30 June 2009

Uses of the Past

For those unsatisfied with the current trends in economics, going back into the past is a good aid to rethink.

Read Axel Leijonhufvud’s classic piece on The Uses of the Past on when the need to re-examine the past becomes important:

As long as “normal” progress continues to be made in the established directions, there is no need to rexamine the past – and it is then more than likely that increasingly simplistic notions of the development of the field will gain widespread acceptance. Indeed when a group agrees on what is ‘good economics’, on what the ‘relevant’ questions are, and on how to go about answering them, a version of the past that is more legend than history may serve its scientifically ideological purposes very well.

Things begin to look different, if and when the workable vein runs out….when the road that took you to the “frontier of the field” ends in a swamp or in a blind alley…Our fads run out and we do get stuck occasionally. Reactions to finding yourself in a cul-de-sac differ. Tenured professors might often be content to accommodate themselves to it, spend their time tidying up the place, putting in a few modern conveniences, and generally improving the neighbourhood. Braver souls will want out and see a tremendous leap of the creative imagination as the only way out…Another way is to backtrack. Back there, in the past, there were forks in the road and it is possible, even plausible that some roads were more passable than the one that looked most promising at the time. At this point, a mental map of the road network behind the frontier becomes essential. (pp6).

**

The Other Canon which is supporting an initiative to document the flow of ideas in the past has this to say:

The greater part of the most influential economics books in history, and their authors, are not mentioned in today's textbooks in the history of economic thought. In fact, these textbooks tend to focus as if economics originated in physiocracy, a tradition that was very short-lived in terms of actual policy influence. The anti-physiocrats, who established the policies that made Europe into a wealthy continent during the decades and centuries to follow, are hardly ever mentioned.

The Kress Collection at Harvard University contains the world's most famous collection of economics books. Its former curator, Kenneth Carpenter, has worked for decades collecting data on the translations of economics books, thus documenting how ideas moved across Europe. The sheer volume of translations is indicated by the fact that only from and into Swedish there were more than 200 translations of economics books before 1850. Kenneth Carpenter has put this material at the disposal of The Other Canon Foundation to be published on the web. He will himself assist in the editing. Carpenter's legendary 'The Economic Bestsellers Before 1850' - out of print for decades already - documents the editions and translations of the 40 economics books that reached the highest number of editions.

***

Some places which I have found very useful to source electronic versions of old classics are

http://www.archive.org/details/texts

http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/