Archives and the history of economic ideas

For the archives, of course

As it maybe be painfully clear by now, posts will remain relatively sparse during the rest of the summer break. I recently attended the History of Economics Society (HES) meetings at Duke University, as I noted here. I attended less sessions that I would have liked, but it was enough to confirm the increasing emphasis that has been accorded to archival research. That is, probably, the result that now, slightly more than a 100 years since the professionalization of economics, there are enough archives of dead economists. One can think of Sraffa's edition and reinterpretation of Ricardo's works as the seminal archival work in the history of economic ideas.

Archival research has been more common in economic history, and more often than not as a source for quantitative data, at least within the Cliometric tradition that dominates the mainstream. I should add that I think that archival research is certainly relevant, and both on my work on Marriner Eccles and Raúl Prebisch (in the latter case based on some unpublished manuscripts at Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago, accessed by Esteban Pérez) I have done some. I have published recently an unpublished review of Keynes' General Theory, by Lauchlin Currie, and advisor to Eccles, and a letter from Gerhard Colm to John Maurice Clark, based on archival research done by co-author Luca Fiorito.

But the use of archives can certainly be abused. It may be simply a way to finding either precursors to modern ideas, or what are often seen as mistakes in the process of finding the accepted theory. My feeling, and I certainly might be wrong, is that the general discussion at the HES meeting tends to emphasize the supposedly linear process of development of ideas, from early versions of modern thinking to the present. In this case, archival research is only about the mistakes and insights of early writers.

In this interpretation of the history of ideas, the distinction between early classical political economists and marginalist (or neoclassical) authors is for the most part lost. The slow process by which marginalism took over the eclectic post-classical (post-Ricardian) paradigm is also not understood. The rise to dominance of neoclassical (mainstream) economics took place in the United States, surprisingly in a sense, with the Keynesian Revolution and the rise of the so-called neoclassical synthesis. Before that the profession in the US was more eclectic, with Institutionalists, influenced by the German Historical School, being more prominent. At any rate, a more pluralistic view of the profession would suggest that archives are relevant because they also provide a window on relevant ideas that have been forgotten and discarded (not necessarily for logical problems or lack of evidence) after the rise of marginalism.

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