Sunday, September 07, 2008

40th Anniversary Conference of the History of Economic Thought (HET)

Following my paper, Professor Glen Hueckel, Pomona College, California, showed the almost depressing complexity that Malthus delivered trying to rescue a labour command theory of value from its many in-built contradictions in his correspondence with David Ricardo. Not that Ricardo added much clarity to the subject.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with three papers, chaired by Professor Vivienne Brown (Open University, UK).

The first was by Professor Yasunori Fukagia, Yokohama University, on political economy of land tenure in Ireland under the direct influences of the British government and the exploitative, often absent, landlordism that it engendered. Professor Renee Prendergast, Queens University, Belfast, offered a comment which included the point that the United Irishmen were not solely of Catholic affiliations; Wolf Tone, for example, a leading figure in the movement was a Protestant; it was what it called itself, ‘United Irishmen’ against ‘English’ rule. The religious divisions between ‘Protestant’ England and ‘Catholic’ Ireland came later.

I was reminded of the presentation of Sandra Peart and David Levy of the role of cartoons in political economy at HES in 2007 that showed disgusting and explicit racial biases in the mainstream 19th century press. The Irish disturbances brought out the worst in stereotypical caricatures from political opponents.

Professor Stephen Meardon, Bowdoin College, New Brunswick, Canada, gave an interesting presentation on Anglo-US rivalry in trade with the rest of the Americas in the 19th century, particularly in attempts at competing bilateral, ‘most favoured nation’ treaties. His account was compelling in its lucidity. [He had also offered some criticsm of my paper on the invisible hand.]

I couldn’t help thinking about Adam Smith’s admonition in the last paragraph of Wealth Of Nations for Britain to ‘accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances’ (WN V.iii.92: p 947).

Having ‘lost’ the British colonies in North America but not taking the opportunity to avoid internaitonal entanglements, Britain’s strategic error was compounded by its second ‘empire’ across the globe up the mid-20th century, because it involved the ‘expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace’, and eventually local wars all over the world, plus two world wars, that ignored the ‘mediocrity of its circumstances’. Since the end of the second empire in the 1960s, Britain invested in the political, diplomatic, and military junior ‘police’ roles that its politicians bask in, as if there is now a third 'empire', to the detriment of the opulence its peoples should enjoy as the world’s fourth richest economy.

John Aldrich, University of Southampton, outlined his paper on ‘Probability. Statistics & Political Economy in Mill’s Logic’. It delivered things I did not know about Mill.

Next day, Sir Alan Peacock, an eminent economist with a distinguished career and a ‘classical economist’ of note, was in the chair.

Professor David Collard (University of Bath) developed a theme of general interest to me, ‘Alfred Russel Wallace among the Economists’. Wallace shared the introduction of natural selection to science with Charles Darwin.

The paper was an insight into the intellectual life of that slice of society in the 19th century, especially as Wallace outlived Darwin and had a ‘colourful’ scientific career. Wallace had finally worked out how natural selection worked, after years of field study, while incapacitated with a bout of malaria, and went on to ‘dabble’ in the para-normal and other mildly controversial fads.

[To be continued]



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