I think a lot of economists were deeply impressed by the elegance of their models. These models describe an imagined economy where the markets functioned perfectly. In such an environment, the market achieves very good results and does not need any kind of state intervention. That’s a very elegant model. It was something which Adam Smith did discuss, but he discussed it along with all the limitations that must be borne in mind. Other early economists who used simplified models of this kind also stressed the importance of noting that the world isn’t anything like that. Edgeworth did that, Walras did that, Wicksell did that. Many modern economists take their simplified models too seriously.
In which ways do you think new economic thinking is necessary and how should it look like?
I think we need a bigger, more integrated view that economists tended to look for, in the past. We have to see the totality of the concerns that make human beings want a good economy. The kind of economic thinking that I would like to see pays a lot more attention to issues of human freedom. What I have in mind is real freedom, not just formal liberties but also what kind of lives people manage to achieve, what they can do with their lives, and what help of the state they need for more substantive freedom. The basic question economists should ask themselves is: What can we do to have a decent society where people get much more freedom to live the kind of lives of which they would have reason to be proud and happy.
You make a lot of references to old economic thinkers like Smith, Keynes and so on. However, if you look at the current economic research that is published in the journals and taught at universities, the history of economic thought does not play a big role anymore…
Yes, absolutely. The history of economic thought has been woefully neglected by the profession in the last decades. This has been one of the major mistakes of the profession. One of the earliest reminders that we are going in the wrong direction has come from Kenneth Arrow about 30 years ago when he said: These days, I get surprised when I find the students don’t seem to know any economics that was written 25 or 30 years ago.
Is there any hope that this trend can be reversed?
Yes, I’m quite optimistic in this regard. I get the impression that this seems to be getting corrected right now. I’m particularly delighted that the corrective has come to a great extent from student interest. I’m very struck by the fact that at the university where I teach – Harvard – the demand for more history of economic thought has mostly come from students. As a result there is a lot more attempt by the department of economics as well as history and government to look for the history of political economy. Last year, along with my wife Emma Rothschild, I offered a course on Adam Smith’s philosophy and political economy. It drew a lot of interest and we got some of the finest students at Harvard.
Amartya Sen’s plight for history of economics
June 13, 2012 by Kasey Dufresne