Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

The Paradoxical History of Capitalism

This article in the New York Times highlights a trend that is both desirable and needed – what appears to be an ongoing “revival” of sorts in the history of capitalism.

Now some of us never really ceased working on the “history of capitalism,” though it was sometimes placed under the umbrellas of “economic history” and “policy history.” Much of my own research falls under this heading owing to a longstanding interest in the history of tariffs and trade policy. To that end, the trends observed by the Times are encouraging.

Unfortunately there is also a downside, as this renewal of interest will also likely entail putting up with a significant amount of economic ignorance masquerading as historical expertise. That’s the paradox. Historians should write more about capitalism and themes therein that have been neglected for decades in the pursuit of increasingly vacuous and obscure topics of social history (a field that is far from uninteresting and in fact highly important, but also one that has become over-saturated to the point that it generates a substantial amount of scholarly detritus).

But practitioners of the “history of capitalism” also need to comprehend what they are writing about when they encounter economic concepts and methodologies, and many of them do not. I’ve often remarked, and only half-jokingly, that the history profession is the last true bastion of Careyism in the academy owing to its uncritical affinity for the rhetorically appealing but economically fallacious doctrines of 19th century protectionism. With the rise of the “history of capitalism,” we are almost certain to see more of this tendency applied to a broader swath of economic doctrine, and with it ample room for discussion of economic concepts but also, likely, a proliferation of fairly novice errors in their application from persons ostensibly presenting themselves as the leading experts of their subjects.


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