Book Reviews: Economics without Time - A Science Blind to the Forces of Historical Change

Article excerpt

Graeme Donald Snooks, Economics without Time.- A Science Blind to the Forces of Historical Change (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993, 327 pp., $39.50).

Reviewed by Christopher J. Napier London School of Economics

This book contains both a critique and a demonstration. The critique is aimed at what Snooks identifies as the absence of realism in modern deductive economics, manifested particularly by a downgrading of any historical perspective. To Snooks, modern economic theory ignores the dimension of time, so that even attempts to represent an economy dynamically often manifest themselves as a series of static equilibria with little attempt to explain how the economy moves from one equilibrium to the next. The demonstration of the relevance of a historical perspective draws on past research by Snooks into the medieval English economy, particularly as revealed by Domesday Book. Snooks argues that European economies during the last millennium have been subject to great waves of economic change lasting between 150 and 300 years. By demonstrating these waves, Snooks attempts to persuade us not only that economic theory, lacking a historical dimension, is unable to deal with important long run forces in the economy, but also that the waves continue and imply a danger of economic stagnation and instability in the very near future similar to that identified by Snooks as characterising the end of the Middle Ages.

Bashing theoretical economics has become rather fashionable in recent years, and accusations of the irrelevance of much economic theory (particularly the more abstruse mathematical approaches) to real-world problems can be found not just in the literature of economic methodology but also spill over into accounting (as exemplified by the attacks on positive accounting theory). Critics such as Donald McCloskey have questioned the foundations of modern economic theory, ironically in the opinion of Snooks, who regards the cliometric school of economic history for which McCloskey is "the main apologist"

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as being more about deduction from theory than the analysis of historical data. Snooks develops his critique of deductive economics in the first part of the book by discussing the struggles between the deductivists and the historicists in nineteenth century Britain, leading to the triumph of Alfred Marshall's "scientific economics" over the historical approaches of such as Cunningham and Ashley. …