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

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

3

WHAT IS “AMERICAN” ABOUT U.S. ECONOMICS?

Ross B. Emmett

The title of my remarks is “What is ‘American’ about U.S. economics?” This differs somewhat from the title provided for the panel and therefore I begin with an explanation of my alternative title.

My growing familiarity with the literature of Canadian economics convinces me that many of the same issues that emerge in an examination of the unique features of U.S. economics (ranging from the early requirement of dealing with the needs of a “new” society to the twentieth-century problem of the role of the academic community in reshaping liberal democracy) also appear in an examination of the unique features of Canadian economics. That is not to say that the Canadian and U.S. responses to these issues are identical—the mixture of two founding nations, long peaceful relationships with Britain and with native peoples (for the most part), the presence of strong nationalist and social democratic traditions, and close proximity to a dominant power is enough to distinguish Canadian responses from those in the United States. Rather, a study of Canadian economic thought reveals simply that there is significant commonality in the issues faced by both U.S. and Canadian economists.

A few examples may help make this point. Robin Neill has argued that early Canadian economic thought was often either an “economics in the context of action” (Neill 1991:57) or a branch of moral philosophy—an argument echoed in the literature about early U.S. economic thought (see Bob Coats’s contribution to this same panel). Queen’s University’s refusal to appoint John Rae in the 1840s exemplifies the disdain moral philosophy had for practical political economy—Rae’s ([1832] 1965) work was the outstanding North American contribution to economics prior to the late 1800s. Barry Ferguson’s (1993) study of the political economy department of Queen’s University at the turn of the twentieth century suggests that Canadian economists were engaged in the same kind of “re-making of liberalism” that economists and other social scientists in the United States were engaged in, although the final products in the two countries are different. And Harold

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