History of economic thought

Forthcoming book: Laurent Dobuzinskis, Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought (Routledge)

Moral discourseBy Mark D. White

Out this summer from Routledge is Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought by Laurent Dobuzinskis (Simon Fraser University).

From the publisher's website:

Providing an account of the development of economic thought, this book explores the extent to which economic ideas are rooted in moral values.

Adopting an approach rooted in ‘pragmatism’, the work explores key questions which have been considered by economists since the classical political economists. These include: what degree of priority ought to be granted to property rights among all individual liberties; whether uncertainties in economic life justify investing political authorities with the power to stabilize business cycles; whether it is better to trust entrepreneurial initiatives to resolve societal dilemmas or to centralize policy-making in the hands of a benevolent government. The chapters argue that economic thought has evolved from an emphasis on "sympathy" (as defined by Adam Smith) and that there has more recently been a rediscovery of the significance of sympathy reinvented as "fair reciprocity" in the wake of the emergence of behavioural economics and its connection to evolutionary psychology.

This key book is of great interest to readers in the history of ideas, political and moral philosophy, and political economy.

Virtual Conference on "Teaching Ethics to Economists: Challenges & Benefits"

By Jonathan B. Wight

Conference Dates: October 21-22, 2021

Virtual Conference

LSBU Business School
London Centre for Business and Entrepreneurship Research

During the last 30 years, the conversation between economic theory and ethics has been restarted, after a period of interruption, generated by the positivist era in economics. We cannot ignore, in this revival, the role of the financial crisis, gender and racial inequality and now the divisions revealed by the unequal impacts of the pandemic. An important contribution has been the call for a professional economic ethics led by DeMartino (2011) and DeMartino and McCloskey (2016).

More recently, Dolfsma and Negru (2019) challenge the idea that ethics has no place in economics. Building on their ideas we ask: Is ethics important for the study of the economy and, if so, how should it be taught?

This two day conference will be of interest to lecturers and students in economics and business - and anyone with an interest in the future of the economics curriculum.

Link for the event & registration: 


Day One: Thursday 21 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Introduction to the day. Economics and Ethics - what is the agenda?

10.30am - Revisiting the analytical relationship of Ethics and Economics María Isabel Encinar & Félix-Fernando Muñoz, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain

11.15am - Theoretical and ethical reductionism and the neglect of subjectivity in economics and economic education - Giancarlo Ianulardo, University of Exeter, UK

12pm - Lunch break

12.30pm - Keeping alive non-individualistic ethics in political economy: a review of concepts from Aquinas to Habermas Stefano Solari, University of Padua, Italy

1.15pm - Racism, the economy and ethics: where does it all begin? - Paolo Ramazzotti, University of Macerata, Italy

2pm - Teaching economic harm to economists - George DeMartino, University of Denver, USA

2.45pm - Comfort break

3pm - The fate of moral philosophy in the age of economic scientism: ethics and welfare economics in mainline economics - Peter Boettke, George Mason University, USA

3.45pm - Plenary: Reflections

4pm - End of Day One


Day Two: Friday 22 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome and intro to Day Two Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Managerial decision making: consequences and Consequentialism - Malcolm Brady & Marta Rocchi, Dublin City University, Ireland

10.45am - Economic curricular, pluralism and the Global South Michelle Groenewald, North- West University, South Africa

11.30am - Accounting as applied ethics: teaching a discipline - Wilfred Dolfsma, Wageningen University, Netherlands

12.15pm - Lunch break

12.45pm - Purusharthas: the human pursuit of wealth and welfare. The Indian approach to ethics and economics - V P Raghavan, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, India

1.30pm - Economics, ethics and deliberation

  • Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania
  • Imko Meyenberg, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
  • Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

2.15pm - The kidney market debate: a retrospective on Becker and Elias - Jonathan Wight, University of Richmond, USA

3pm - Comfort break

3.15pm - Alfred North Whitehead on the education of the commercial class: its influence on Keynes Dennis Badeen, University of Hertfordshire, UK

4pm - Plenary: Reflections

4.15pm - End of Conference

*Times according to GMT


This conference will be delivered virtually via Zoom. You will receive the joining instructions on the Monday before the event takes place.

