Why I Study Economic History

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Written by Rich Marino

A short time ago, Benjamin asked me to make a list of the ten books that have influenced me most in economic history. At first, I thought that wouldn’t take much effort and then I started thinking about it and the task became overwhelming. I can’t really pare down my interest in economic history to ten books, but as a perpetual student of economic history, I can offer some insight that may be helpful to you in the future.

First off in one form or another, most general history is economic history. No matter how the historian tries to spin it, eventually his thesis will work its way indirectly into the economy of his subject whether it be the fall of the Roman Empire, the Greeks, the Carthaginians and so on. In my opinion, most reliable history books will offer its reader a general overview of the economy of the subject. Furthermore, I can make the argument that economic historians don’t have the premium on economic history. For example in my country, most economic history is taught as a sub-discipline in the university’s economics department which in my opinion is very short sighted. Economics is the study of how goods and services are produced and distributed which includes the use of mathematical models to forecast GDP, monetary policy, interest rates, unemployment, economics of the firm, and so on.

Quantitative economists for the most part deal with the future. Economic historians employ quantitative methods to explain what happened in the past within the context of history. The irony found in this is that most of our top academic economists in America are mainly economic historians who rely on history for guidance as opposed to mathematical models. For example, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, was a member of the faculty of the Economics Department of Princeton University, but his subject is the Great Depression. Yes, in his work he incorporates quantitative methods to explain why certain things took place in the 1930s, but no more than any other economic historian, and at the end of the day, he still relies on the qualitative side of what happened and why it happened, and that’s history, pure and simple! By the way if any of you are interested in studying the Great Depression, I certainly recommend any of Bernanke’s articles. He’s extremely knowledgeable and very insightful.

Getting back to the task at hand, I like to have at all times at my disposal a good general reference book. I can recommend a couple of them:

A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the World) by Gregory Clark (Paperback, Dec. 29, 2008.

The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History by Douglas C. North and Robert Paul Thomas (Paperback, Jul. 30, 1976.

The following is a brief list of some of the books that I have found fascinating in terms of economic history:

Freedom and Growth: Markets and States in Pre-Modern Europe (Routledge Explorations in Economics History, 17) by S.R. Epstein (Dec. 4, 2000)

Guilds, Innovation and the European Economy, 1400-1800 by S.R. Epstein and Maarten Prak (Mar. 31, 2008)

Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from the Medieval Trade (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions) by Avner Grief (Paperback, Jan. 16, 2006)

Analytic Narratives by Robert Bates, Avner Grief, Margaret Levi, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (Paperback, Aug. 17, 1998)

A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. III: The Family by S.D. Goitein (Paperback, May 19, 1999)

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze (Paperback, Feb. 26, 2008)

The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy by Joel Mokyr (Paperback, Oct. 18, 2004)

The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, (American & European Economic History) by Joel Mokyr, Editor (Paperback, Dec. 24, 1998)

2 Responses to Why I Study Economic History

  1. Ben says:

    Thanks Richard, interesting list (only Anglo-American writers interestingly, granted the rest of the world has not produced much groundbreaking works recently).

    Regarding economics, unfortunately few researchers actually try to apply their own models and are interested interested in EH.

  2. Sarah Couto says:

    “First off in one form or another, most general history is economic history”. Presumably you are talking about human history. I’m inclined to say that it is impossible to study any human subject, without examining the biological or psychological dimension, which incidentally is my field. Perhaps we should study questions and not fields.

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