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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 222-224
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Reflections on the Classical Canon in Economics: Essays in Honor of Samuel Hollander. Edited by Evelyn L. Forget and Sandra Peart. London: Routledge, 2001.
This volume comprises twenty-four chapters originating from a conference in honor of Samuel Hollander, occasioned by Hollander's reluctant departure from Toronto. There is also an appendix in which Paul Samuelson praises Hollander's scholarly achievements and Hollander discourses ruefully on his passage out of Canada. But this is no final valediction. With his study of Marx in the offing, Hollander's mission to reconstruct "classical economics" is relentlessly ongoing.
The collection contains several outstanding individual contributions, including Kleer's provocatively critical portrayal of recent Smith scholarship, Porta's brilliant account of the Marxian genesis of Sraffa's interpretation of Ricardo, Moss's reworking of the old thesis that Ricardo's contribution was with his "new and ruthlessly logical way of thinking," and Samuels's debunking of the very notion of a "true" canon. The presence of these, and of other worthwhile contributions, is a fitting testimony to the personal esteem in which Samuel Hollander is held by many scholars. However, that esteem does not extend to a ringing endorsement of Hollander's work. Nor, as a separate point, is the "canonical" theme of the volume particularly enlightening.
As Samuels argues persuasively, the very notion of "the canon"—never mind the classical canon—is inherently ambiguous, elusive, selective, arbitrary, and controversial. It is not even used by Hollander in his useful summary of his own work, it is absent in some other contributions, and it could have been discarded more generally without loss. Indeed, it is only through its redefinition by the coeditors as an "essential set of ideas that characterize an intellectual field" (i.e., the field of "classical [End Page 222] economics") that a point of contact is established between Hollander's contribution and the title of the collection that bears his name.
However, pinning down the "classical essence" is no less problematical than hunting for canons, not least in view of the fact that many of those who lived and wrote through the "classical period" (1770–1870, according to Hollander's periodization) did not see themselves as contributing to "essentially" the same doctrine (Malthus's identification of a separate Ricardo or "New School" is a vivid case in point). Undaunted by such problems, yet still maintaining that he is offering a truly "historical reconstruction," Hollander identifies "classical economics" with four alleged features of Ricardo's economics: the "new view" growth model, an inverse wage-profit relationship, widespread application of supply-and-demand analysis, and a weak version of the law of markets. This is not the place to elaborate on the serious problems with Hollander's treatment of Ricardo—nor, it seems, was the collection, regrettably—save merely to observe that Hollander's entire project stands or, for this reviewer, falls with his interpretation of Ricardo's work.
According to the coeditors' considerable understatement, Hollander's view of classical economics "is not one universally acclaimed by our contributors, although it is considered important by all of them." While it is true that only one invited contributor (Roncaglia) directly criticizes Hollander's central thesis, there is, even charitably, less than a handful of writers who come even close to endorsing it explicitly (among them are Eltis, Baumol, and Rymes), while others appear largely to ignore it (for example, Kleer, Young, Porta, Deleplace, Whitaker, Dimand, Samuels) and a third group (including Waterman, Sigot, and Moss) direct "friendly fire" in its direction.
Even the "supporters"—particularly Eltis and Baumol—are nuanced in their position. Baumol's thesis that Ricardo was not particularly interested in explaining the determination of individual prices, and his attribution to Ricardo of a basic "cost of production" approach, do not immediately suggest his enthusiasm for Hollander's "supply and demand" interpretation. As for Eltis, in his interesting chapter on the French foundations of "classicism," he appears to praise Hollander (and Samuelson) for having shown...