Economists vs Historians: It’s not the numbers, it’s the morality.

20 04 2010

Thank you again to the fine folks at the Historical Society for continuing to send me their journal, Historically Speaking, for no apparent reason. I was excited to read their economic history forum when I first saw a preview of it on their blog and was not disappointed. [I can’t blame them for asking mostly economists to participate as most people in that sub-field are indeed economists.]

Deirdre McCloskey of Illinois – Chicago, summarizing Robert Whaples’ lead essay in the forum, writes:

“It’s very true, as he also says, that our numerical habits have repelled the history-historians, especially since they have in turn drifted further into non-quantitative studies of race, class, and gender (it is amusing that the young economic historian Whaples quotes gets the holy trinity slightly wrong, substituting ‘ethnicity,’ a very old historical interest, for ‘class,’ a reasonable new one; it is less amusing that historians believe they can adequately study race, class, and gender without ever using numbers, beyond pages 1,2,3).”

What’s amusing to me is that economists and economic historians think that numbers of any kind are somehow value neutral. Whaples’ piece is particularly damning in that regard:

Most economists have also concluded that market competition leads to desirable outcomes, while many historians are deeply suspicious of market outcomes. For example, 71% of economists I surveyed agreed that ‘a Wal-Mart store typically generates more benefits to society than costs.’ When I asked historians the same question, only 13% agreed.”

I can’t say I’m surprised by that outcome. If all you care about numbers, all you’ll see on one side are allegedly low prices. What historians see on the other: environmental damage, sprawl, anti-unionism (something which your average economist would probably see as an asset) can’t be quantified, and if it can’t be quantified it might as well be invisible to the economics profession and to me that’s the height of immorality.

My brother is an economist. He thinks I’m a socialist. So I found this line from Whaples particularly amusing:

It is impossible to prove whether or not people are rational. But when an economist who assumes that they are meets a historian who doesn’t, they often find it hard to communicate with each other and end up talking past each other.”

That’s precisely why he and I seldom talk shop. When we do, and I’m sick of listening to him talk like he’s more objective than I am, I just say “Assume a can opener…”.

I can’t win the argument this way, but it does make me feel better.




4 responses

20 04 2010

hmmmm not sure I agree with you on much.

First of all, most economic historians are above all historians if anything because one ought to get to its sources and dropping an untrained economist in the middle of some archive is unlikely to bring much results whereas a willing historian will always be able to get something out of a regression analysis.

Secondly, whether individuals are rational or not and numbers objective or not matters little. If you study our ancestors’ biometrics, you’re bound to face some bias but it just means you should acknowledge it not that you should stop dead in the middle of you tracks. In the same way, if you can always find a twist to measures of population, inflation etc. it does not mean that you should simply ignore them.

The contrary is more likely to be true. I’m always terrified to see art historian talking about their subject without thinking for a minute that up to a point say painting is a job as any other submitted to the same sort of contingencies and that if you don’t take them into account, you’re likely to miss a huge part of the story. The same apply for all the social, cultural, etc works.

Finally even if you want to stay as far as possible from economics which may be an option after all, you should not neglect the amazing technical tools used by economists. Statistics in particular can reveal a number of facts that would have otherwise been missed by a purely qualitative approach.

PS: I’d advise you to take up any article published in the Economic History Review or the Journal of Economic History and you’re likely to find good empirical arguments to counter your brother next time.

20 04 2010
Jonathan Rees


I know and understand what economic historians do. Just because I don’t use regression analysis myself doesn’t mean I can’t see its uses. It’s that holier than thou, quasi-scientific, allegedly objective attitude that McCloskey (not to mention my brother) takes that drives me up the wall.

8 08 2010
Deirdre McCloskey

Dear Ben: I am a pretty poor choice for a whipping woman on Objectivism, as you can find out by asking around. The mild point I was making is far short of a worship of quantification. It is: many historical questions are quantitative (how much did industrialization depend on the slave trade?) and when they are it’s a mistake to avoid counting.
Sincerely, Deirdre McCloskey

8 08 2010
Jonathan Rees


Since when is how much did industrialization depend on the slave trade a quantitative question? What exactly would you count? More importantly, how can you possibly believe that answering that question by counting anything is in any way remotely objective?

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