The Visible Hand Writing History

[We are inaugurating something new in this blog: a jointly written post!]

Let’s propose an exercise (simplistic in many dimensions). Read the following abstract of a paper and decide whether or not it looks publishable in either A) a top economics journal or B) a top history of economics journal?

The invisible hand is not a power that makes the good of one the good of all, and it is not any of a number of other things it is said to be. It is simply the inducement a merchant has to keep his capital at home, thereby increasing the domestic capital stock and enhancing military power, both of which are in the public interest and neither of which he intended. Smith’s exposition discloses how his rhetorical sallies could disfigure his economics, confuse his argument for free trade, and make him play fast and loose with facts and the ideas of others.

What would be your editorial decision?

Well, the Journal of Political Economy decided it was to be published. Was it a long time ago? Not really: in the June 2000 issue. William D. Grampp, an emeritus professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago (he received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1944 and was a past president of the History of Economics Society, 1980-81), wrote this article that resembles a bit the work of Warren Samuels on the invisible hand (whom was thanked by the author in the article). Grampp read closely many works of Smith and tried to make the case that:

there is little or no support in what Smith wrote that can substantiate the interpretations [the invisible hand] has been given, thus offering another example of how the words of a great man can mean different things to his readers and can be made into something that he himself would not recognize. (p. 442)

The HET community nowadays would surely disagree over the question of whether this argument – and the method which is used to ground it – should count as a legitimate historical inquiry and would be well worth including in a current history of economics journal and depending on which side you are in this debate, you might think that the inclusion of such piece in one of the Top 5 economics journal is either a blessing or a curse. Still, in view of the tense relationship that exists between economists and historians writing the history of economics (see also here and here), we were surprised to see this piece in a quite recent issue of one of the highest ranked economics journal. Putting aside the normative question of the desirability of such inclusion, how can we explain it and therefore ensure that such “success” be reiterated in the (near) future?

Pedro & Yann

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