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

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

4

COMMENT ON “WHAT IS AMERICAN ABOUT AMERICAN ECONOMICS?”

Anne Mayhew

Bob Coats has provided an excellent survey of reasons that intellectual historians have given, or might give, for the Americanness of American economics. What seems to me—an institutional economist and economic historian—to be missing is sufficient attention to the ways in which specifically American economic problems shaped American economics. The influence of economic issues that have been especially American has tended to be obscured by the understandable tendency for historians of economic thought to focus on consistencies/inconsistencies of American thought with European (primarily English) thought. Even more important in obscuring the role that public issues in the United States have had on American economic thought has been the dominance of U.S. economic thought in the industrial world in this century, and particularly in the last half of the century. Let me illustrate with three examples of the way in which three specifically American episodes affected our texts, texts that came from America but have shaped thought elsewhere.

American economics, as an organized and separate discipline, came into being after the Civil War and in the midst of a spirited public debate over the role of new, large, and powerful firms in a democratic nation. The simultaneous commercialization of agriculture, and the beginning of a relative decline of that sector as a source of employment and income, sharpened the debate and allowed the farmers, who were still the majority of income earners, to articulate the issues of the debate. They saw the issue as one of powerful monopolists versus the farmers (and by intellectual extension, if not political practicality, “the people” more generally). The result was the Sherman Antitrust Act, a bill that was opposed, or at least not supported, by economists at the time. However, over the following decades, and via a process that still requires investigation, this Act came to be seen as an important linchpin of modern capitalism.

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