On economic history

Here’s an excerpt from Peter Temin’s “The Rise and Fall of Economic History at MIT.” (PDF, via Mankiw)

What is the cost of not having economic history at MIT? It can be seen in Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail (2012). This is a deservedly successful popular book, making a simple and strong point that the authors made originally at the professional level over a decade before (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001). They assert that countries can be “ruled by a narrow elite that have [sic] organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people” or can have “a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economics of the nation … to expand their economic opportunities (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012, pp. 3-4).”

The book is not however good economic history. It is an example of Whig history in which good policies make for progress and bad policies preclude it. Only transitions from bad to good are considered in this colorful but still monotonic story. The clear implication is that if countries can copy the policies of English-speaking countries, they will prosper. No consideration is given to Britain’s economic problems over the past half-century or of Australia’s relative decline for a century.

His take on the US is also rather provocative – worth a read.

This seems like a good time to recommend Evolving Economics, a history of economics that I found helpful for supplementing my crash-course introduction to the field. It’s quite dense (I still haven’t been able to read it straight through) but was a good resource for looking up particular scholars, and for understanding the path-dependency and personalities behind the development of economics.