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THE POVERTY OF CLIO

HOW ECONOMISTS ARE ABUSING THE PAST

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By Francesco Boldizzoni

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The Montréal Review, October 2011

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"The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History" by Francesco Boldizzoni (Princeton University Press, 2011) 

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"With impressive erudition and verve, Boldizzoni laments that much economic history has become a mere handmaiden of neoclassical economics. He seeks to reinvigorate its classic focus on how the economy unfolds in its social and cultural setting. Drawing on sophisticated and subtle European historiography such as the Annales school, he makes a vivid, detailed, and persuasive case. I highly recommend this sweeping and provocative study."

-Mark Granovetter, Stanford University

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In his presidential address to the American Historical Association earlier this year, Anthony Grafton has warned the profession that history is "under attack". The humanities have never been held in such low regard by public opinion as at the present time. In an era dominated by the quest for profit and consumer satisfaction, when the ideal of performativity is so pervasive that the commercialization of scientific knowledge is no longer outrageous, one would hardly expect from society a genuine understanding of the importance of history and the value of honest research. In my book The Poverty of Clio I argue that a threat no less serious comes from within academia itself.

Since the 1970s, economics has entered a phase of aggression toward the other social sciences that is defined by its own creators as "economic imperialism." It is an offensive aimed at demonstrating that economics can also explain noneconomic phenomena better than the social sciences that focus on doing just that. Every aspect of human behavior, including the intimate sphere, is said to be "economic," that is, self-interested and wealth maximizing; and when reality is found to contradict such a view, this must depend on some "market imperfections" such as transaction costs and information asymmetries constraining an otherwise selfish, calculative, and greedy human nature.

This new pseudo-science of human behavior has generated two influential, all-embracing paradigms. One is the rational choice theory, tracing back to Gary Becker's work; the other is the new institutional economics of Douglass North. The growing fortune of these paradigms in the past three decades, which appears hardly justified by their intellectual power (in fact, they are not even subject to empirical refutation), certainly owes a great deal to the prestige that economics currently enjoys in Western society, as a result of the triumph of utilitarian values in late modernity. After all, as the anthropologist Richard Wilk nicely put it, economists are "the high priests of our culture."

Be it as it may, economists have invented an entire discipline, cliometrics, whose task seems to be to create narratives of the past compatible with dominant neoliberal ideas and implicitly endorsing specific policy recommendations. Its products are, at best, historical fictions conveying ideology in a more or less disguised fashion, but are invariably sold as examples of cutting-edge, sophisticated social science history. They occupy a large share of the publishing market in the English-speaking world and enjoy great visibility. To academic herds fed in the pastures of citation analysis, what is "visible" is also "reliable."

In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War caused a great deal of excitement among American intellectuals. Conservative thinkers proclaimed that the values of Western-style democracy and the free market would prevail once and for all: it was the "end of history" that Francis Fukuyama had prophesied. In the years of the George W. Bush administration, neoconservative narratives multiplied, and were often aimed at delegitimizing Middle Eastern institutions. The argument repeated ad nauseam was that individualism had brought economic achievement to the West, while collectivism condemned the Muslim world to a subordinate position, and the supposed failure of the Muslims in building safe and wealthy states further reflected this original sin. Of course, these claims could also be found in more traditional "Whig" historical accounts, but the difference lay in the persuasive techniques. In the case of cliometrics, game theory allegedly demonstrates the superiority, from a mathematical point of view, of certain social arrangements over others, thus covering blatant Eurocentrism with an illusory patina of scientificity.

When the magic tricks of game theory are not spectacular enough, economists resort to fictional biology to back up their curious theories of the past. For example, it has been recently argued that the first industrial revolution and the subsequent Great Divergence between the West and the Rest were produced by a Darwinian evolutionary mechanism: the "survival of the richest". Only those whose genes inclined toward economic success were able to survive the natural selection operated by the Malthusian trap.

Even when its claims are not so outlandish, at the heart of the new institutional economics is the aim to set up a naturalistic basis for institutional failure, namely to demonstrate that some cultures are worse than others. Its followers share the same ethnocentric naturalism, which assigns a moral value to the differences in income, wealth, and development existing in the world and traces them back to a preestablished order. Such differences are a confirmation of the superiority of the order incarnated by the political and economic constitution of Atlantic democracies.

