Defending the History of Economic Thought
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Defending the History of Economic Thought

Steven Kates

This book explains the importance of the history of economic thought in the curriculum of economists, whereas most discussions of this kind are devoted only to explaining why such study is of value simply to the individual economist. Steven Kates reaches out past the individual to explain the crucial importance of the history of economic thought in the study of economics itself; without its history at the core of the curriculum, he contends, economics is a lesser subject, less penetrating, less interesting and of much less social value.
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Chapter 3: Debating the role of the history of economic thought

Steven Kates


Aside from the general indifference to the subject that now prevails within departments of economics, there are, broadly speaking, three overlapping groups against which the history of economic thought as it now exists must be actively defended. Two of these groups are attempting to do what in their view is best for the subject. I don’t agree with their approach but it is not intended to do harm, although I believe it would. The third of these would gladly see HET outside of economics completely and would be content to see historians of economics no longer classified as economists. I will discuss this third group first. The safest kind of history of economics is what has been described as Whig history. Everything that came before the present must be, by assumption, inferior. No attempt should therefore be made to use the history of economics as part of an argument for reform, not because we cannot learn from the past but because it will create hostility amongst the mainstream. Roy Weintraub discusses the position of those who advise the use of HET as part of an argument intended as a criticism of some particular aspect of mainstream theory. Suppose historians of economics were to take this advice. I submit that the history of economics would soon stand in the same relation to economics as creationism does to evolutionary biology. “They will be held in contempt” is too weak a forecast of the position of a small band of outsiders that sets itself up

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