Saturday, September 06, 2008

40th Anniversary of History of Economic Thought Annual Conference, Edinburgh 3-5 September (Part 1)

The differences between History of Economic Thought and the usual academic conferences in themselves are quite small, but looking back in the aggregate they are fairly significant.

The number of papers accepted for presentation is restricted to 15 and there are no pre-selected ‘discussants’ that open the ‘debate’ on a paper, squeezing the time for audience participation.

All participants are free to comment within the 50 minute time available. The restricted number of papers does not require parallel sessions so every paper is presented to the whole conference. The time available for each paper – an opening 20 minute presentation by the author, strictly monitored by the session chairman – is increased, allowing more comments and questions from the floor.

The audience (about 40) is formidable for ‘new’ attendees like myself. There were so many ‘big names’ in the audience that knowing only throught their published work, and not personally, created certain tensions; knowing that these ‘faces’ knew more because they have studied Adam Smith for longer than I have, and have 'battle honours' from such themes as might touch upon, made me cautious. Meeting with several of them afterwards, I found them imbued with that quality I have noitced among senior scholars - a self-deprecating modesty and personal reserve about themselves.

My paper, ‘Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth’, was the first on the agenda, the contents of which should be familiar to regular readers of Lost Legacy. The paper on such occasions carries careful academic referencing of the relevant literature as end notes in the paper, not normally a feature of a Blog post. Incidentally, readers wishing to receive a copy should email me (gavinAtnegwebdOtcom) and introduce themselves (pseudonyms and user-names are at odds with receiving something for nothing), and I shall send them an electronic file of the paper (you will not receive unwanted spam).

The session was chaired by Professor Steven Medema of the University of Colorado (Denver), now completing ten years as editor of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought.

One piece of private friendly advice I received later from a distinguished scholar (Professor Mary Morgan of LSE) was most valuable and will be addressed in my re-draft. My paper, she pointed out, does not open with a statement about the various ways in which modern economists use the metaphor of the invisible hand. In consequence it was not clear, she suggested, exactly to what I was objecting other than the assertion that Adam Smith did not mean the invisible hand to be treated other than as a metaphor.

For listeners, she asked, was I criticising the theory that an invisible hand that guided self-interested actions so that, whatever the intentions of the actors, they always produced benign outcomes, or was it a claim that the invisible hand was a mechanism that operated in markets (like the ‘free-rider’ mechanism in public goods)? Making this clear would guide listeners to the point I was making.

A theory can always be tested – did it correspond to or explain experience? Given that Adam Smith noted over 50 instances in Books I and II of Wealth Of Nations a selection of self-interested behaviours that had malign consequences (listed in the end notes to my paper) this make clear to economists my criticisms of the false ascription of such a theory to Adam Smith.

On reflection, I agree with Professor Morgan’s suggestion. I think writing Lost Legacy this past few years, it has become more or less a ‘conversation’ with myself. I know what I am talking about but I have slid into assuming that my several hundred daily readers also know what I am talking about, but when addressing colleagues, most of whom have not read Lost Legacy, they are left in the dark about its connections to modern economics.

Unfortunately, I cannot correct this weakness in my new book, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy (August 2008), so I had better preface posts on Lost legacy with the necessary remarks.

The paper received a mixed reception, some friendly, some distinctly sceptical during the session - a few expressed private agreement later.

I shall report on some of the highlights for me of the papers that followed and the discussions.



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