Sunday, June 29, 2008

The 35th History of Economics Society Conference, Toronto, 2

From the interesting reminiscences of Geoff Harcourt (a veritable tour de force), I caught the tail end of the paper by Francis Peddle on ‘Hegel’s Concept of Poverty and Scottish Philosophy’. This was not the last reference to Hegel and Adam Smith’s (and Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart’s) influence on him. Hegel came up in several conversations during the rest of the day and, as I have little acquaintance with Hegel, it’s all new to me.

Duncan K. Foley took the plenary session. He spoke from, or rather read from, a two-sided pile of typed pages, sometimes at breakneck speed on ‘The History of Economic Thought in the Education of Duncan Foley’. What I caught seemed interesting; unfortunately, much was lost in a rushed mumble, which the sound system did not do much to help in the vast auditorium. By reading from a paper, necessarily looking down at it (Duncan is an American-tall man), he did not help his delivery. I shall await its publication and make a more informed judgement.

The next session that I attended was ‘18th-century Thought’ and this was a gold-dust session for me. Three excellent presentations; three interesting topics; and three stimulating speakers – they made my day.

Loic Charles reported on his work with Christine Théré in Quesnay’s archives and their discovery of the close collaboration of Mirabeau in the ‘produit net’, showing how Mirabeau convinced Quesnay to re-define its meaning. The archives of their handwritten exchanges show this clearly. Incidentally, the French pronunciation (Charles is French) of Quesnay is ‘Kenay’, silent ‘s’; I never knew that, though the discussants from the floor clearly did.

Jeffrey Young (St Lawrence University) ran through his paper on the post-war literature on Malthusian ideas (Limits to Growth, etc.,) and illustrated his case with clear diagrams showing the ‘ecological’ version of Malthus and how they must be re-drawn to correspond to both Malthus’ original ideas and to analysis of he actual constraints on growth. I have seen a similarly constructed diagram by Gavin Reid, showing Adam Smith’s ‘Four Ages of Man’ (Hunting, Shepherding, Agriculture, and Commerce).

Young concluded that the real constraint on growth is not the physical shortage of resources so much as institutional deficiencies (population behaviours; wrong-headed policies). Malthusian predictions have not materialised, and apart from local problems, human prospects are much better than is propagated by ‘limits-to-growth’ type literature.

Young called his approach in the paper as ‘thin history'; for something ostensibly ‘thin’, he was remarkably productive in making his case. David Levy, his discussant was excellent – he spoke to the listeners in the room, and not as is often the case, he did not engage in a barely audible conversation with the speaker a few feet from him; he spoke to the seminar.

In a spirited contribution, Levy, spoke of his case that there are two separate claims to the ideas of Malthus: one is straight Malthusian set of ideas based on what he wrote; the other is a ‘Malthus’ invented by modern literature. I felt the same can be said of Adam Smith.

Benjamin Mitra Kahn (City University) spoke to 'Defining Economic Growth in the 18th century'. His exposition was excellent; his content well arranged, and his purpose fulfilled in showing how ideas about national income accounting slowly emerged as nation states wrestled with what seems to be a problem of classification of stocks and flows, but which was in fact a highly practical search for a clear method of selecting flows for taxation to finance wars.

I commented, briefly, that Adam Smith's distinction between 'productive' and 'unproductive labour' had nothing to do with national accounting, though incorrectly ascribed as that later. These had much to do with Smith's dynamics of growth: what added to growth (circulating capital) and which didn't (prodigality in consumption). It wasn't a divide into manufacturing and services, as is commonly claimed; providers of services for unproductive consumption, were profit-seeking suppliers who did replace their outlays plus a profit, some of which was re-invested in replacing labour and materoal costs and therefore were productive.

I attended part of the session ‘Money in Hume, Law and Cantillon’, in which James Ahiakpor spoke on the ‘Search for a Consistent Interpretation’ of ‘Hume on money’. Again, it is a case of being ‘interpreted’ by
20th-century theorists (Fisher, Taussig, Viner, et al) rather than his (Humes')contributions, ‘Of Money’, ‘Of Interest’ and ‘Of the Balance of Trade’, taken together. Ahiakpor made a competent case, supported by on-screen paragraphs from the different sources.

Here I took a break, and conversed in the coffee room with some participants, and bought a couple of books. The ‘In Memorium’ plenary session for ‘Bob’ Coats was well attended and had a video link to Warren Samuels, whom I had hoped to speak to about his 2007 paper on the modern treatment of the invisible hand. Clearly, he was convalescing and not in attendance. The speeches about Bob Coats (of whom I knew little, other than couple of his pieces I have read on 19th-century social conditions) were moving tributes to the man, his wife and partner, Sonia, and their work.

Lastly, I went to the reception for the outgoing editor of the excellent Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Steven Medema. After ten years, he hands over to the next editor. He has also organised the speakers for the Edinburgh Conference of HET in September, at which I am presenting a paper.

Small change: I was proposing to speak on ‘Adam Smith and the Labour Theory of Value’, basically showing he has been wrongly (dis)credited with a LTV. Instead, I have been asked to give my latest version of my paper, ‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth’ and I am very pleased to do so. I shall present the LTV paper (now in final draft) next year at an early opportunity.

The ‘invisible hand’ is a more pressing issue than LTV among the profession and given the critical audience of the HET conference – small numbers, longer sessions, more discussion and more time for critical appraisal, I am pleased, apprehensive, but not complacent, at the challenge of a critical test before my peers for a theme I have been explicating and defending since 2005 on Lost Legacy.

The final paper goes into the conference secretariat next week. It is a clear case of presenting the original ‘S’ rather than the modern “S” (acknowledgements to David Levy).

... Sunday dawns, and I am ready for delivering my paper: ‘Adam Smith on Bargaining’ after lunch, and after a morning session on ‘Plato, Aristotle (and Marx?)’, plus a panel discussion on ‘historians and the history of social science’.



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