Wednesday, July 02, 2008

History of Economics Society Annual Meeting (York University, Toronto) 3

The first session I attended today was ‘Plato, Aristotle (and Marx?)’. It is becoming clear that a respectable number of contributors are interested in the philosophical links in the history of economic thought, including in Adam Smith’s work.

Anna Greco took Plato’s republic as the theme of ‘Economic Effectiveness and Economic Efficiency’ (largely about the different perspectives on the division of labour of Plato and modern economics) and Spenser Pack reported on Aristotle and his ‘difficult relationship with Modern theory’ from which I learned a lot about what I had previously known very little. He showed strong philosophical links between Aristotle and Smith. Robert Urquhart advanced a proposition of ‘Marx as a Left Aristotelian’ and made good case for his hypothesis. I found this session the most interesting and clearest intellectual survey. The discussion was equally good (those speaking occasionally dropped into conversation mode and I could not hear them well, or in some parts at all).

The plenary session on, ‘Why do Historians of Economics Hate Social Studies of Science?’ struck a chord with me. I have long been suspicious of disciplinary boundaries (in some cases, Iron Curtains), where excursions into or visitors from other disciplines might help economists conduct their studies better. I could not imagine Adam Smith’s work being so productive of insights if he had written solely within the strict boundaries of modern social science, or at least as it is practised in some areas by colleagues.

The major problem of this session was the familiar one that speakers from the floor tended to speak conversationally, though there were mikes present but they were not used. What is it with the coming generation of academics that they prefer to speak and not be heard than get up and go to a mike? Some members of the audience shouted advice to ‘speak up’ and were ignored (I didn’t do this at any meeting). ‘Twas a pity’, as was the failure of speakers to repeat or summarise the inaudible questions or comments in reply.

Next up after lunch – in my case a cup of coffee (decaf) and a Danish - was Maria Pia Paganelli whose paper was on ‘Approbation and the Desire to Better One’s Condition in Adam Smith’. This was presented well and her argument was solid. She took the usual assertion among modern economists of Adam Smith supposedly stating that in the search for approbation (praise), people’s self interests would have social benefits, and she showed that this conclusion was unsustainable in many cases, using a simple graphic.

I followed with my paper on Smith’s theory of bargaining, showing how his tentative view that the ‘propensity to truck, barter, and exchange’ appears to have been prevalent in pre-history, first as reciprocation, and that this evolved into bargaining, which Smith described as the conditional proposition (‘If you give me what I want, then I will give you this that you want’). My work in bargaining since 1972 completely concurs with the significance that Smith attached to the conditional proposition (largely mised by colleagues). This allows for an interpretation of the famous paragraph about the ‘butcher, the brewer, and the baker’ that is different from common interpretations among main stream economists, including, sadly, among some historians of economic thought.

In the next session, I chose to attend a fascinating discussion of ‘The Economics of Altruism’, which was presented by Steven Medema (‘Creating a Paradox: self-interest, civic duty, and the evolution of the theory of the rational voter’; Alain Marciona (‘Altruism and Rescue Law’) and Phillipe Fontaine (‘Beyond Altruism’). I have never been happy with the use made of word like ‘altruism’ in social sciences generally. It’s not that I have an alternative word for the phenomenon of altruism so much as it requires the observer to know what’s going on in the mind of the ‘altruist’, which is a feat beyond human capacity. However, the session was interesting, as were the questions. The speakers spoke up and the quietest, Phillipe Fontaine, was audible because I was sitting at the front.

Sandra Peart’s Presidential Address (‘We’re all “Persons” now: classical economists, on marriage, the franchise, and socialism’) was of the standard I have come to expect from her – you can see why she held the presidency of the society this past year. She also seems – from observation – to be popular across the board.

I missed the full-booked HES Banquet (I had a headache – quite a stressful day – but I gave my paid-for ticket to a delegate for his wife, and wondered if that was an example of altruism?).

The morning of the last day was devoted to ‘David Hume’s Political Economy’ and this session consisted of presentations by four of the authors of a new book of the title (Routledge, 2008, edited by Carl Wennerlind and Margaret Schabas). The papers were ‘The Historical Context of David Hume’s Political Economy’; ‘David Hume on Value, Manners and Morals’; David Hume’s Monetary Thought: theory and applications’; and ‘The reception of David Hume’s Political Economy in France.’ There was considerable unanimity among the authors and I shall order a copy as the book is now out – each presenter waved a copy with pride to prove it. (If there had been a flyer for it I would ordered one).

Smith and Hume were friends, as is well known – Hume kept a room for him to stay when he (rarely) visited Edinburgh (1766-73). Smith did not treat his friend well on at least two occasions: when Hume applied for a chair in Glasgow University – most assume it was for the Chair in Logic, but I believe it may have been for the Chair in Moral Philosophy in 1751, which Smith was gathering support for his own candidacy.

He wrote to a University colleague, William Cullen, his famous words: ‘I should prefer David Hume to any man for a colleague; but I am afraid the public would not be of that opinion; and the interest of the society will oblige us to have some regard to the opinion of the public’, which damned him with faint praise [Correspondence, No. 10, p 5-6, November 1751].

When asked by Hume to arrange for the publication of his essay on Natural Religion when it was clear he was dying in 1775-6, Smith 'refused' and Hume was disappointed in this treatment and his correspondence shows his disappointment with Smith, who feared repercussions from society. Hume wrote, ever the diplomat, ‘I think, however, your Scruples groundless’ (3 May), and later that day, in a different letter, he wrote: ‘After reflecting more maturely… I have become sensible … of your situation’ [Correspondence: Letters Nos. 156, pp 194-5 and 157, pp 195-6].

The last plenary session was a practical teaching session: ‘Advancing the History of Economics in and out of the classroom’. Kirsten K. Madden gave a spirited address illustrating her ‘Interpretive Question Cluster Discussion Technique in a History of Economic Thought Course’. I was impressed with her message and illustrations.

Years ago, Heriot-Watt economics department introduced the ‘TIPS’ programme to Scottish economists and I believe it achieved improvements in performance in both faculty and students. That it could (would?) economise on faculty resources was a major barrier to its adoption by the departments who tried it. Tenured faculty engage in restrictive labour practices as much as the most unionised plants. But that is an old wound and I won’t go there.

Bruce Caldwell finished the conference with an exciting report on the new Centre for the History of Political Economy in North Caroline (Duke). This could have an impact on the recruitment of faculty prepared to add ‘HOPE’ courses to their curricula in mainstream departments. We shared a cab to the airport during which he gave me more details of his intentions.

So that was HES 2008. On the whole a good conference. I met many new faces and heard some excellent treatments. HES 2009 is to be in Denver, Colorado. If I am able to attend I shall do so.



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