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11.3 In Praise of Economic History

It is our view that a knowledge of history in general, and economic history in

particular, is important to understand how societies and economies change.

Since contemporary economic historians are primarily interested in the longrun

development of economies, they seek to understand the fundamental

causes of economic growth, the determinants of technological progress, the

evolution and impact of institutions, and the historical origins of current

economic problems. With respect to the determination of technological

progress, which is now at the forefront of endogenous growth theory, Wright

(1997) argues that if economists wish to take technology seriously then

economics ‘will have to become a more historical discipline’ (see also Mokyr,

2002, 2005). In his influential 1986 paper, William Baumol also advises

economists interested in long-run growth to pay more attention to the ‘brilliant

insights’ and ‘powerful analysis’ of economic historians.

Before the 1960s, even though large amounts of invaluable quantitative

data were produced by economic historians, much of their analysis tended to

be atheoretical. The traditional approach to the study of economic history

was largely descriptive. This situation changed dramatically during the 1960s

as formalization and analytical rigour spread from mainstream economics to

the field of economic history. From the early 1960s scholars such as Nobel

Memorial Laureates Robert Fogel and Douglass North pioneered the ‘new’

quantitative approach to economic history, or ‘cliometrics’, defined as ‘the

application of economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of

history’ (Goldin, 1995).

During the last four decades the ‘cliometric revolution’ has demonstrated

that economic historians have much to gain from a knowledge of economic

theory and methodology. The ‘new’ approach has emphasized the need for

scholars to be precise and explicit about which hypotheses are being tested in

order to connect the historical investigation with quantitative analysis. However,

economists also have much to gain from a greater knowledge of history,

in particular economic history (Snowdon, 2002c). Indeed, one of the main

developments highlighted in this chapter is how in recent years economic

theorists appear to have followed Goldin’s (1995) advice that ‘only the oblivious

can ignore history in modern economics, and only the unenlightened

would chose to do so’. Goldin’s recommendation is especially relevant to

those economists interested in the long-run issue of economic growth. Not

only does the past provide a gigantic laboratory for testing various hypotheses

in economics; history also contains many lessons that can provide useful

information for contemporary policy makers, not least those in the developing

countries and transition economies. Because the past shapes the present it

must also influence the future. As Goldin argues, the ‘remnants of the past,

which shape the realm of the possible today, are always with us, norms,

structures, institutions, and even people’. While history rarely repeats itself

exactly, it does offer guidance, broadens our stock of knowledge, highlights

what may be important in determining outcomes, and ‘enables us to identify

and read signals’ (Horrell, 2003). It is worth noting that several prominent

macroeconomists have, in recent years, made important contributions to growth

analysis by engaging in quantitative economic history (see Lucas, 2000b,

2002; Hansen and Prescott, 2002; Parente and Prescott, 2005; and section

11.21).