Delong On Reading The History Of Economic Thought

This Brad DeLong post on reading the classics of economic thought is wonderful. Brad uses a Machiavelli letter to illustrate an important point — reading the classics in a body of thought give depth and nuance to your understanding of the current state and practice of methodology.

I teach history of economic thought, and I fully believe that teaching it is making me a better economist. It certainly makes me better able to couch my arguments in terms that are more persuasive without resorting to technical jargon. It has also given me a richer understanding of the importance of deductive, analytical thought, regardless of whether it takes narrative form or mathematical form. I make my students identify models, assumptions, etc. in every reading we do, and I largely teach from original sources.

The comment section also has some good nuggets, although it descends a little too far into snarky flame-land for my taste. One of the observations in the comment section is that “most undergrad economic programs require at least one unit of economic thought.” That is certainly not the case in the US. I have taught at a research institution (Northwestern), a liberal arts institution (College of William and Mary), and I attended a hybrid large liberal arts-ish institution (Miami University, the one in Ohio, which is the home of the indigenous Miami indian tribe and the Miami River, which came before Florida). History of economic thought is not a required part of an undergrad econ major at any of these institutions, and I know of very few others where it is required.

The comment section also discusses Noam Chomsky on Adam Smith. My take on Chomsky on Smith is that Chomsky is about subconscious learning and, to some extent, about tacit knowledge somewhat a la Michael Polanyi. Chomsky’s interested in the cognitive subconscious, and much of the way that Smith discusses and analyzes trade and exchange is very consistent with the hypothesis that our propensity to truck, barter and exchange is innate and is a product of our cognitive subconscious.

Which all begs the question of why Chomsky is not a classical liberal … unlike his student, Steven Pinker, who I think takes the cognitive subconscious and tacit knowledge ideas to conclusions that are more consistent with minimal government intervention in human activity.