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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 602-603
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Economics and Interdisciplinary Exchange. Edited by Guido Erreygers. London: Routledge, 2001. 214 pp. $90.00.
This is a very fine volume of papers, the by-product of one of the annual European Conferences on the History of Economics, held in Antwerp in 1998. It is unlikely that individual scholars will purchase this book because of the price, but certainly the articles will be of considerable service to the scholarly community and I urge you to read them. The conference sought to provide some counterweight to Gary Becker's economic imperialism, whereby virtually all behavioral phenomena are rendered in terms of utility maximization. Some of the papers are more clearly directed against Becker's movement than others, but all of them help to show the ways in which the boundaries of economics are permeable, whether to other sciences, to ethics and religion, or to political and professional agendas. In short, the channels run both ways, at least for economic thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Bruna Ingrao's paper is in many respects the most original and profound of the group. She addresses the variety of economic ideas found in fiction of the nineteenth century, and the range is impressive: Gogol, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. By challenging the view that economic insight can only be garnered from mainstream theory, she helps us see that a plethora of characters, albeit fictitious, do not instantiate the model of rational economic man. Quite often the protagonist engages in destructive behavior that thwarts his or her efforts at betterment. Balzac and Zola, who wrote novels that were explicitly about life as a banker or stockbroker, describe worlds that do not square with the unidimensional picture offered by mainstream economics. Moreover, as Ingrao points out, in novels the budget constraint is not a datum but something that is chosen and rendered elastic in the imaginations of the leading figures. Flaubert's Madame Bovary, while not discussed by Ingrao, would produce a choice example. The essay is provocative; one thinks of many other novelists—Defoe, Gaskell, Mann, Hardy, or [End Page 602] Wharton—who would have served just as well. The bigger question is whether this will be a wake-up call to neoclassical economists, who might be persuaded that literature digs more deeply into the human condition than any behaviorist psychology. Jon Elster, of course, has been trying this for a number of years, and even Marshall and Keynes saw a place for the concept of character formation in economic theory.
Anthony Waterman and Flavio Comim address the role of theology in economics, although from very different angles. Waterman maintains that the two bodies of knowledge were at peace with one another until Malthus published his Essay on Population (1798). The principle of diminishing returns dealt a deathblow to the view that economic prosperity was inevitable and thus part of God's design. Waterman's story, while meritorious, is overly simplistic since there were clearly deeper forces, including economic ones, at work in the secularization of political economy. Comim argues that Wicksteed's assimilation of moral and theological teachings made him much less a disciple of Jevons and more a thinker in his own right, despite the fact that both were utilitarians and Unitarians. Given the dearth of scholarship on Wicksteed, this is a welcome addition.
Two other papers, by Peter Rosner and Mauro Boianovsky, look to the respective roles of history and demography in the content of mainstream economics. Rosner highlights the diverse range of views on the relationship between history and economics among nineteenth-century German economists, notably Rau, Roscher, Marx, and Schmoller. Boianovsky argues that demography, while a distinct field by 1900, nevertheless played a critical role in the economic analysis of Pareto and Wicksell. Finally three papers address, in one form or another, the absorption of mathematics and physics into economics during the first half of the twentieth century. Claudia Rotondi looks at Emanuele Sella's efforts to devise a theory of dynamics, while Francisco Louçã looks to the rampant...