New book: Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White (eds), Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation

Mark D. White

E&V coverOur readers may be interested to know about a new book coming out soon from Oxford University Press that I co-edited with Jennifer A. Baker entitled Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation. From the blurb:

While ethics has been an integral part of economics since the days of Adam Smith (if not Aristotle), many modern economists dismiss ethical concerns in favor of increasing formal mathematical and computational methods. But recent financial crises in the real world have reignited discussions of the importance of ethics to economics, including growing calls for a new approach to incorporating moral philosophy in economic theory, practice, and policy. Ironically, it is the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristotle and Adam Smith that may lead to the most promising way to developing an economics that emphasizes the virtues, character, and judgment of the agents it models.

In Economics and the Virtues, editors Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White have brought together fifteen leading scholars in economics and philosophy to offer fresh perspectives on integrating virtue into economics. The first section covers five major thinkers and schools in the virtue tradition, tracing historical connections and suggesting new areas of cooperation. The second section applies the ethics of virtue to modern economic theory, delving into its current practices and methodology to suggest areas for integration with moral philosophy. Finally, the third section addresses specific topics such as markets, profits, and justice in the context of virtue and vice, offering valuable applications of virtue to economics.

With insights that are novel as well as rooted in time-tested ethical thought, Economics and the Virtues will be of interest to economists, philosophers, and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities, as well as professionals and policymakers in the fields of economics and finance, and makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion over the role of ethics in economics.

Many if not all of the contributors will be familiar names: besides me and Jennifer, they include Christian U. Becker, Tim O'Keefe, James Otteson, Michael Baurmann and Geoffrey Brennan, Eric Schliesser, Andrew Yuengert, Christine Swanton, David C. Rose, Seung (Ginny) Choi and Virgil Storr, and Jason Brennan. (You can see the complete table of contents at Amazon, OUP, or my personal blog.)

Personally, this book has been a dream of mine for a number of years, and working with Jennifer, Adam Swallow and (the late) Terry Vaughn at OUP, and all the contributors, made that dream a reality in every possible way.

Economics and the Virtues has already been reviewed by Adam Gurri at Sweet Talk, where he calls it "a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework." Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and The Economist calls it "a fascinating volume" and "an indispensable collection for anyone interested in moral psychology, economic theory, or the morality of markets," and pre-eminent philosopher and Kant scholar Onora O'Neill calls it "a rich and rewarding collection" that "explores classical accounts of the virtues, and argues that they remain essential not only to character but to culture, including the culture of markets."

(You can also see Jennifer's and my post at OUPblog discussing "The Big Short" in relation to the theme of the book.)

Call for papers: Special issue of Œconomia on externalities

Mark D. White

I'd like to bring to your attention a fascinating call for papers from the journal Œconomia, a relatively new journal examining the history, philosophy, and methodology of economics:


Externalities in economic thought and beyond

Editors of the special issue : Steven G. Medema and Samuel Ferey

Expression of interest: November 15th, 2013

Deadline for submission: September 1st, 2014

Planed publication of the issue: 2015


Over the last sixty years, the concept of externality has become prominent within economics. It is common knowledge that the concept was first discussed by Marshall and then given an analytical content by Pigou (1920) in The Economics of Welfare, in which he analyzed the divergence between marginal private interest and marginal social interest in case of a negative externality and proposed to implement a tax system on polluting activities. Since Meade's (1952) now classic presentation of the effect of an externality through the fable of the apple grower and the beekeeper, the concept of externality has gained visibility in mainstream economic analysis. It has fostered a vast literature and many debates between economists intent on refining the definition and the actual scope of the concept. [Read More]

Two book reviews in economics and ethics from the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Mark D. White

Thanks to the indispensable Heterodox Economics Newsletter (latest issue here), here are two recent book reviews that may interest our readers, both from the latest issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics (6/1, Spring 2013). [In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I blurbed the first book and the second was published in my "Perspectives in Social Economics" series from Palgrave Macmillan.]

Economics_as_applied_ethicsEconomics as Applied Ethics: Value Judgements in Welfare Economics, by Wilfred Beckerman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), was reviewed by our own Jonathan B. Wight, who finds it "a well-written textbook geared to advanced undergraduate or graduate students of economics, many of whom are largely and regrettably innocent of the ethical problems inherent in conventional economic analysis." After a detailed critical breakdown by chapter, Wight concludes that:

Overall, this book is highly recommended. It covers the selected topics with depth and sensitivity. The writing is generally excellent, but there are occasions of repetition and unevenness, as if the chapters were compiled separately and merged later. A student reader who is not already familiar with basic ethical theories could benefit from a primer in some places. For example, the book discusses Amartya Sen’s theory of commitment, however it does not dig very deeply to explain or defend that notion, whether from a deontological or virtue ethics approach.

