Historia versus Economía

Un académico contra el imperialismo económico

ConsensoEconomía neoclásicaEducaciónEpistemologíaHistoria EconómicaIntegridad

Why economists hate historians: slavery

The long and distant relationship between the disciplines of History and Economics is today an irreconcilable separation. While the structural and teleological models of History have been rejected by the majority of historians for their unscientific pretensions of foreseen the future, the economists receive good positions in official institutions for their capacity of predict the evolution of the world or at least the growth of the GNP. History is written with moral intentions and historians are focused on the human actions in order to understand what we did and why and, more important, why we did not make alternative decisions. History is devoted to contingency, to the events that happened, although it was not determined that happened. It means that our material to study is the human will, their motives and their responsibility. We research about particular events that are not conducted by a universal or general law as even the historians more distant from the linguistic turn accept.

By the contrary, the mainstream economists use the neoclassical economics paradigm for have been built as imitation of Physics. Although their object of study is also the human action, they believe that is possible to analyse the human affairs with scientific objectivity, neutrality and accuracy from a moral vacuum. Logically, the superiority of their method for its rigour over the rest of disciplines related to Social Sciences and Humanities has conduced them to their official reclaim of the title of Supreme Social Science and the right of leading the research in Sociology, Law or History.

The epistemological trick used by economists to neglect historians is the teleological fallacy of rational reconstruction inherent to their Whig history: the laws of economy were a universal and eternal truth, because they were a mathematical truth. The past societies also had been governed by these laws, so the free market had always been there. The problem was that the humanity had not discovered this universal truth, so the humanity was not yet correctly driven by the free market. However, after the process of the self discovering and self revelation lived by the English people they interpreted the eternal truths that were beyond their traditions and customs and they started to codify them in rational laws. Thanks to this new norms and laws, English society was conducted efficiently by the free market laws and they were superior to rest of nations, although the western civilized nations should be inspired by them, especially in the question of free trade.

Nevertheless, the fallacy of rational reconstruction neglects the historical reconstruction, because its attempt to attribute rationality and aims to the historic subjects from a model of behaviour understood as normative and universal for being rational. It makes unnecessary to hear them, to study what they did o what they demanded, because we give sense to their actions without hearing them. In this way, economists can interpret reality using a unreal theoretical model as neoclassic economics. What really matters is his mathematical coherence, although human affairs and historical reality are not mathematical coherent.

Indeed, incoherence drives economists crazy while historians have been trained to understand a contradictory world. Obviously, it means that historians are capable of understanding our world and economists fail again and again. Consequently, economists hate historians and they will try to promote an academic cleaning to finish with this annoying competence. The fittest scholar is not who produces truthful knowledge but who controls the budget.

This intellectual tension arises when historians study slavery. For the methodological individualism of economists, slavery is inconsistent with free market economies, although historically modern slavery and capitalism are united. As Talcott Parsons noted about the father of neoclassical economics, Alfred Marshall: “Marshall saw no place in free enterprise for high efficiency in deliberate exploitation or deception, to say nothing of the use of force”. Thus, when The Economist has to review the book of Edward Baptist The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, they need to mock about this research and state that if slavery was related with material progress of Western civilization, slavery ought to be a moral good or, at least, a supportable lesser evil.

Maybe it is an overreaction of historians to the British wit or the sense of humour of the mainstream economics, but, as Greg Garin and Mark Healy have enumerated previous cases, The Economist has a slavery problem. In fact, the economists have a problem with slavery. Their science or their methods are not capable of saying a useful o correct word about slavery (as the previous debates about Fogel and Engerman had proved, although the scholar intelligentsia have forgotten the role played by the economic science in this case). They can not explain coherently why there was slavery , why it was possible to eradicate, how it was posible to abolish or what have been the social consequences of slavery. But, more important, the mainstream economics can not say anything worthy about current slavery. Despite its hegemony, economics is a reductionist approach with a limited scope. Understanding material prosperity, education or scientific progress are fields beyond the intellectual capacities of mainstream economists. Their background makes impossible for them grasping the real world. However, they will struggle to convince society that they have to rule our countries to pursue prosperity through efficiency. In order to be at the top of academia, they will eradicate any colleague that can point out their numerous mistakes.

Note: this text includes passages of a working paper.


Carles Sirera Miralles (València, 1981) is a Spanish historian and adjunct professor in the University of Valencia. His principal lines of research focused on the problems of the democratization in Europe, especially during the end of Nineteenth Century and the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. As social historian, he has wrote about the sports and sociability and his thesis, Un título para las clases medias, is one of the most completed and relevant studies on the subject of the secondary school in Spain. His intellectual influences are the Alltagsgeschichte school, Norbert Elias, Fritz K. Ringer and all historians who, although the limitations of our discipline, think that is possible reach some kind of valid, useful and interesting knowledge.