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Why We Read Dead Economists

December 28, 2017 in Economics

By Joakim Book


By: Joakim Book

One of many accusations of the economics discipline is that it spends too much time on the ideas of rich white men, long since buried. In our world ruled by moral and intellectual relativism and group identities, such an accusation is serious indeed. We can ridicule such positions all we want, and Mises does an excellent job of it in chapter 3 of Human Action, but there may be still some merit to the accusation. Beyond relativism, how serious is the charge: are we reading too many dead economists?

For those of us with a large research and consumption interest in the history of economic thought (HET), that kind of indictment requires a response. Reading Duarte & Giraud's 2016 article in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought should be a wake-up call, both for those sneering at econ for idolising a bunch of dead guys and those of us who wants to read more of them: the fate of HET seems pretty doomed. Looking through publications in the 5 most prestigious economics journals over the last 25 years (as well as Economic Journal, Journal of Economic Perspectives and Journal of Economic Literature probably to have anything to work with at all), Duarte & Giraud finds something quite hopeless – HET is virtually eradicated from the discussions of professional economists:

Those who have argued that historians of economics should work hard to tighten the links between HET and its home discipline have possibly underestimated the extent to which economists have become impermeable to the history of thought, even if still using it for particular purposes in papers published in top journals. [...] the fact, plain and simple, is that analytical history of economics is pretty much absent from today’s major economics journals. (pp. 457-458)

So much for the charge of studying dead men of centuries past. So maybe the accusation is completely backwards; maybe we should be reading more dead economists from centuries past?

Some reasons for why we read these men whose ideas may be as dusty and forgotten as their gravestones have been given by well-known economists who themselves discarded its value (despite spending much time reading and writing on economists of the past): Schumpeter argued that it helps us understand current theory; Stigler said …read more


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