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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 410-411

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Book Review

Strategies of Economic Order:
German Economic Discourse, 1750-1950

Strategies of Economic Order: German Economic Discourse, 1750-1950. By Keith Tribe. (Ideas in Context, no. 33.) Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ix; 285 pp. $54.95.

Knowing only its title, subtitle, and series title, I opened this book confident that I was embarking on a Cook's tour of German economics across three centuries, one gesturing expertly toward the grand boulevards and away from the many tortuous alleyways. But this is emphatically not what I got. Strategies of Economic Order is composed of deeply researched, and frankly iconoclastic, studies of cameralism, Friedrich List, "historical" economics, higher education in business, the socialist calculation debate, Franz Neumann's Behemoth, Nazi plans for European economic integration, and "Ordoliberalism."

One's assessment of this volume depends fundamentally on the frame of reference. As a set of polemical essays, they are broadly successful: the mere fact that Tribe can muster original contributions to such disparate topics is highly impressive. I personally found the chapters on cameralism and business education most illuminating; and even the less convincing chapters were always challenging, in the best sense of that word. If the point of revisionism is to stimulate, and occasionally to irritate, then the essays have done their job well.

As a Gestalt, though, the collection is less satisfying. Is this book about "German Economic Discourse," as the subtitle suggests? Tribe himself deflates any such expectation, stating at the outset that "no effort is made at achieving a degree of comprehensiveness, indeed the idea that one could write such a comprehensive history is itself highly questionable" (4). Whether or not one agrees with the latter assertion, the former certainly turns out to hold true. Perhaps he should have taken a firmer line with the publisher's marketing department.

Alternatively, is this book about "strategies of economic order" as one specific theme in German economic thought? This alone would be a valuable contribution, because it does seem that German economics has long had a "macro" orientation, in the specific sense that such Anglo-French topics as value and distribution are made to give way to big questions like institutions and economic evolution over the long term. Tribe is thus quite right to highlight this theme in the title; but with only [End Page 410] a few fine exceptions (chapters 2, 6, and 8), textual references to it are but a very thin layer of mortar between large and otherwise ill-fitting bricks. Emblematic of this problem is the fact that Tribe could approach such a problem with only the most sidelong of glances at the Marxist and the Austrian schools, both of which had much to say on the topic.

If Tribe has an overarching point to make, it is that modern rationalism (i.e., the obsession with "order") has not been an unmixed blessing, in economics any more than elsewhere. I heartily agree, but with two historiographical reservations. First, he repeatedly invokes one Goya engraving as the book's leitmotiv. Goya's caption he renders as "The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters"; but a more common and, I think, more plausible rendition of the original Spanish is "The Sleep [sueño] of Reason Produces Monsters." As such, the engraving's message is exactly the opposite of Tribe's. More telling for our purposes is Tribe's dismissive treatment of Friedrich Hayek as utopian and authoritarian. But when we read Tribe concluding his study with a denunciation of "the conception of order as the product of a reasoning mind which recognises in the external world an arrangement homologous with its categories of reason" (261), we must wonder if Hayek himself was not the author's muse. Tribe will no doubt resent being called a Hayekian après la lettre, but the evidence is strong.

My deepest disappointment, though, refers back to the first quote above, where the author doubts that a good historical overview of German economics can ever be written. We need...


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