Teaching & Learning History of Economic Thought (HET): Some Observations

The following is a short reflection and response to the lectures, questions, and conversations at the recently concluded 3-day HET workshop at MIDS, Chennai. In personal conversations, many people thought that HET is about economic ideas that originated in a particular context. 

That is, Smith’s economics is a response to his sociopolitical context. And therefore, the implication is that Smith’s political economy be placed in a museum—an archaeological site that we visit occasionally. Another implication to this appears to be that HET is not relevant to contemporary thought because our context is different from that of Smith’s. 

Such an approach to HET, to me, makes it a rather dead subject. Consequently, in the economics curriculum, it serves other core papers such as micro and macro by providing it with context/history and thereby improving student learning/understanding. Yes, this is important, but it makes HET an instrumental subject. However, that, per se, is not an issue because all knowledge in one way or the other are instrumental. 

I see 3 problems with such a view. 

One, it is a reductionist approach because it reduces ideas to the context, be it intellectual (i.e., texts, speeches) or sociopolitical (i.e., laws, wars, conflict). How do we then account for human ingenuity and creativity? Also, how do we understand classics—that have a timeless quality? Or, are we saying that there is nothing in economics that may be applicable across time and space? [On the question of applicability of economic theory, see the discussion in Chapter 6 of my macro book.] 

The second problem is that such a reductionist view of HET inevitably succumbs to the linear view of intellectual progress. Wherein the ideas of Solow are better than Smith objectively speaking and that the ideas of Solow are more relevant to us because, in terms of calendar time, Solow’s work is closer to us than Smith’s. 

The third problem is that we are okay about marginalized ideas remaining forgotten. Studying ideas—texts written by women (and folks whose texts were not popular)—remain invaluable for contemporary thought and action. This perhaps depends on how comfortable we are about ignoring the ideas of our ancestors. (I am currently reading The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing edited by Hannah Dawson; the first text belongs to 1405 and the last one to 2020.)

HET: Understanding Economics

HET allows us to organize past ideas in a meaningful manner. The simplest organizer is that of calendar time. But ideas are forgotten, revived, exhumed, bolstered, expelled, popularized for a variety of reasons and so a simple chronological account cannot provide a sufficient historical account of economic ideas. 

We need to have other ways of organizing so that we understand not only the past better but also the present. Another organizing principle among historians of economic thought is that of ‘school of thought’ or ‘paradigms’. For instance, HET books discuss ‘classical’ and ‘neoclassical’ general equilibrium (Harvey & Gram 1980); ‘neoclassical’, ‘Keynesian’ and ‘Marxian’ (Wolff & Resnick 2012); ‘classical political economy’ and ‘supply and demand theories’ (Bharadwaj 1986). 

Many historians of economic thought, including me, reject the ‘neoclassical’ label. This is because it suggests that there is continuity between ‘classical’ (associated with economists such as Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo) and ‘neoclassical’ (associated with economists such as Say, Walras, Marshall). The analytically satisfactory label is ‘marginalist’—because of their reliance on concepts such as marginal utility, marginal cost, etc. 

HET tells us that competing ideas have always existed; we often only learn about those that have been popular/dominant. For instance, Ricardo disagreed with Say that exchange value is determined by use value. And today’s microeconomics textbooks teach us that commodity prices are determined by cardinal/ordinal utilities. When Keynes and Sraffa were writing, the economic ideas of Marshall were dominant and those of Smith and Ricardo were forgotten. HET allows us to understand that the evolution of ideas has been anything but linear. 

And today as well, research happens in all schools of thought—contrary to what is implied in mainstream textbooks on micro, macro, econometrics, labour. 

The study of HET

We study the world by dividing it into different parts; for instance, the physical and social worlds. Or the natural sciences and human sciences. Or physics and economics. Economics may be further sub-divided into micro and macro. Or labour and ecological economics. 

Within HET, scholars sometimes distinguish between ‘history of economic analysis’ and ‘history of economic thought’ where the former is a subset of the latter. We can find economic thought in Arthashastra but there is no evidence of any theorizing/analysis. 

