David R. Henderson  

Daniel Kuehn Follows in George Stigler's Footsteps

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Correction: Daniel Kuehn is tempted to follow in George Stigler's footsteps.

On a short blog post today, Daniel Kuehn, preparing to teach an undergraduate course in the history of economic thought, writes:

I wish I could completely skip Marx... does that make me a bad person? I suppose I shouldn't. A few in the department would probably be miffed too if they found out.

First, Daniel, it doesn't make you a bad person. Indeed, my respect for you just rose from what was already a reasonably high level.

Second, that reminds me of a true story. My friend Chris Jehn, while a Ph.D. student in the University of Chicago's economics program in the late 1960s or early 1970s, took a course in the history of economic thought from the late George Stigler. Many people might have forgotten this, or perhaps never knew it because George was known mainly for his work in industrial organization and regulation, but the history of thought was one of George's passions and it was an area in which published a lot in the 1940s and 1950s.

Back to the story. The first day of class, Stigler handed out a pretty comprehensive syllabus and started going over it in class. A student with a foreign voice raised his hand. "Yes," said Stigler (and if I could do the voice in this blog, you would hear a reasonable imitation of Stigler's distinctive voice.)

"Professor Stigler, I see that there is nothing on the syllabus by Karl Marx. Why is that?"

Stigler paused and then answered: "Marx was a lousy economist."

Serious note for people considering teaching history of thought: Take a look at Mark Brady's recommendations. He's a master teacher of pretty much anything he teaches.

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CATEGORIES: Revealed Preference

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

It'll be taught, of course (hopefully that doesn't loose me some of the new respect!). I don't think I have the same clout to rearrange things the way Stigler does. And there's some interesting stuff to talk about with Marx - it was mainly the constraints it placed on adding other interesting stuff I want to.

This is Brad DeLong's suggestion in my comment section, if anyone's interested:

"Well, if I were you, for Marx I would assign "The Communist Manifesto", "Wage-Labor and Capital", "Value, Price, and Profit" and this: http://delong.typepad.com/delong_long_form/2013/05/understanding-karl-marx-hoisted-from-the-archives-from-four-years-ago-may-day-weblogging.html

There's an argument for adding Capital, vol I, ch. 25.

There's an argument for adding Capital, vol I, cha. 26-32, but I think it a relatively weak one... "

Alex Tabarrok writes:

I was once challenged as to why the economics department (not GMU) didn't teach Marxist economics, I responded "we let the English department do that."

Isaac Marmolejo writes:

The economists worth studying in a History of Economic Thought class shouldn't be judged by their lousiness, should they? If anything, they should be judged by how they influenced economic thought. And in considering that, Marx had a huge impact on.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Isn't there a difference between a history of economic thought course and an economics course? There's plenty of influential dead ends and false starts in my field that should and would be covered in a "history of" class, but not in a "here's what we now know" class.

Steve Y. writes:

There's an aspect of Marxist thought a) that is rarely studied and b) that libertarians, I think, would get behind, namely the state "withering away" after the proletariat takes over. I suppose Marxists don't talk about it because people start laughing so hard.

David R. Henderson writes:

@F. Lynx Pardinus,
Isn't there a difference between a history of economic thought course and an economics course? There's plenty of influential dead ends and false starts in my field that should and would be covered in a "history of" class, but not in a "here's what we now know" class.
Good point. I told the story mainly as a funny "history of Stigler thought" story and so I probably should not have raised my respect for Daniel so much. But as one economist, I've forgotten whom, advised when I was in my 20s and deciding how much to invest in Marx, said, "Marx is long and life is short."

Marie writes:

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf...
Not teaching Marxist economics is normal in America...
Better not teaching then having students who may all of a sudden look around the state of the afaires in the economy and start thinking what can really be done to make poverty disappear, or get middle class strong again...you know, things that matter...
No...we better stick to Mises, Keynes, Friedman and fool the public that its DC that need some stirring in the right direction otherwise economy is doing just fine...it's the people who does not doing great...but people do not pay your salaries, so too bad...people are on their own...
Not teaching Marx is what qualify you and economists as you to still peddle reverse economics on major universities while the people sink in poverty all around you...
Sincerely Marie...
twitter name is @worldmist1

RPLong writes:

I could go either way here. Everything I learned about Marxism I learned in history and political philosophy courses. Marxism was not a significant contribution to economic thought, even if it was an influential one. My History of Economic Thought professor did indeed cover Marx (for a day), but the discussion centered around how Ricardo's economics lead to conceptual errors. Years later, I enjoyed reading the passage Mises wrote in Theory and History (and, if I'm not mistaken, elsewhere):

Marx's economic teachings are essentially a garbled rehash of the theories of Adam Smith and, first of all, of Ricardo.
I remember one of the essay questions on our final exam was who, out of everyone we had learned about in class, did we think was the most important economist in history.

