Why economic history? (part II)

This week the Economist has a review of Alan Beattie’s False Economy. A surprising economic history of the world. It is an excellent and highly entertaining book presenting  (mostly recent) economic history to the general public. I will be using the examples he gives to answer to my drop-out dad when he asks me for the nth time: “but what is it exactly that you do”. Lets put it that way: it is an truly great and thorow introduction and I can only wish I had the opportunity to read it when I started, it would have saved me a lot of uncertainty and unecessary readings.

The first chapter has deservingly been hailed as a great piece of “what-if” history, but the part of the book I liked the most came even before that in the introduction. Alan Beattie managed to sum up in two paragraph a paradox that has plagged my life as a EH blogger from the beginning: one the one hand some articles get too specific and really cannot be summarised while other remain loftly theoretical (yes Avner Greif I’m looking at you) and… well… cannot be summarised.

“Economic history is a challenging thing to explain, and to read, for two reasons. First, it involves forcing together two disciplines that naturally fall in different directions. History in its most traditional form lives on specifics and particularities – what the historian Arnold Tonybee (disapprovingly) the study of ‘one damn thing after another’. It stresses the importance of narrative in the way that countries develop, the role played by chance and circumstances and the influence of important characters and events. Economics by contrast seeks to extract universal rules from the mess of data that the world provides – offering reliable and testable predictions that economies run in a particular fashion, or starting off from a particular point will end up a particular way. Both approaches have dangers. If history can become an accumulation of a random heap of facts, economics risks descending into the pseudo-scientific compression of a complex reality into a simplistic set of fixed categorical moulds.
Second, economic history is vulnerable to fatalism. Any study that takes as its endpoint the present day is always liable to argue backward from conclusion. History is so rich in scope  and detail that it is always possible to pick a particular constellation out of the galaxy of facts to explain clearly and precisely why things are as they are. Yet such reasoning is frequently proven wrong by subsequent history. Or it completely fails to explain why other, similar, countries and economies came to a different end.”

I hope there is no copy rights infringement. If so please don’t sue me!

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