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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 284-286

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Book Review

From Classical Economics to the Theory of the Firm:
Essays in Honour of D. P. O'Brien

From Classical Economics to the Theory of the Firm: Essays in Honour of D. P. O'Brien. Edited by Roger E. Backhouse and John Creedy. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1999. xiv; 306 pp. $95.00

Denis O'Brien is an outstanding historian of economics, as well as a first-rate economist, yet his achievements are less widely known and appreciated than they deserve to be. In their thoughtful and informative introduction to this celebratory collection of essays, the editors attempt to account for this state of affairs, and in the process [End Page 284] they focus on certain aspects of the sociology of contemporary economics, as well as the intellectual range and quality of O'Brien's output. As they observe:

O'Brien spurns many of the practices found in contemporary academia. He is extremely modest in the way he presents his work, refraining from exaggerating the originality of his own contributions and from criticizing over-simplified accounts of other scholars' work. Much of his work is published in books, without exposing the ideas beforehand in journal articles. He frequently publishes in “unfashionable” journals and does not recycle articles. He has written very substantial introductions to reprints of historical texts . . . [most of which] are published at high prices and in small print runs. He travels little (never outside the UK) and does not expose his work at conferences. He has supervised few Ph.D. students in the history of economic thought. Had he advertised his work, especially in the United States, in ways that are now normal, and had he been prepared to move to an institution that would have provided him with the opportunity to influence generations of graduate students, awareness of his work might have been greater.

That last observation is surely an overcautious conjecture.

It is obviously impossible to consider here all fourteen items in this volume. The items are classified into four categories reflecting the broad scope of O'Brien's interests. They are monetary economics, with contributions by Thomas M. Humphrey, Paul Samuelson, and jointly by Ivo Maes, Paul Mizen, and John R. Presley; classical economics, with essays by Walter Eltis, Andrew Skinner, and Anthony Brewer; Marshall and microeconomics, featuring papers by David Collard, John Creedy, Brian J. Loasby, and Mark Casson; and methodology, with essays by Malcolm Rutherford, Terence Hutchison, Mark Blaug, and Roger E. Backhouse. A star-studded roster indeed.

At the risk of appearing to make invidious comparisons, I shall draw upon reviewer's privilege in commenting on only three of the fourteen papers that are of special interest to me. Brewer's contribution, “Adam Smith on Classes and Savings,” challenges the oft-repeated claim that of Smith's three classes—landlords, capitalists, and workers—only “or mainly” the capitalists save. His argument is reasonable, but his account is tantalizing in opening up substantial opportunities for further examination of the links between eighteenth-century ideas and the contemporary social and economic situation—the differences between the behavior of large and small farmers and landowners; between agricultural and primary or industrial patterns of investment and savings; between country and town; and the perennial question of the relationship between Smith's economic analysis and his use of history. And, incidentally, some social historians (e.g., Asa Briggs) have argued that the concept of class is misleading when applied to eighteenth-century Britain.

In the other two cases brief comments must suffice. Rutherford's “Institutionalism as ‘Scientific' Economics” is yet another solid contribution to his ongoing general history of heterodox American economics. Like his erstwhile Ph.D. supervisor, [End Page 285] Denis O'Brien himself, he effectively disposes of misconceived or muddled conceptions of social and natural science and is scrupulously fair to the views of those whose ideas he criticizes or rejects. Further installments will be eagerly awaited. Finally, Mark Blaug's...


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