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History of Political Economy 33.1 (2001) 179-182
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Secret Origins of Modern Microeconomics:
Dupuit and the Engineers
Secret Origins of Modern Microeconomics: Dupuit and the Engineers. By Robert B. Ekelund Jr. and Robert F. Hébert. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 468 pp. $40.00.
This fascinating book draws on thirty years of journal articles by the authors, individually, together, and with other authors. It will undoubtedly become the standard work on the French economist-engineers of the Corps des Ingénieurs des Ponts et Chausées and its École Nationale des Ponts et Chausées (ENPC) in the nineteenth century, among whom Jules Dupuit (1804–1866), inspector-general of the Corps, was the outstanding figure. Although they have recently written books on such topics as the medieval church as a business firm and mercantilism as rent seeking, Ekelund’s dissertation was on Dupuit, who applied mathematics to demand, utility, the welfare economics of public works, public goods, monopoly, and price discrimination. Hébert wrote his on Émile Cheysson (1836–1910), a slightly later ponts engineer who was a pioneer in econometrics and spatial economics. One great strength of this book is that it goes beyond Dupuit’s now-famous articles of 1844 and 1849 (the only ones that have been published in English translations) to examine the full, fascinating range of his contributions. Dupuit’s failure to carry out his announced intention of writing a book on economic analysis applied to public works contributed to the later neglect of many of his journal and encyclopedia articles. Ekelund and Hébert now draw attention to such intriguing studies by Dupuit as his welfare-economic analysis of property-rights assignments. Another great strength of Ekelund and Hébert’s book is that, instead of treating Dupuit as an isolated figure, they place him in his institutional context and in the context of the contributions of the other ENPC economist-engineers, who are known to English-speaking economists only through the earlier articles of Ekelund and Hébert. The ENPC economist-engineers turn out to include a great variety of interesting writers, such as René Tavernier, who wrote on self-selection and second-degree price discrimination; Wilhelm von Nördling, an Austrian railway engineer who studied at ENPC and who published a mathematical formula for elasticity in 1886 in an Annales des Ponts et Chausées article on railway costs; and especially the ENPC-trained American engineer Charles Ellet Jr. As Ekelund and Hébert report, “Between 1839 and 1844, within a decade of his exposure to the ideas of the French engineering school, Ellet spewed forth a torrent of books and papers on the proper development and conduct of railroads” (251), although one may question whether Ellet was “echoing Dupuit,” as Ekelund and Hébert claim, since Ellet published before Dupuit.
The dramatic title of the book refers to the extent to which “Marshallian” microeconomics was anticipated by the French econo-engineers, without the economics [End Page 179] profession remembering their contributions, except for Dupuit’s 1844 and 1849 articles. Even Dupuit’s other articles have been forgotten, and the posthumous rise of his reputation has not been as striking as that of A. A. Cournot. Dupuit did not pull his contributions together in a book, and Alfred Marshall’s Principles acknowledged Dupuit only in two footnotes. Ekelund and Hébert suggest that another factor was Léon Walras’s hostility to engineers after twice failing the entrance examinations for the École Polytechnique and Walras’s deference to his father’s friend, Cournot. One wonders how much Vilfredo Pareto, Walras’s successor in Lausanne and an engineer turned economist, knew of the ENPC econo-engineering tradition. Ekelund and Hébert emphasize the striking similarity between Dupuit’s and Marshall’s economics (348–49), but do not claim that Dupuit influenced Marshall’s theory of consumer surplus.
Ekelund and Hébert contrast the empirical, applied ENPC tradition with Cournot’s more abstract approach, but “lest we be accused of being overenthusiastic in support...