Chapter 2: Why study the history of economic thought
Economists by and large believe they do not need to know the history of their subject to be good economists. They seem to believe that somehow they have been bequeathed a set of theories, tools and concepts that may be found in any of a vast number of texts, and that these theories, tools and concepts are all that is needed to undertake any task with which an economist might be presented. They do not need to know how the theory developed, what it was that the most recent theories replaced, what debates went on at the time, nor any of the subsequent controversies that may have surrounded those theories after they had been formulated and entered the canon. Nor do they seem to believe that it would be preferable to be instructed in those theories through the writings of the individual economists who first introduced those ideas into economic discourse. None of that is seen to be necessary in order to become as good an economist as it is possible to be. No one puts it quite like that. Most economists have some smattering of historical knowledge, which gives them a sense that they do know something of their subject’s past. They all know something about Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. They are likely to have heard about mercantilism and Say’s Law. There is an awareness of the “marginal revolution”. But all of this is mere background. To the extent any of this is known at all, it is known in only the most hazy way.
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