[Marxism] How Economists Became So Timid - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 7 06:08:18 MDT 2018

The demise of political economy began in the late 19th century. As 
academia became more professionalized and specialized, political economy 
gave way to its successor disciplines — economics, sociology, political 
science, and the like. By its midcentury nadir, economists hardly 
interacted with researchers in those other fields.

The transition from a field of creative social visionaries to one of 
specialized technocrats is epitomized by the story of Alfred Marshall 
and his star student, John Maynard Keynes. Each had a foot in both 
worlds and was ambivalent about the change. In many ways, Marshall was 
the archetype of the 19th-century political economist. Keynes eulogized 
him, writing that he exemplified the economist who was a "mathematician, 
historian, statesman, philosopher. … No part of man’s nature or his 
institutions must lie entirely outside his regard … as aloof and 
incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician."

Ironically, Marshall’s 1890 Principles of Economics — for three 
generations the field’s definitive textbook — marked a decisive 
transition from this comprehensive vision of political economy. Marshall 
worked to professionalize and eventually narrow the field. Keynes, 
despite his flirtations with probability theory and philosophy and his 
bold vision for transforming economic policy, cemented the position of 
economists as technocrats — the furthest thing from the aloof, 
incorruptible artist. The macroeconomic management he advocated requires 
expert technicians; accordingly, the mid-20th century saw the profession 
churn out a class of specialized workers. History, politics, sociology, 
philosophy, and law all drained out of economics.


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