Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chris Dillow is Right: History Does MATTER!

Chris Dillow writes (20 December) the intelligent Blog, Stumbing and Mumbling’ (it grows on you), self-billed as “An extremist, not a fanatic:


“I am one of the richest humans who ever lived. This is not because I am uniquely hard-working or intelligent; such notions are only slightly less cretinous than the idea that I owe my wealth to my great social skills. Instead, I’m rich because I had the good fortune to have born in England in the late 20th century* - in a time and place where history has been kind.
We are not self-made men, but rather creatures of history.

And if history is so powerful an influence, other things are less so - one of these being the managerialist whims of politicians.
It’s in this context that we should regret the decline of history teaching.
Herein lies a paradox. I get the impression that those who would most like to see history given more importance in schools are Tory traditionalists who want to teach some Sellar and Yeatman-style story of our sceptre’d isle. However, Sellar and Yeatman were wrong**. History is not just “what you can remember.“ It has effects whether you know it or not. We are who we are because our ancestors did what they did. Knowing this, however, undermines right-wing fairy tales about people being the products of their own decisions. In this sense, Tories are the last people who should want history taught.

That’s very Smith-like too. He studied history to write about what brought Britain to the way it had become in the 18th-century. It is also why he did not make a habit of making predictions about what would happen, which seems to be the main feature of the modern economics profession. Indeed, economists are expected, and are hired at good salaries and pension plans, to predict the immediate future – they seldom make predictions about the far future (unless they are climate-change specialists).

I share Chris Dillow’s regrets about the decline of history in our education systems. I am also even more regretful about the recent decline among economics departments in academe of the rapid, and near extinction, of the teaching of the history of economic thought, as a taught subject in both undergraduate and graduate teaching and research, hastened by the deliberate downgrading of the status of the history of economic thought by the controllers of the professional journals – the main route to appointment, let alone recruitment, in academic department - and the habits of appointment committees.

This wanton ignorance of history shows in the shameless failure of academic economists to show average success, let alone fail to excel, in their short- to medium-term predictions of the economies they claim to have familiarity with. Predictions in theory ‘ought’ to be possible, but the real world is not like that, whatever the shyster palm-readers claim to do (do you get regular copies of their glossy promises too?).

Understanding how we get to where we are is more productive of positive results in showing what may/could be done to improve performances of whatever our momentary concerns.

Smith’s Wealth Of Nations is a deep criticism of mid-18th century political economy – his “violent attack” Smith called it on the “whole commercial system of Britain” - was dominated by economic thinking from the past and the prejudices of government ministers and sovereigns. He did not make predictions that if everything was changed to meet some ideal conditions, such as the abolition of tariffs, no government regulations, no “jealousy of trade”, immediate adoption of “laissez-faire” - he never mentioned the words – and, above all, leave markets to the so-called “invisible hand” - he never spoke of this metaphor in relation to markets, all would be right with the world.

Now, many economists of left and right believe, with the passions of ignorant certitude, that these were what Adam Smith was about. He wasn’t.

He studied history in all that he wrote from his first (unpublished in his lifetime) essay on the History Of Astronomy to the last editions of Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations, and he drew conclusions from what he learned about how the past continued to work in the present. He was never a revolutionary in a hurry. His proposals when they were made were cautious, careful, and measured against the realities of how society worked. He never fell for the fallacies of the “wooden pieces on a chessboard”, nor did he advise governments, legislatures, or sovereigns to act as if people could be forced the act against their natures.

In short, I suggest economists study more history (and the history of our ideas are a good place to start), with, perhaps, a little less attention given to utopian mathematical, perfectly competitive models of non-existent economies, the create as they go along.

This task requires a detailed study of history, such as Smith made – and taught (see his Lectures On Jurisprudence, [1762-3] 1978) - and not from a skimpy passage through an invented ‘history’ of a few popular books.



Blogger airth10 said...


Have you ever written a piece on the "British Disease"?

1:25 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Not that I can recall.

What do you think is relevant about teh "British disease"?


1:49 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

I guess this post about History made me think of it. Forgive me, but I was imagining a connection between the invisible hand and the British Disease. I was wondering if it was a 'bias' on the part of British industrialists that brought about this so-called disease.

Instead of reinvesting in Britain with their knowhow and capital, many significant industrialists and business leaders opted out for peerages and lordships. This phenomenon is what led to the British Disease - stagnation and decline.

Was this due to a British bias against business life in general? Was it due to British industrialists wanting to shed that stigma, that 'class', so as to become more acceptable to the ruling gentry?

2:27 pm  

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