The Skeptical Liberal: The Chicago School of Economics 1: Roundtable on John Van Overtveldt’s book

The Skeptical Liberal

How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values? -- J.M. Buchanan


The Chicago School of Economics 1: Roundtable on John Van Overtveldt’s book

I promised yesterday to begin posting blogs on the sessions of the "Revisiting the Chicago School [of Economics]" Conference held this past weekend at Notre Dame. I also encouraged other participants to post responses and/or additional comments. I hope they will!

The first session of the “Revisiting the Chicago School" was devoted to a discussion of Johan Van Overtveldt’s new book The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Business and Economics (Agate, 2006). Perhaps an appropriate beginning, although we turned the session (and I say we because I contributed) into a critical bashing of the book.

Given that the participants were largely historians of economics, our discussion naturally focused on two types of issues: a) Van Overtveldt’s historical blunders; and b) why a book that would be judged harshly by historical standards would receive such popular acclaim amongst economists (at the time, we did not know of any negative reviews; but see the review by Phillips-Fein, which makes many of the points raised at the conference). Throughout our discussion of those two issues ran another: how historians and others treat overt apologia compared to works that take on a school of thought from a critical perspective. The discussion was kicked off by comments from Warren Samuels, me, Robert Leeson and Phil Mirowski (the conference organizer). My comments are available on SSRN, and will be published, along with Warren’s and Robert's, in volume 26-A of Research in the History of Economic Thought & Methodology (Elsevier, 2008).

Upon reflection on this session, I came away with four things:
a) Van Overtveldt’s book is poor history because it is “Whig history”;
b) The book is an even poorer history because it ignores external issues which would enrich the history, even if it was still a Whig history;
c) “Think tank” histories are a particularly poor version of “Whig history”; and
d) There are still things to learn, even from a poor history.

Whig history is history written by the “winners” for the purpose of accounting for their victory. Almost invariably, Whig history also has the purpose of de-legitimating alternative histories, which might portray the winners’ victory as less than a just cause. Van Overtveldt’s defense of the Chicago “revolution” largely invokes the age-old claim that great men did great deeds (in this case, they had great thoughts). Like Keynes, Van Overtveldt believes that ideas rule the world. Because he accepts the intellectual power of Chicago’s ideas, he has little need to explain why they may have succeeded. Thus, the “reasons” he gives for Chicago’s success are fairly anemic: Chicago’s isolation, the fact that department members had a strong work ethic, the intense “debating culture” of the workshops, and the University’s commitment to academic excellence. Ironically, given the Chicago emphasis on constrained maximization, Van Overtveldt explains Chicago economists as the product of an unusual utility function (they work harder and like to debate) more than the result of a different set of constraints. Of course, the argument that the brilliant men hired in the Chicago department were different than other economists underwrites the Whiggish-ness of the story Van Overtveldt tells: no need exists to examine other reasons for the success of the Chicago School, because the quality of the people accounts for the quality of their ideas.

But the other reasons for Chicago’s success kept intervening in our discussions all weekend! T. W. Schultz’ ability to bring foundation monies to support departmental research was integrated with domestic agricultural policy, trade policy, and US foreign policy; Friedman’s monetary work was connected to NBER methods and of course an integral part of the response to American Keynesianism; Chicago’s industrial organization and law & econ research gained impetus from the Volker Fund’s efforts to create an American version of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom; Stigler’s creation of a research institute deliberately sought non-traditional funding models that addressed themselves to industrial leaders; etc. In other words, our histories of the Chicago School almost invariably at least pointed to external issues, even if they did not explicitly treat them as part of the evaluation of the School’s success.

My own difficulty with Van Overtveldt’s unwillingness to address the external issues that affected the department’s success was not only the fact that it made the history anemic, but that it also ceded key aspects of the intellectual terrain to those who would wish to argue that the Chicago School may have won the political battle, but lost the war. The lack of discussion in his book about the changing political environment in the US, the history of post-war economic development, the Cold War and American foreign policy, domestic agricultural or monetary policy debate, labor policy debates both internationally and domestically, etc. could lead one to suggest that, for Van Overtveldt, Chicago’s positions were not entirely defendable in these terms. The only terms he could find to defend them in were those of intellectual brilliance. [For a massive attack from the other side, see Naomi Klein's new book, to be released tomorrow!, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.]

[Note: you will no doubt realize that this comment about Van Overtveldt's book is a potential criticism of my own work on Chicago!]

In his discussion of the book, Phil Mirowksi called Van Overtveldt’s book “think tank” history. I take “think tank” history to be a special category of Whig history: it is overtly polemical, powerpointish in its simplification of history, and considers anecdotes the stuff of history. In other words, the extreme of Whig History. The purpose of think tank history is to rally the troops for another round of fund-raising and political lobbying in order to get the think tank’s agenda back at the center of policy discussion. We see this all the time in education, environmental policy, trade, industrial policy, R&D, antitrust, and other areas. Van Overtveldt’s book comes along, Phil might argue, at a time when the Chicago laissez-faire program is under attack along with much of the rest of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda. In that sense, Van Overveldt provides a narrative that rejuvenates neoliberalism. [If this is true, then Klein's book could be seen as the response; and it is no doubt equally "think tank" history--she even has a film already!]

Mirowski’s criticism raises an issue that came up at several times during our discussions, and to which I am certain to return over the next several days. The issue is who sets the standards for historical inquiry and how the work of standard-breakers should be addressed. Our reaction to Van Overtveldt was a common reaction of historians to attempts by journalists and non-historians to write history: his account fails to meet the standards that historians set for themselves and police within their own discipline by the requirements of academic peer-review. But think tanks operate on a different standard: their products are successful to the extent that their policy agenda is advanced and dollars raised to continue the cause. The historians’ response to think tank history may be to ignore it, or it could be to do a better job. I hope we take up the latter course of action.

Finally, even with its faults, I cannot entirely dismiss Van Overtveldt’s work. In my paper on his book, I outline five things that I think he gets right, and I am serious in that endeavor. As the first to plow this field, especially the post-Friedman era of Chicago economics, he has turned up a lot of good material. I am reminded that I was drawn to the study of the history of economics because of books like Van Overtveldt’s! Today, I think the economics and history of the books I read then as shallow, and think that they provide a poor representation of the work real historians of economics do. Yet books like Van Overveldt’s draw people to examine Chicago economics more closely, and that is a good thing. But we should still work to provide a better history.

Here are the reviews of, and web commentary on, The Chicago School that I could find (additions welcome):

Marginal Revolution


BookTV (CSpan 2)

The Economist

John Kay, Financial Times

Alan D. Viard, The American

Kim Phillips-Fein, Chicago Tribune

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At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Philip Mirowski said...

Ross has done a nice job glossing my comments. On the whole, there is an important issue here of why the book was written, and who might be the intended audience. I think the post is less than honest, however, in that it did not report some information made public at the conference about the pre-publication history of the book, which illuminates succinctly how think tank history works. I leave it to the two principles to post the news themselves-- it is not my place to out the history of the van Overtveldt book. The incident does reveal the subordinate role of academics in the new regime of the marketplace of ideas.

At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Eric Schliesser said...

Thank you for the reference to the Philips-Fein review. She makes some fine points, including the irony that Van Overvelt offers an institutional (and geographic) explanation rather than an economic one for Chicago's 'success.' It's just too bad she recycles Stigler's stereotypes about Adam Smith.


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