For the new economic history of the family it is quite normal to interpret marriage as a market and describe medieval and early modern brides as prostitutes valued by their future husband for their individual characteristics and skills. For the new economic history of religion, on the other hand, Christianity becomes a market (one for "religious services" indeed) and the Reformation is glorified as a success story that testifies to the power of competition to undermine monopolies and unleash innovation. However, in order to celebrate the virtues and efficiency of the market economy there is no better way than to show its existence in a remote past. Prompted by divisions among classicists, economists have now been trespassing on the territory of antiquity for at least fifteen years and this has not been without effect on the field of ancient history.

There are studies on the "power of the market in early Greece," on "property rights and contracting" in Ptolemaic Egypt, and on "economic rationalism" in the following Roman period. All that is missing is that the "revisionist view" of Greco-Roman money attributes the invention of the credit card to the ancients, though the "elasticity of money supply" is already widely extolled. Some go so far as to argue that ancient deities (or at least the belief in them) existed in order to increase market efficiency! One might think that a knowledge of ancient languages at the very least is needed before venturing into studies of this type. But, according to the economists, "This is simply false and, in fact, the Internet has opened a treasure of resources for nonlinguistic scholars." Historians and archaeologists are warned: why waste time studying strange alphabets and looking through dusty dictionaries when you could quite easily get away with a bit of research on Google?

In fact, the hallmark of all these trends is a certain naïve dilettantism, which leads to manipulation of the sources to make them fit some pre-packaged theory without subjecting the evidence to thorough scrutiny, something that would require specific training and knowledge. The "theory" is often a mixture of prejudices about the workings of past societies that reflect the economists' bias against forms of socioeconomic organization other than market individualism. Chapter 3 of The Poverty of Clio, a survey of recent contributions to the literature, is actually a gallery of horrors where I expose some of the anachronisms, wrong translations, misleading interpretations, and even geographical mistakes produced by a lack of historical sensibility, linguistic skills, and by an amazing level of scholarly illiteracy.

Yet this is likely to become standard practice because professional historians, particularly in North America, have gradually left economic history de facto granting the economists a virtual monopoly over the field. Moreover, the globalization of scholarship through Anglo-American control of major journals, conferences, funding for research, and global intellectual prestige has made it easier for bad research habits to gain a foothold in Europe.

How to counter such dangerous currents? The Western abuse of the economic past demands a strong response from within the West itself. My position as a European historian makes it obvious to me that a challenge should come from European social science history. Reviving the Annales school and other continental approaches that flourished during the twentieth century may lead to a new, fruitful alliance between economic history, sociology, and anthropology. Sociology and anthropology offer powerful antidotes to economic reductionism, as they help think of property rights, market economies, free trade, and other capitalist institutions as social and cultural constructs rather than as constants in the history of humanity. Though their intellectual roots lie in interwar Europe, such fields are equally well represented in today's United States.

But in an age of globalization it is also inevitable (and I would say healthy) to look beyond the West. The awakening of Asia and Latin America is bringing new powers at the forefront. Japanese intellectuals have long been unhappy with Eurocentric accounts of world history and it is only a matter of time before the growing self-awareness of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian historians produces narratives that challenge Western orthodoxies. This is the subject of another project that I am currently conducting with my British colleague Pat Hudson and an impressive team of leading scholars from all over the world.

The discipline of economics is in a miserable state, as is proved not so much by the economists' failure to anticipate the Great Recession (which should not be surprising to anyone who is aware of the limits of prediction in social science) as from the enormous gulf that is so patently dividing the harsh reality of these days from the idyllic world of efficient markets and never-ending growth portrayed in mainstream models.

Instead of living with the obsession to find new lessons to teach others, economists should start realizing that they have much to learn from their academic neighbors, and perhaps even from the layman.

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Francesco Boldizzoni is research fellow in economic history at the University of Bari and a life member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, where he runs the Cambridge Seminar in the History of Economic Analysis. A specialist of early modern Europe, he has held visiting appointments in several academic institutions in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States. He is the author of Means and Ends: The Idea of Capital in the West, 1500-1970.

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