IN PRAISE OF ECONOMIC HISTORY*
Sixty years ago, when I began to study economics, there was no sharp line of division between economists and economic historians. Most of the great names in economics from Adam Smith to Keynes, not forgetting Malthus, Mill, Marx, and Marshall, showed a keen interest in history, sometimes deriving their theories from historical evidence, sometimes turning to the past to show the bearing of their theories on policy. The Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy at Glasgow, W.R. Scott, was a distinguished economic historian, the author of a three-volume study of Joint stock companies to 1720 (which, however, none of us ever opened). We were introduced to economics by way of the Mercantilists and the Physiocrats and not allowed to complete the honours course without including a paper in economic history.
I cannot pretend that we took to economic history with much enthusiasm. We had a more immediate interest in current events such as the Wall Street slump, the devaluation of the pound and the long debate on war debts and reparations. Developments in economic theory were just as exciting and as there were few books and only a couple of journals you could hardly miss them. Keynes’s Treatise on money came out in 1930, Kahn’s article on the multiplier in 1931 and Sraffa, Shove and Harrod were debating increasing returns in the Economic Journal and preparing the way for Joan Robinson’s Imperfect competition.
Seen alongside these developments, economic history seemed rather pedestrian. Three volumes of Lipson and the first volume of Clapham took a lot of reading and yielded little to stir the mind. One could hardly say that of Tawney but then The acquisitive society (which was not economic history) was much closer to our interests than The agrarian problem in the sixteenth century (which was). In the works we read there seemed little use of economic theory: they were narrative, factual and descriptive, devoid of hypothesis, analysis, and causal chains. It was only on occasion that our attention was drawn to a problem requiring explanation in terms of economic theory. If the
* The Tawney Memorial Lecture to the Economic History Society, 1988; from Economic History Review, May 1989, pp. 173-85.