The book devotes a lot of attention to questions of equality and justice, particularly on the work of economist philosophers such as John Broome, Partha Dasgupta, Ian Little, and Amartya Sen. This is
appropriate, interesting, and relevant. However, the book does not appear to address research in experimental economics, biology, and psychology that might be relevant to some of these questions, such as the work in neuroeconomics by Paul Zak, experimental work by Vernon Smith, or recent philosophical work on virtue ethics by Deirdre McCloskey. This is the normal limitation of any text that strives to be concise, yet students should understand there is much more to ethics and economics than can be conveyed in this book.

Approx_prudenceApproximating Prudence: Aristotelian Practical Wisdom and Economic Models of Choice, by Andrew Yuengert (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), was reviewed by Ricardo F. Crespo. According to Crespo, 

Yuengert shows in this book that economic modeling undertakes only a partial analysis of economic action, because it ‘puts away’ interesting features of its subject that deserve to be taken into account. He proposes adopting the Aristotelian account of human action—more specifically, of practical wisdom—as the benchmark against which to consider economic modeling. He maintains that “economics can learn much about its limits from Aristotle, who describes aspects of choice behavior that cannot be precisely modeled” (p. 3). Thus, the aim of the book is to determine what aspects of human behavior cannot be captured by the economists’ models.

After a careful analysis of the book's structure and arguments, Crespo concludes that it

provides the useful service of identifying the characteristics of human action that economic models cannot take into account. It is useful because it explains the challenge to positive economists of trying to incorporate these characteristics into their approach, and because it highlights the features that economists must consider in their normative work. The contribution of the book lies in its originality. Economics books are not usually about what economics cannot do.

Both the author and the reviewer are Aristotelian economists, and readers benefit greatly from Crespo's detailed analysis of Yuengert's use of concepts such as eudaimonia  and contingency (the latter is comparison to Knightian uncertainty). (See Crespo's Academia.edu page for his own work on Aristotle and economics.)

Our Children’s Economics

Jonathan B. Wight

What is the future of economics? Barry Eichengreen posted his ideas in "Our Children's Economics" in The Economist.

According to one view, the economics of 2030 will have marginal improvements, adding a bit of behavioral economics here, a spice of institutional theory there, perhaps even a re-writing of Adam Smith's ethics and a reinterpretation of the invisible hand that is not based on greed.

Eichengreen argues that the marginalist view is likely wrong. We are heading for major rifts and breakthroughs, similarly to the Keynesian revolution of the 1930s. What these are he cannot say.

My own pet theory is that economics will merge with biology to make BIO-ECONOMICS. Both fields try to understand survival and procreation in particular habitats with innovation and adaptation to changing environments.

Eichengreen notes that the mechanism by which knowledge is transferred from generation to generation will radically change. The old model is of a great authority who writes a definitive textbook that lasts for a generation: think of Smith and Wealth of Nations in late 18th century, Ricardo and his Principles in the 19th century, Marshall's great fusion at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, and Samuelson's great synthesis of Keynesian economics in the 1950s and on.

In the future, Eichengreen argues that textbooks will no longer be written by big-name authors, but through a wiki-process, electronically built from the bottom up. The result will be different to be sure:

"The outcome will be messy. But the economics profession will also become more diverse and dynamic – and our children's economics will be healthier as a result."

[Thanks to Pam Thomas for this link.]

Mont Pelerin in the Rear-View Mirror?

Jonathan B. Wight

David Warsh, in a column entitled, "Still an Overgoverned Society?" reports on the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its connection with anarchists, and contrasts that with the rise of the Mont Pelerin society.

Anyone who appreciates long cycles of historical analysis will recognize that success eventually breeds over-stretching and hence an inevitable backlash. I've never studied Hegel, but the dialectic of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis seems to be at work. For example, I remember being somewhat shocked when a Nobel Prize was created in economics (technically it's the Sweden's central bank's Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). In the powerful sway of Keynesian economics in the 1960s, it appeared that economists were glorified as the new physicists. How little they knew!

One group likely did know the Nobel was something of a sham, and this was the Mont Pelerin Society (even as several of their members won the prize). The hutzpah of economists claiming to know enough to do discretionary fine-tuning is now accepted as a fantasy, and led to the rise of the Austrians and other skeptics. But the Pelerin's own ideological excesses (or those of their followers) may lead to a similar backlash.

