Paul Krugman has a lovely little piece about why development economics fell apart in the 1970s. The crux of his argument is that, at the very moment when increasingly sophisticated models were becoming ever-more central to the discipline, previous simpler models were breaking apart into a dizzying sea of particularities and qualifications. Since the central issues could no longer be described in mathematically elegant ways, they moved to the margins of the discipline.
Around the time this part of his very impressive lifework was unraveling, development economist Albert Hirshman wrote a wonderful and wise essay entitled “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding”. In a key passage, he notes “The architect of social change can never have a reliable blueprint. Not only is each house he builds different from any other that was built before, but it necessarily uses new construction materials and even experiments with untested principles of stress and structure. Therefore what can be most usefully conveyed by the builders of one house is an understanding of the experience that made it at all possible to build under these trying circumstances.”
My point here is not to attack economists and exalt historians, to doom model-builders and praise particularists. I would hardly be a very good intellectual historian if I didn’t take the power of ideas seriously – we need models to order the world and act within it, and rich empirical detail may be wonderful but is in itself pointless. Rather, I want to insist on three things: first, the importance of a certain productive tension between theory and empirics, second, the value of thinking seriously about where our theories come from and how they have been deployed, and third, the absolutely crucial contribution that a global and historical perspective can make to both.
At the very least, global history should broaden horizons. It should provide a wider range of examples, an expanded sense of plausible experiences, a new empirical and conceptual territory to light out for when the familiar references and stylized facts are no longer proving fruitful in theoretical terms. In short, it offers raw material that is new, different, and potentially quite challenging.
It also can provide a better sense of where our conceptual tools come from, what their limitations might be, and where we might start if we wanted to forge some new ones.
Thus it’s not only about applying the same tools to new materials, but also about discovering how those tools might be inadequate to the task, and may even suggest how to rethink them.
In political economy, it strikes me that history is too often invited late to the party. Too often history is invited, in fact, only after the party has gone sour. The model didn’t fit, the reforms didn’t work, the policy didn’t succeed. And the history that was previously ignored now provides the supposed answer, deus ex machina. The launch of the model was initially justified on technical grounds, but its failure is now explained through history, and particularly through analogies to other past failures that suddenly become relevant. In fairness, I should note that history does sometimes show up earlier; in economics as in politics shallow historical analogies are often invoked to ground conceptual moves or political choices. The word Munich comes to mind, as does, for a certain generation of economic policy makers in Latin America, the terrifying label of populism. Both can and have been used quite effectively to silence debate.
But what we generally have here is what Tim Burke has called “historical analogy as sleight of hand.” What we need instead is “historical analogy as an investigative tool.” In short, we need to think of history as not just something to check models against, but a generative resource, a starting point for developing models, refining arguments, challenging perspectives.
I say all this well aware that historians are famously wary of what Manfredo Tafuri called “operational history,” of speaking directly to the present in a way that economists and some political economists can and must do more often. . . .