Tag Archives: methods of economic history

“The Otherness of the Past:” (Economic) History and Policy in the Age of Disenchantment

On history and policy: Time in the age of neoliberalism
Francesco Boldizzoni (francesco.boldizzoni@unito.it), University of Turin
URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/zbwmpifgd/136.htm
Abstract: It is often said that history matters, but these words are often little more than a hollow statement. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the view that the economy is a mechanical toy that can be fixed using a few simple tools has continued to be held by economists and policy makers and echoed by the media. The paper addresses the origins of this unfortunate belief, inherent to neoliberalism, and what can be done to bring time back into public discourse.

“How will the 2008/09 crisis influence historical scholarship? […] The recent crisis reminds us that the policy response is as much a matter of ideology and politics as it is a matter of economics. […] The widespread use of the Great Depression analogy in the recent crisis having reminded us that historical narratives are contested, we will see more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed.” – Eichengreen (2012: 303-304, my own emphasis added)

This paper, based on a lecture Francesco Boldizzoni gave as a scholar in residence at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, and distributed via NEP-HPE on July the 15th, 2013, explores the difficult relationship between history and policy, focusing on the ways in which scholars and policymakers have used and abused history in recent times.
Francesco Boldizzoni

Francesco Boldizzoni

The unnamed field in the title of Boldizzoni’s paper is no other but economic history, which comes as no surprise for those following the reception of his book The Poverty of Clio. Resurrecting Economic History, a controversial and dismal depiction of the state of economic history published in 2011. In his book, Boldizzoni (research professor of economic history at the University of Turin, and fellow at Clare Hall in Cambridge University) argues that economic history is dead, sickened by the epistemological and methodological faults of cliometrics and the new economic institutionalism (NEI), as well as “a lack of historical sensibility, linguistic skills, and by an amazing level of scholarly illiteracy” amidst her practicants and followers (Boldizzoni 2011b). Boldizzoni claims that if scholars are to “resurrect” economic history, they must draw inspiration from the example set by historians of the Annales school, the historicized socioeconomic modeling of Karl Polanyi, Moses Finley, Alexander Chayanov and Witold Kula, and insights taken from the neighboring disciplines of economic sociology and economic anthropology.
The paper now reviewed problematizes the relationship between history and policy, and more specifically, the interaction of economic history with economic policy, with particular attention to the uses and abuses of history and memory. Standing in the crossing of economic history, the history of economic knowledge and thought, memory studies, and the history of economics and science, Boldizzoni’s paper demonstrates the merits of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, as his approach offers a nuanced, cautious answer to the role of historically-informed policymakers during economic downturns and illuminates what stance should economic historians have in the public sphere. Boldizzoni argues that history “is both a search for meaning and an injection of antibodies:” honest economic historians should necessarily denounce poor scholarship that mobilizes and abuses the past for political purposes in the present, and inform their audiences that the economic system is a “historically determined […] social construction, a man-made environment.” (Boldizzoni 2013: 10).

Of Good and Better Companies: Reflections On Agency and Economic History

In Good Company: About Agency and Economic Development in Global Perspective
Jan Luiten van Zanden (j.l.vanzanden@uu.nl) University of Utrecht (The Netherlands) and Stellenbosch University (South Africa).
Abstract: The paper discusses some evidence, based on a review of new literature on economic history, about what is referred to as the Sen-hypothesis, that increasing human agency (of both men and women) is a key factor in economic development. It briefly discusses various dimensions of agency (or its absence): slavery (as the absolute suppression of human agency), access to markets, agency concerning marriage, and political participation. This concept perhaps also allows economic historians to move beyond the historical determinism that is central to much recent work in this field.
“Economic history is very trendy these days” (Zanden 2011: 3)

J. L. van Zanden

This paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-01-03 raises a challenge to economic historians: how can we improve our current explanations of differential development and escape the common rhetorical places of path dependency and institutional persistence in our explanations of material stagnation and change? By placing human agency of men and women in the center of our stories, says Jan Luiten van Zanden, in the form advocated years ago by Amartya Sen in his best-selling book Development as Freedom.

Amartya Sen

It might be useful to remember Sen’s definition of agency, a concept that diverged from the usual meaning of the term in economics:

The use of the term “agency” calls for a little clarification. The expression “agent” is sometimes employed in the literature of economics and game theory to denote a person who is acting on someone else’s behalf (perhaps being led on by a “principal” and whose achievements are to be assessed in the light of someone else’s (the principal’s) goals. I am using the term “agent” not in this sense, but in its older -and “grander”- sense as someone who acts and brings about change, and whose achievements can be judged in terms of her own values and objectives, whether or not we assess them in terms of some external criteria as well. This work is particularly concerned with the agency role of the individual as a member of the public and as a participant in economic, social and political actions (varying from taking part in the market to being involved, directly or indirectly, in individual or joint activities in political and other spheres) (Sen 1999: 18-19, my own emphasis added).

Zanden’s reading of agency in Sen is “the capacity for autonomous decision making” that ultimately drives “economic and social-political change” (Zanden 2011: 4). Agency is also a synonym of “participation, or autonomy” (Zanden 2011: 5). But two questions remain. How does agency affect economic change? How does freedom impact agency? Sen responds:

Development as Freedom

Expansion of freedom is viewed both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms is constitutive of development (Sen 1999: xii).

Zanden advances the usefulness of Sen’s framework and formulates what he calls the dual Sen hypothesis, this is, if “development is defined as freedom [… that] freedom -or rather -agency- is an important precondition and driver of long-term economic and socio-political change” (Zanden 2011: 5).

The second part of the “Sen hypothesis”, agency as a determinant of historical change, can be tested with proxy variables such as the gross domestic product or the human development index. However, what is behind these indicators? Zanden advances a suggestive explanation drawn from the new growth theory of Paul Romer and Robert Lucas: human capital is the crucial determinant of economic growth and human development. Human capital is embedded in the other variables for “one has to possess the right skills -the human capital- to really participate in markets, political events and the civil society” (Zanden 2011:5).

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