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Markets in History: Economics Studies of the Past.

Markets in History: Economic Studies of the Past. If the title of this book sounds vague, it is not without reason. In Markets in History, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of its parts, each one of whic has no substantive connection to any other. Four of the six chapters originated at a 1986 conference session cosponsored by the American Economic Association and the Econometric Society. Although the essays have the quality of surveys, they deal with fairly narrow question. They also have the quality of long, unusually discursive journal articles--the last one 115 pages. The editor explains: "Although each essay contains some new results that have not been previously published, these essays are not intended to substitute for more detailed presentation of research in scholarly journals and monographs. It was intended, rather, that the essays in this volume could be read by a general audience of economists who might not normally read specialized publications in economic history, and that these readers could not only learn what is currently known about the subjects covered but also derive some sense of the procedures and evidence from which these conclusions were drawn" (p. vii).

The authors and topics are as follows: Donald N. McCloskey, "The Open Fields of England: Rent, Risk, and the Rate of Interest, 1300-1815"; David W. Galenson, "Labor Market Behavior in Colonial America: Servitude, Slavery, and Free Labor"; Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Teresa D. Hutchins, "Productivity in American Whaling: The New Bedford Fleet in the Nineteenth Century"; Clayne L. Pope, "Households on the American Frontier: The Distribution of Income and Wealth in Utah, 1850-1900"; Lance E. Davis and Robert A. Huttenback, "Businessmen, the Raj, and the Pattern of Government Expenditures: The British Empire, 1860-1912"; Richard J. Butler, James J. Heckman, and Brook Payner, "The Impact of the Economy and the State on the Economic Status of Blacks: A Study of South Carolina."

Because of the diversity of topics, no useful summary of the substance of the volume can be presented. Suffice it to say that each essay is competently executed; several are wonderfully clever on occasion. The authors include some leading figures in the economic history establishment, and their efforts exemplify well how such luminaries conduct their work. My persona favorites are Davis, Gallman, and Hutchins's essay on nineteenth-centry whaling, an inherently fascinating industry, and McCloskey's essay on open fields. McCloskey, who devotes much of his time to preaching at others, here shows that he is a superb practitioner of what he preaches. My only complaints are that the texts sometimes become tedious, little more than running commentaries on the tables and equations, and that the authors take excessive delight in announcing that, voila, such and such a market worked "efficiently" at such and such a time in the past. The efficiency claim has far less substance than neoclassical economists think it has. In one interesting sense, whatever is, is efficient; in another, efficiency is nothing more than a manifestation of the prevailing property-rights regime.

One may well doubt wether the editor will hit his intended target with this book: almost all mainstream economists have been ignoring history for some fifty years, and there is no reason to expect them to change now. That is unfortunate. If economists were to read this volume, they would see that first-rate economic historians work very much as first-rate applied economists do. The most notable differences are that the economic historians are more careful about the sources and quality of their data, more willing to admit qualitative as well as quantitative evidence, and more at pains to demonstrate the robustness of their conclusions under variations in assumptions, data, and model specification. If economists were to follow these examples, and to develop a keener appreciation of history's unpredictable twists and turns, modern economics would become a more solid and less pretentious discipline.

Robert Higgs is the Thomas F. Gleed Professor in the Albers School of Business and the director of the Center for the Study of Social Dynamics at Seattle University. He is the author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987) and the editor of Arms, Politics, and the Economy (1990). His current research deals with the political economy of the U.S. military-industrial sector since 1939.
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Author:Higgs, Robert
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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