I chose Ricardo, not because he was right about everything, but because I felt he was the first to do economic analysis rigorously. My professor razzed me a lot for that, haha... I still like Ricardo. Besides, there are too many great economists throughout history to make any one of them a good choice for "best ever."

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Ha, your advisor was smart--I've searched and searched and can't find the source, but I feel like in the last month I read an anecdote in an article or blog post of someone asking a roomful of people who were supposedly well-versed in Marxist theory if they had actually sat down and slogged through all of "Capital." Apparently, they all looked sheepishly at each other.

Nick J writes:

I took a class as an undergraduate on the functioning of the Soviet Union. As part of it we learned a bit about Marxist economic theory. The contrast with modern economics taught me more about modern economics then about Marxist economics. Now I use examples from Marxism as touchstones to discuss issues when I teach. I think students find it sexy and exciting. Or at least I do.

Andrew writes:

Thank you Alex -- that made my day!!

Aaron Zierman writes:

Love the quote by Alex Tabarrok.

It's better to teach what is correct than what is incorrect.

Although, touching on incorrect theories can help illustrate the hows and whys of such things.

mickey writes:

Pardinus, I am pretty sure you are thinking of Neodoxy over at LibertyHQ commenting on a thread about a Marxist criticizing Rothbard.

Urstoff writes:

I can see ignoring Marx (and Malthus, for that matter) simply because there are no major ideas from Marx that are still used as conceptual insights in contemporary economics. For Adam Smith you have the division of labor and the invisible hand; for Ricardo, comparative advantage. Marx just seems to be an example of a thinker who took one incredibly wrong idea (The Labor Theory of Value) and fully worked out all of the logical consequences. Given that there's no reason to believe in the labor theory of value, then most of Marx is just a complicated (although perhaps ingenious) dead end.


There's an article out there on the relationship between Ricardo and Smith, arguing that Ricardo was a formalization of Smithian theory that focused on distribution, rather than on spontaneous order.

Steve Kates writes:

My Defending the History of Economic Thought is about to be published next month by Edward Elgar. In it I devote a chapter to discussing how I think the history of economic thought should be taught with one of the main points I make being that Marxist economics should not be. HET in my view is either about how the economics we find in our texts evolved through time into what we see. Or is it about how the mainstream of the profession answered particular economic questions during different periods of time in the past. In neither case would I think that the inclusion of Marxist economic theory would be relevant.

David Friedman writes:

It's a long time since I've taught History of Thought. My view was and is that it's a mistake to try to cover a lot of thinkers at a week or less each--all that gives you is cocktail party conversation. When I taught the course at UCLA, I started by asking the students to imagine that the year was 1776, they were doctoral candidates preparing for their prelims, and The Wealth of Nations was the latest thing in the field.

I ended up covering about three people in a quarter. For anyone who is curious, my lecture notes from the last time I taught the course (at SCU) are on my web site.

Ricardo doesn't just have comparative advantage. He invented general equilibrium theory--and did it with no math beyond arithmetic.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

If you're not at Daniel Kuehn's university, there's always Great Economists: Classical Economics and its Forerunners at MRU.

liberty writes:

I could say a lot about how Marx and other variants of socialist thought, and models built to discredit them, have affected economics, and how economic history (implementation of models in the real world) should inform economic thought, but my husband summed it up much better when I showed him this post:

"When you're studying history you don't not study a king just because he was a lousy king."

liberty writes:

Oh, as for what of Marx's works should be included - in addition to the shorter works Daniel mentioned above, I would include the first few pages of Capital, where he introduces his Labour Theory of Value, which forms the faulty foundation for his proposed socialist system.

Lauren writes:

If anyone does want to read Marx in the original, Econlib carries the full, three-volume series at:
Capital, Vol. I., by Karl Marx.
Capital, Vol. II. (Engels, ed.)
Capital, Vol. III. (Engels, ed.)

I also suggest
"The Nature and Significance of Marx's: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy" by David L. Prychitko.

GU writes:

I think skipping Marx would be a mistake in this type of class, especially if done for ideological reasons. Marx has been incredibly influential, albeit more as a "political economist" than a pure economist (if that distinction makes sense). Moreover, the Communist Manifesto is short and lively so students might actually read it (admittedly Das Kapital is deeper but voluminous). I recently re-read CM and was pretty surprised at how closely contemporary Progressive rhetoric mirrors Marxist rhetoric, so your students might get a kick out of that.

You could have the class read Marx, discuss his ideas, including why he was wrong, and then look at Schumpeter's treatment of Marx in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy which is pretty interesting.

Marx's political economy observations (e.g. that the rich and powerful seek to structure society's rules to work towards their advantage) actually have some similarities with the Public Choice literature, though obviously the Marxist solution is quite different than the typical Public Choice solution.

Dave smith writes:

I teach in a b school, so I'll never teach history of thought, but I'd see no reason to include Marx (Karl or Groucho) in the readings.

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