Alexander Dow and Sheila Dow (Eds). A History of Scottish Economic Thought

By King, J. E. | History of Economics Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Alexander Dow and Sheila Dow (Eds). A History of Scottish Economic Thought


King, J. E., History of Economics Review


Alexander Dow and Sheila Dow (eds). A History of Scottish Economic Thought. London and New York: Routledge. 2006. Pp. x + 261. ISBN 0-415-34437-9 (hb). US$135.

This is the tenth in the Routledge series of national histories of economic thought. It is also, I think, the first edited volume. There is a coherent guiding theme. 'The notion of a Scottish political tradition', Alan Hutton writes in chapter 13, 'a characteristic method and attitude, originating with Macfie (1955) and developed by S. Dow (1987) and Mair (1990) ... starts with concern about practical problems, and recognizes both the limitations of deductive economy theory and the value of the breadth of understanding provided by an integration of different disciplinary approaches, including the systematic use of history' (p. 229). To a greater or lesser extent all the contributors to this volume are concerned with this tradition, though there is (sensibly) no attempt to enforce a rigid party line or to provide comprehensive coverage of all leading Scottish economists over more than three centuries. As the editors confirm, 'the approach we have taken is highly selective' (p. 1).

Alexander Dow and Sheila Dow contribute a brief introduction and conclusion (the latter by Sheila Dow alone). There are ten chapters on nine individual economists by nine contributors (Andrew Skinner writes on both Francis Hutcheson and Sir James Steuart; Adam Smith is the subject of separate chapters by Leonidas Montes and Flavio Comim). The two subsequent chapters deal with economics in Scottish universities in the late nineteenth century, by Alexander Dow and Alan Hutton, and on the Scottish tradition of applied economics in the twentieth century, by Hutton.

The biographical chapters take up 80 per cent of the book. They begin with Antoin Murphy's spirited defence of John Law, whom he presents as both a scoundrel and a pioneer of the Scottish Enlightenment, with many valuable things to say about economic theory and policy. Skinner is no less enthusiastic about Hutcheson, in the only chapter entirely devoted to an immigrant; Hutcheson was Irish by birth, but very much a Scot by education and intellectual inclination. (To be fair, the English-born J. S. Nicholson does feature prominently in chapter 12). Then Carl Wennerlind describes David Hume as 'a political economist' (his emphasis), whose principal concern in his economic writings was to inform public policy rather than to apply abstract philosophical principles. This chapter is followed by Skinner's second contribution, on another eighteenth-century policy analyst, Sir James Steuart. For Montes, Adam Smith was 'a real Newtonian', who absorbed the great natural philosopher's ideas in a much more complex context than the standard picture of Smith as a forerunner of general equilibrium theory is able to accommodate. Flavio Comim, writing on 'common sense and aesthetics in the age of experiments', also stresses the complexity of the Newtonian legacy in Smith's economic thought.

Thomas Torrance is more critical of James Mill, who abandoned the Scottish tradition of political economy to become an English philosophical radical. Another Scot who took Dr Johnson's advice and the broad high road to England was J. R. McCulloch. According to Dennis O'Brien, however, McCulloch remained loyal to the Scottish tradition, despite his deep respect for David Ricardo. After Anthony Waterman's vigorous defence of Thomas Chalmers against the calumnies of Karl Marx, Douglas Mair writes approvingly of another emigre, John Rae, whose New Principles was identifiably Scottish even though it was written in Ontario and applied to the specific problems of contemporary Canada. …

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