Selected Essays of Axel Leijonhufvud
Economists of the Twentieth Century series
Chapter 19: Time in theory and history, or why I am not a historian
Addressing an audience of historians is for me a daunting task. I would have become a historian myself, had I dared. Instead, I chose the simplest of the social sciences from whence I can from time to time take a look at the activities of historians from a relatively short, yet safe, distance. I do so always with both admiration and envy. Envy, because history often seems so much more fun than economics; admiration, because it seems so forbiddingly difﬁcult. Time, I take it, is an essential element in History. This simple observation is quite enough to give the economic theorist pause – he knows there is trouble ahead if he ventures into such territory. All economists have heard Joan Robinson quoted to the effect that ‘time is a device to prevent everything from happening at once’. (To which adage someone else has added the observation that ‘space is a device to prevent everything from happening in Cambridge’ … and if it did, one can only imagine what that would do to the lawns at the Backs!) But economic theorists have terrible trouble trying to prevent everything from happening at once in their models. They have found no easy way to make use of Joan Robinson’s device. Economists tend to believe that in order to make sensible and informative statements you have to have a model. Most of them are also quite attached to the belief that models should be built on optimizing behavioral foundations. Now, it is not at all...
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