Why economics needs the history of economic thought

My reason for being on the road and in Montreal is to attend the American History of Economic Society meetings. I wrote my Defending the History of Economic Thought in response to attempts to remove HET from within the economics classification and place it in some remote category as far from economics itself as they could arrange. In Australia (2007) it was to be, “History, Archaeology, Religion and Philosophy” while it Europe (2011) it would have been, “The Study of the Human Past: Archaeology, History of Memory”. If you had therefore been studying HET, you would not have been studying economics. Your papers also would not have been HET. As near death as HET already is, over the precipice it would have gone.

For HET has enemies everywhere. For the makers of the Classification Codes at the OECD, because the history of economic thought was “history”, neatness demanded HET be included as part of the humanities with other types of history, not with economics in the social sciences. But the more I became involved, the more it turned out that the mainstream of the profession wants HET out of economics because, so far as they are concerned, it gives legitimacy to alternative approaches to economic theory, approaches such as my own, which is seen as part of the “heterodox” tradition rather than the orthodox, orthodox like Y=C+I+G. For the mainstream, this is one way to get rid of the competition. Competition may be fine in theory, but not so much in practice.

But the odd part turned out to be that the elite of the HET establishment were also actively seeking this change. Because so much of HET is made up of people who think the mainstream is useless – uninteresting questions, badly answered – there is a push at the very top of the HET executive (its current president, for one) to turn HET into the history and philosophy of science. No more of these Austrians, or post-Keynesians, or Institutionalists, or Sraffians, or John Stuart Mill classicals. Out with the lot and HET can be a study of the sociology of knowledge. The American Society is at the centre of this attempted shift, and my efforts to preserve HET within economics and then write a book about it is resented in a way you would not believe, or at least I would not have. Just think of them as the equivalent of global warmists and you will get some sense of what they think about what I wrote. If you think my sweet little book on defending HET has had a series of lovely reviews within HET journals, you would not be right. Astonishing for me. I suppose I should not have been surprised but I have been.

So today I will present in defence of my book. Will let you know how it went later.

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8 Responses to Why economics needs the history of economic thought

  1. Robin says:


    I can see this from the other side as I have a copy of Socio-Economics: Toward a New Synthesis edited by communitarian advocate and sociologist professor Amitai Etzioni. In the late 80s he is advocating precisely what has now come to pass.

    Let us know what you hear.

  2. Georg Thomas says:

    Contemporary economics can only be adequately assessed, fruitfully criticised, and improved upon by understanding its historical roots. Free Market Economics. An Introduction to the General Reader is the best book to link up both aspects in desirable manner, i.e. by rescuing (a) technical economics and (b) the historian’s perspective on economics from the sterility that isolated treatment inflicts on them.

  3. Every dog has its day says:

    Good luck with your presentation Steve. However, I would suggest laying off some of the near conspiracy stuff that the first part of your post is almost suggesting.

    Rather than some plot to take HET away to reduce competition, perhaps HET has failed to compete with other branches and has lost out. The decline of HET is an outcome of competition. Shortage of curriculum space, lack of interest by staff and students, more pressing things to cover, failure to capture the imagination and space of academic journals, etc are probably the main reason why HET is failing in the market for ideas.

  4. Helen says:

    Steve, £58.50 discounted from £65.00 is still too steep for me. Any chance of a cat discount? Good Luck with the presentation, hearts and minds and all that.

  5. . says:

    A little bit of HET in this mix:


  6. entropy says:

    When you have power based on a particular philosophy/ideology you want to make it the dominant paradigm. So anything that might lead students to consider alternative philosophies will get no love.

  7. The Pugilist says:

    Apologies if this seems repetitive, but my last comment seems to have disappeared into the ether…
    As someone who views themselves as a member of the periphery of the profession, I view the mainstream of economics as being gripped by a deep sense of insecurity. The response of the mainstream to any challenge to their theoretical or methodological foundations is one of ignorance and utter disdain (the latter is only needed if criticism comes from a ‘notable’ insider)…

  8. Yohan says:

    I really want to get it but its f-ing expensive for a 160 page book Steve.

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