Emily Skarbek  

Mark Blaug Student Essay Competition

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Mark Blaug (1927-2011) was an economist best known for his work in history of economic thought and the methodology of economics. He was a student of George Stigler at Columbia in the 1950s and went on to teach at Yale, UCL, and LSE. His work was wide ranging, but above all, he was an astute and critical observer of economics.

Next fall I will be designing and teaching a new history of economic thought class for our political economy seniors at King's College London. I will draw from parts of Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect, an excellent resource for those interested in the development of economic theory, as Blaug describes it - "undiluted by entertaining historical digressions or biographical coloring". I certainly have been influenced by his views that the primary purposes of studying history of economic thought is to teach contemporary economic theory and that students should read original texts. Here is a quote from the preface to the first edition of Economic Theory in Retrospect that gives a sense of these views:

In truth, one should no more study modern price theory without knowing Adam Smith than one should read Adam Smith without having learned modern price theory. There is a mutual interaction between past and present economic thinking for, whether we set it down in so many words or not, the history of economic thought is being rewritten every generation.

The study of the history of economics must derive its raison détre from the extent to which it encourages a student to become acquainted at first hand with some of the great works of the subject....The importance of reading original sources in a subject such as economics cannot be overemphasized. We must all have the experience, after reading a commentary on some great book, of going back to the text itself and finding how much more there is in it than we had been led to expect. Commentaries are tidy and consistent, great books are not. This is why great books are worth reading.

For an accessible taste of Blaug's work, here is an ungated 2001 Journal of Economic Perspectives paper addressing the decline of history of economic thought in the classroom (but the apparent rise in papers, seminars, and specialized journals in the field).

The Foundation for European Economic Development (FEED) is financing and awarding an annual undergraduate student essay prize in his honor. Rather than applying economics to a particular problem, eligible essays must reflect critically on the state of economics itself, as Mark Blaug did in many of his works. Critical reflections may include the assumptions adopted, the suitability of the concepts deployed, the mode of analysis, the role of mathematical models, the use of econometrics, real-world relevance, the presumed relationship between theory and policy, the unwarranted influence of ideology, the use (or otherwise) of insights from other disciplines, and so on.

All essays must be in English and submitted by students who are currently enrolled in an undergraduate program or by graduates who obtained their Bachelor's degree no earlier than 1 January 2015. There is no residential or geographical restriction. 6,000 words maximum (inclusive of references and appendices). Author names, affiliations and email must be placed on the first page, below the title of the essay.

Up to two prizes will be awarded by a committee of leading scholars - £500 and £300 - depending on the quality of the best papers. Essays should be submitted by email to g.m.hodgson@herts.ac.uk by 1 October 2016. For details, see the website

Correction: As Don correctly points out in the comments, Blaug earned his PhD at Columbia (not Chicago) as previously written.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Andrew Clough writes:

An interesting observation I found in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was that some fields like physics never introduce students of a subject to the original works that introduced ideas to the field while other fields like philosophy use original works extensively. The book's contention was that Physics, being able to verify it's contentions as facts, didn't need to borrow the prestige of its greats and could reword things into more comprehensible forms and still be sure it wasn't losing any accuracy.

I would never want to suggest that there isn't a great deal of value to be found in the study of the history of science or the history of economics. But one studies the history of science to learn about scientists, not to learn about science. If we grant that "the primary purposes of studying history of economic thought is to teach contemporary economic theory" that would suggest that economic theory lacks verifiable truths.

Donald Siegel writes:

Hi Emily:
Nice article. Actually, Mark received his Ph.D. at Columbia under Stigler in 1955 (Stigler left Columbia in 1958).
Best regards,

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Andrew Clough -
That's why I completely disagree with Blaug's approach, although clearly many people feel the way he does. I approach "history of X thought" or "philosophy of X" the same way Richard Feynman did: "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.

I love history of economic thought. I've published it, and I've taught it. But it's not as essential to economics as a lot of people think it is. Its value is intrinsic, not instrumental.

Emily writes:

Hi Don,

Thank you for correctly pointing this out. I have amended the post.



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