The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

1

WHAT IS AMERICAN ABOUT AMERICAN ECONOMICS?

A.W. (Bob) Coats

INTRODUCTION

The organizer of this symposium deliberately posed a sweeping, over ambitious open-ended question to which there is obviously no single answer. As the first contributor I am privileged, for I am not constrained by the fear of duplicating what my fellow symposiasts are going to say. The duplication, in any case, is unlikely to be great given my somewhat idiosyncratic approach, which focuses on the general intellectual and social context of economic thought, rather than on the development of economic analysis. There is, of course, ample scope for both, and indeed other, interpretative standpoints.


ARE AMERICANS AND THEIR EXPERIENCES EXCEPTIONAL?

One obvious answer to the question “What is American about American economics?” is that it is a species of economics produced by Americans. Or, to adapt Jacob Viner’s oft-quoted quip: “American economics is what American economists do (or have done).” This response is evasive; and it may seem trivial. Yet it raises a prior question: “What is an American?”—a question that has often formed the starting point of American Studies courses, and provoked endless debate. Much of this debate arises directly or indirectly from efforts to assess the impact and role in American history of the immense, irregular flow of immigrants over several centuries. In his late eighteenth-century Letter from an American Farmer St. John Crevecourt confidently asserted that “The American is a new man who acts on new principles” (Crevecourt [1782] 1981). If this is true, and applied to economics, it means the subject is culture-bound and not a universal science, as many economists want to believe.

Far greater thinkers than Crevecourt—such as Alexis de Tocqueville,

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