February 11, 2003
On Machiavelli's "Letter to Vettori," or, The Value of the History of Economic Thought

A surprisingly-large number of people have recently asked me why I am interested in the history of economic thought. They make various points. First, we don't learn physics from Galileo's Discourse on Two New Sciences. There are other, better, more complete, more accurate ways of presenting the material. In any real body of knowledge, the more up-to-date has to be preferred to the less because we know more than they did. Second, there are the dangers of promoting dead and dry texts to the status of unquestionable authorities. Karl Marx saw misery in industrial England in the 1840s, jumped to the conclusion that market economies could never deliver persistent, sustained, significant improvements in real wages to the working class, jumped to the conclusion that markets had no place in any truly human mode of social organization, and--because his words became Holy Writ, the sacred gospel that was never to be questioned of a Millennarian World Religion--more than a billion people were doomed to even deeper poverty for more than a generation. Third, there is the danger that one will read texts one has placed high on a pedestal and discover in them a secret message, a crucial form of knowledge...

Posted by DeLong at 03:08 PM