Here is David's conclusion:

Believing that societal norms move in long pulses, that a gradual turning has begun, I have to say I am still heartened by the excitement with which Occupy Wall Street has been received.  Its inner story is certainly a disappointment:  the tenets of "contemporary anarchy" are a weak foundation on which to build, but they express a powerful longing for a time in which the power of money will be reduced. Maybe it's a spiral instead of a zigzag; but the direction is slowly changing.  The road from Mont Pelerin is in the rear-view mirror. The next part of the journey has begun.

--David Warsh, www.economicprincipals.com (early edition, November 27, 2011, emphasis added)

The next part of that journey will not renounce markets, I believe, but will introduce pragmatism in establishing institutions that work with markets to achieve various goals of society. I interact each semester with excited, energetic future entrepreneurs: let's not kill that flame even as we seek to address issues of inequality and justice.

History, history of thought, and ethics

Jonathan B. Wight

Paul Krugman (here and here) laments the sorry intellectual gaps exhibited by modern macro economists, whom Krugman claims are bereft of any knowledge of American economic history, not to mention world economic history. The claim is true not only of macro economists but likely economists in general.

The notion that time and place are important markers for understanding and analyzing economic policies is not something economists like to hear. Rather, if my graduate school training is any indication, economics is often taught purely as a deductive science which is valid for all time and place; moreover, the quality of underlying assumptions is considered irrelevant.

The ignorance of history also applies to history of economic thought—which being focused on insights from the past, is fundamentally suspect in a world of rational expectations. If the market for truth is as efficient as all other markets, there is no need to know history:

An efficient market model of scientific progress suggested by Stigler (1969) would hypothesize a linear flow of advancement such that new knowledge embodies all old knowledge worth keeping…. A present day economist "will assume, just as the mathematician or chemist assumes, that all that is useful and valid in earlier work is present—in purer and more elegant form—in the modern theory." If true, then "there is as little to be gained scientifically from reading old texts as there is from prowling old bookstores for undervalued rarities" (Anderson et al. 1989, 174). George Stigler concludes: "The economics of 1800, like the weather forecasts of 1800, is mostly out of date" (1969, 218). Source: Wight 2002.

Fortunately, the last thirty years have shown Stigler wrong. Economic analysis does not progress linearly— but recursively. In a 2002 article ("The Rise of Adam Smith" in History of Political Economy) I chronicle the "resurrection" of interest in Adam Smith, whose account of the invisible hand is set in a rich context of institutions and history. Importantly, citations to The Theory of Moral Sentiments are growing exponentially. This suggests that Smith's institutional insights into morals—and the interplay with markets—are of growing interest to social scientists.

There are notable inroads in introducing history in economics as well, such as Douglass North's work on institutions and Dani Rodrik's work on policy making in an historical context (One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth, 2007). Still, Krugman is right to lament the general a-historical or anti-historical ideology in economics education.

When economics and philosophy divorced...

Mark D. White

In a recent "The Shrink and the Sage" piece in the Financial Times Magazine, Julian Baggini (prolific popularizer of philosophy) and Antonia Macaro discuss the pursuit of happiness, which is very interesting in itself, but I was particularly amused by how Baggini started his half of the discussion:

When psychology and philosophy filed for divorce about 100 years ago, they faced the common dilemma of how to divide the book collection. In the end, psychology left most of the volumes on happiness and the good life with philosophy, which dutifully left them to gather dust. Now that psychology has returned to the subject with gusto, there is an urgent need to dig them out again.

Of course, economics and philosophy had their own break-up, perhaps a little earlier, so it may be fun to ask: how did they divide their book collection? Some speculation...

  • Economics only took one Adam Smith book--but didn't read it--and philosophy lost the rest for years.
  • Economics was more than happy to take the Bentham, but forgot the Mill (both the philosophy and economics).
  • Most tragically, economics chose to take the calculus books rather than Kant--and we all know how that turned out.

Any others?

Jerry Evensky on Adam Smith, trust, and the Great Recession

Mark D. White

In the latest issue of Journal of the History of Economic Thought (33/2, June 2011) is a new article by Jerry Evensky (author of Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture):


ABSTRACT: When trust is shaken, individuals pull back and the market system contracts. Where trust grows, individual energy and creativity are unleashed and the system grows. In Adam Smith’s vision of humankind’s progress, trust is the central theme.

The Great Recession represents a classic case of a crisis of trust. Looking back to the work of Smith offers insight into the role of citizens and the State in creating an fruitful market environment based on trust, and the challenge of this process, given the human frailty of individuals (unfortunately, we are not angels) and the potential for State power to be captured and abused.