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Revue des livres
Comptes rendus

Kevin Deane and Elias van Waeyenberge (eds), Recharting the History of Economic Thought

David Colander
p. 235-239
Bibliographical reference

Kevin Deane and Elias van Waeyenberge (eds), Recharting the History of Economic Thought, London, New York: Red Globe Press, 2020, 341 pages, 978-113760524-5

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1I generally avoid doing reviews of edited volumes in economics, both because edited volumes are difficult to review and because the reviews often come off as more negative than I mean them to be. The reason is that the edited books I am generally asked to review are best described as “heterodox/pluralist” books critical of mainstream economics. They argue that economists should be teaching a more pluralist economics. I suspect I am asked to review such books by history of thought journal editors (who are generally sympathetic to a heterodox/pluralist approach) because they see me as a likely sympatric mainstream reviewer, which I am. Unfortunately, while I am sympathetic to heterodox/pluralist views as a goal, I am not sympathetic to most heterodox/pluralist edited volumes because, too often, they are restatements of arguments that have been made again and again, but which have fallen on deaf mainstream ears.

2The problem for me is that most such books are not written with sympathetic mainstream economists as their primary intended audience. Instead, they are written for students, and other heterodox economists who will likely be sympathetic to their views. Books written for open-minded mainstream would be structured differently; they would be more carefully crafted, better capturing the subtlety of views that characterize the best of mainstream economists. Their analysis would be fine grained—designed to show sympathetic mainstream economists where they might consider moderating their views.

3What I don’t think work are heterodox/pluralist books that implicitly assume that mainstream economists are believers that the textbook models should be taken literally as directly applicable models of the economy. Textbook models are pedagogical models that have value in organizing complex insights into teachable segments; they are not models that are meant to be used literally. Good mainstream economists believe that those models have to be translated and modified to fit the real world, and have developed a variety of ways in which they do that translation.

4What made me violate my general avoidance of reviewing such books was this book’s abstract, which described it as a “ground breaking new textbook” that “takes a thematic approach to the history of thought” rather than the chronological approach that most history of thought texts, including mine, take. I’ve always felt that such a thematic approach to presenting the history of economic thought was highly desirable, but I shied away from it because of the immensity of the task of covering the evolution of ideas over millennia within a thematic framework. The way we understand economics is through that chronological framework that has been built into history of economic thought textbooks, and into our understanding of the evolution of ideas in economics. The reality is much more complicated. That chronological framework accounts for the ubiquitous classical/neoclassical division, and the continuation of neoclassical nomenclature long after it usefulness has ended.

5Once I started reading Recharting the History of Thought I quickly discovered that it was not a history of thought book designed to rechart the standard history of thought textbook presentation. Instead it is an alternative perspectives book about modern economic ideas with some history of thought thrown in to provide legitimacy and context to the alternative perspectives.

6The editors recognize that recharting the history of thought is not their goal. In their introduction they write: “The aim of the book is then to emphasize that economics has not always been monopolized by the Neoclassical tradition and that alternatives from the HET can offer important ways forward as we seek to move beyond the fundamental failures of Neoclassical economics.” (5) They state that they “included a number of topics that reflect central methodological and conceptual issues in Neoclassical economics to enable students to think critically about what is typically taught in standard microeconomics and macroeconomic courses.” (6)

7These statements of the book’s aims are a major movement away from the attempt to present the history of thought thematically. Instead, they correctly describe the book as a heterodox consideration of selected themes with reference to the history of thought. This is precisely the heterodox-critique-of-mainstream economics book I try to avoid reviewing. They are books written by heterodox economists for other heterodox economists, or for students of heterodox-leaning economists, not for mainstream economists who are sympathetic to heterodox views.

8Presenting the history of thought thematically is difficult; it requires an overarching vision and worldview that would hold the various themes together. In an edited book maintaining a common vision is almost impossible. The editors may have such a vision, but in an edited book, with individual authors contributing essentially separate essays on topics, any central editorial vision becomes blurry. Edited books, even with an orchestra of virtuoso players, do not a concert make.

9The editors attempted to provide some coherence by encouraging contributors to follow a similar structure in their essays. Thus, the basic structure of most chapters is: Introduction, Neoclassical theory, Alternative approaches, and Conclusions. Which alternative perspectives are presented differ among chapters. Some have a Marxian flavor, some an institutionalist flavor, and others a Post Keynesian flavor. There is little focus on a heterodox public choice or Austrian perspective.

