economists orient ourselves and our theories through its historical development. That’s why the book is unlike any other on the subject. Most discussions on why study HET are about why individual economists might benefit individually. This book is about why economic theory is improved where economists know their subject’s history and where there are historians of economics to bring economists of the past into contemporary debates.

Most importantly, what the reviewer noted was this: “if colleagues or deans start taking potshots at HET (or any subfield that you hold dear), take a deep breath, and read Chapter 5 for some sound tactical advice.” The book is about alerting historians of economic thought to our present dangers and providing just the tactical advice she discusses. We are at the cliff’s edge. This book is written both to alert historians of economics about the dangers we face and to provide some suggestions on how we deal with this very great problem.

And while this is slightly off topic, my own favourite chapter of the book, but the reviewer’s least favourite, was on how to teach the history of economic thought. Where she writes, “Kates suggests a student in HET compare Mankiw’s 2013 textbook with one written a hundred years ago (Taylor 1913)”, my point was not that they be compared – I wouldn’t read Mankiw or any modern text in an HET class – but that students be asked to read actual mainstream introductory texts of previous eras, such as Taylor (1913) or McCullogh (1825) or even Samuelson (1948). If you would like to get an accurate sense of how economists in the past thought about economic issues I cannot think of a better way to do it.