Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Value of Things in the Imaginative Life: Microeconomics in the Bloomsbury Group

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Value of Things in the Imaginative Life: Microeconomics in the Bloomsbury Group

Article excerpt

Prolegomena

Let me begin with a methodological preamble or peroration, and a story. When I came to Australia in the autumn of 1960 it was generally agreed by those who welcomed me that I was nuts. I told them that I was looking at economic inquiry in Australia, and their reaction was that there had not been any. Moreover, if there had been any it was dealt with thoroughly by John La Nauze and Sidney Butlin in works already published. My hosts at the Australian National University, where I was an Honorary Research Fellow (Honorary meant unpaid!), were unfailingly cooperative and helpful. And this included La Nauze and Butlin who visited there quite often. But it was clear to me that they all felt sorry for me; I seemed to be working so hard to no apparent end. Perhaps, they thought, I had been sent on this fool's errand to get me out from under someone's feet back home, like the remittance men from Britain who cluttered up Australian society in the nineteenth century. I recall that when I worked in the Mitchell Library there was a handicapped young man at the next desk who was sent each day by his parents to copy the Sydney telephone directory--a form of adult day care I presumed. I think I was placed roughly in the same category. It was significant that during the time I spent on that first visit to Australia I was never asked to give a paper to any conference or departmental seminar on my findings--not even at the ANU where I was ensconced in the Economics Department of the Research School and where everyone had lots of time to listen to papers. I think that those who might have issued the invitations were confident that any presentations would have been embarrassing for them and for me. Why I tell you story is because I fear you will think I have done it again. When you finish reading this you may say to yourselves, as did your predecessors forty years ago, 'that fellow is off the beam; too bad!' Which leads me back to my methodological prologue.

Economics, I believe, is or should be about the production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services--or something like that. Our responsibility as historians of economic thought should be, therefore, to examine all efforts that have been made to understand the processes surrounding these activities wherever the efforts have occurred and have shed some illumination. The progress of economic science, meaning what academic economists do to spend their days, is of course a large part of this story. But it should not be the whole story. I reject Jacob Viner's definition of economics as only 'what economists do'. Others do it too! Professional economists of the conventional sort have, of course, taken the task of explanation of economic activity seriously and have explained a good deal. And undoubtedly they deserve the lion's share of our attention. But not all. The account of economic inquiry can be extended, first of all, by going to other scientific specialities and seeing what they have to say about matters economic: history, mathematics, political theory, philosophy etc. But once again there is more. Some human minds, when presented with puzzles such as those we categorize as economic, do not accept the division of labour that academics consider appropriate and they set out to find answers outside of a conventional academic discipline. The universe from which historians of economics may select their material is far larger than we often imagine, and our subject would be much richer if we accepted that fact.

As I have watched manuscripts drift through the transom at HOPE over the years I have come to conclude more and more that modern economics remains today substantially a captive of what happened to it in the nineteenth century, and the history of economics has just followed along. What happened then was at least as much a sociological as a 'scientific' phenomenon. Soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars there began the construction of modern science as we know it. …

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