10While in the introduction the editors say the book is divided into two parts, I find it more useful to distinguish four different parts. The first part, (Chapter 2, “Are We all Rational Optimizing Agents?” and Chapter 3, “What is the Role of Mathematics in Economics?”) addresses preliminary concerns that the editors “consider to be central to the standard Neoclassical framework as it appears in undergraduate texts.” (6) The second part (Chapters 4-9) includes chapters on specific topics—production, consumption, or on questions such as: “Do Economies Reach Equilibrium? “How is income distributed?”, “What is the role of money in economics?”, and “How are goods and services valued?”. A third set of chapters compares how different theoretical issues are understood (Chapter 10 “What causes Economic Crises? Chapter 11, “How Do economies Grow?”, and Chapter 12: “How do countries develop?) Finally, a fourth set of chapters (Chapters 13-15) explores how economics deals with issues that neoclassical economics does not much deal with, such as gender, the state and the environment. A final chapter considers whether economics can explain everything. (Hint: The answer is no.)

11The essays vary in quality. Some could have benefited from additional editing. Let me give an example—the chapter considering the role of the state. Here is the chapter’s conclusion: “The mainstream economics textbook promotes the view that the state is an alien intruder interfering with the finely tuned logic of the market.” (282) I find the description of the mainstream text hard to accept. In most economics texts the state is not an intruder; it is the actor doing the policy maximization. This means that the “textbook state” is central to the textbook discussion of policy, or at least central to a set of what are best called “market failure adjusting policies” that fit a constrained optimization framework. Who else but the state is to be doing the policy optimization? The problem with the texts is not that the state is an intruder; it is that it is assumed to be an all-powerful controller who is assumed to know (upon advice from economists) when the market is working and when it is not.

12For alternative views of the role of the state, the chapter offers Classical economists. These Classical economists are not presented as the subtle thinkers about complicated issues. Rather, they are presented as pre-neoclassicals. The chapter states that “Classical political economists like Smith, Ricardo, Say and Mill shared the view that self-interested economic agents interacting in a free market setting and unfettered by state intervention will reach the maximum level of satisfaction.” (271) That is hardly the subtlety I would expect to see in a history of thought text.

13To be fair, within the chapter there is some subtlety in the presentation of differing views. Unfortunately, that subtlety is lost in the editing or lack thereof. For example, on page 273 we are told that “Mill argues that there is no reason to assume the interests of a third party are better managed by the private sphere compared to the state.” That seems a correct and useful nuanced sentence. But then, in the very next sentence, we are told essentially the same thing in the same words. The author writes that Mill “maintains that if a business is managed by an agent on behalf of a principal, then there is no reason to suppose that private management is better than public management.” Then, as if repeating the view almost verbatim twice on the same page was not enough, on the next page we are told that “Mill argues that there is no reason to suppose that the private sector is effective than the public sector.” (274) If one adds the “more” that I suspect is missing in this sentence, it is the third repetition of an almost identical statement.

14In the final chapter one of the editors sets out another revised goal of the book, stating “We hope that this book has been convincing in promoting the view that many different perspectives have something to say about these questions, and that there is value in understanding many, and not just one, way of thinking about economics.” (300) I fully agree with those sentiments. What I do not agree with is that discussing such issues has much to do with recharting the history of economic thought. They are sentiments with which, in my view, any good economist would agree. Recharting the history of economic thought would require addressing finely grained questions about the role of pluralism and alternative perspectives in economics, upon which reasonable people can disagree, with a recognition that both the mainstream and heterodox views need to be understood in the nuanced way in which they are understood by the best of each group.

15As I stated at the beginning of this review, one reason I do not like to review edited books is that I tend to come off as more negative than I am. I suspect I have done so here as well. So let me emphasize that there are many ideas to like in this book. For example, the final chapter explores economic imperialism, and economics claims that rational choice models can explain almost anything. It includes an insightful discussion of economic policy goals, and of Keynes’s belief that in the future (which is now) economic growth will have solved the economic problem as understood by economists of his time. Future economic policy analysis would have to change, and consider normative issues to a much larger degree than it had in the past. These are issues that previous economists have explored, but which modern textbook presentations have largely lost, and which a recharting of the history of economic thought might help rediscover.

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References

Bibliographical reference

David Colander, Kevin Deane and Elias van Waeyenberge (eds), Recharting the History of Economic ThoughtŒconomia, 11-1 | 2021, 235-239.

Electronic reference

David Colander, Kevin Deane and Elias van Waeyenberge (eds), Recharting the History of Economic ThoughtŒconomia [Online], 11-1 | 2021, Online since 01 March 2021, connection on 21 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/10616; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.10616

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About the author

David Colander

Middlebury College. colander@middlebury.edu

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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