Another division in HET is that between the internalists and externalists although I think that most of us operate somewhere in that spectrum. The internalists study economic ideas by focusing on previous economic ideas and on the logical framework of that ideas. For example, when studying Ricardo, we read his texts and the texts he was influenced by such as Smith’s Wealth of Nations. My 2021 article ‘On “effectual demand” and the “extent of the market” in Adam Smith and David Ricardo’ is an example of this. When an externalist studies Ricardo, they include his social and political context and interpret his ideas as responses to them. A good example of this is Timothy Davis’s Ricardo’s Macroeconomics: Money, Trade Cycles, and Growth (2005). A good biography warrants a synthesis of the externalist and internalist approaches. 


HET allows us to understand the ebb and flow in dominant paradigms. It makes us aware that history is replete with debates across as well as within paradigms. Indeed, debates spur knowledge production. While most economics textbooks suggest consensus, economics journals (both orthodox and heterodox) suggest dissensus. There are conceptual debates, refinements, revivals and contextual critiques, challenges, applications. Furthermore, adopting an HET perspective in the teaching of microeconomics and econometrics will provide the learner with a critical grounding in history, politics and philosophy. 

I thank Thair Ahmed for helpful comments.

Is there anything natural about prices?

This blog post is motivated by Ashish Kulkarni’s post, which is a response to Samrudha Surana’s substack entry, which in turn is a response to a question I had posed at the recently concluded HET conference organized at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. And perhaps the process of reading and writing for this post will motivate me enough to get back to systematic blogging. 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘natural’ means “not made or caused by humans”. Viewed this way, there is nothing natural about markets or governments. Both have been created/designed by humans. Consequently, the prices set in markets and the prices set by governments are in no way natural. Yet, marginalist economists (and adherents of the Austrian school) suggest that there is something natural or spontaneous about the prices that emerge in markets vis-à-vis those that are set or administered by governments. This is the mainstream view—propagated via introductory textbooks. 

This post critically engages with James Buchanan’s 1964 article ‘What Should Economists Do?’ published in the Southern Economic Journal as this forms the basis of the posts by Samrudha and Ashish.  The critical appraisal of Buchanan’s article is restricted to his misunderstanding of Adam Smith.

Buchanan’s misunderstanding of Smith

In the very first page of his article, Buchanan calls our attention “to a much-neglected principle enunciated by Adam Smith” (p. 213). The “principle which gives rise to the division of labor” is, quoting Smith, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”. And that its significance “has been overlooked in most of the exegetical treatments of Smith’s work.” 

Buchanan wants economics to be “the theory of markets” and not the “theory of resource allocation” (p. 214). As he writes,

Man’s behavior in the market relationship, reflecting the propensity to truck and to barter, and the manifold variations in structure that this relationship can take; these are the proper subjects for the economist’s study. 

Later in the essay, there is an inaccurate reference to Smith’s invisible hand (p. 217; see my moneycontrol article on Smith here). What Buchanan perhaps ignores or is unaware of is that Smith’s economics is one that emphasizes production, economic growth and development. Contrast Buchanan’s definition of economics provided above with that of Smith. 

Political oeconomy, considered as a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator, proposes two distinct objects: first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign. (Smith 1776, IV.1)

And to make sense of economic development, a theory of price is essential (for an elaborate account, see Section 2 of my chapter in The Anthem Companion to David Ricardo—available here).

In the tradition of Petty, Cantillon and Quesnay, Smith distinguishes between “natural prices” and “market prices”. In Cantillon, the corresponding terms are “intrinsic value” and “market prices”. It is important to keep in mind that both “natural prices” and “market prices” are theoretical in nature, with the former at a higher level of abstraction than the latter. If market prices were empirical in nature, there would not be a single market price but a spectrum of prices that vary according to the nature and quality of the commodity as well as the time and location of the market. 

Be it the market or the government, both have been created and designed by humans and will continue to be re-created and re-designed. This, Buchanan recognizes. As he writes, “A market becomes competitive, and competitive rules come to be established as institutions emerge to place limits on individual behavior patterns” (p. 218; emphases in the original). For him, the market is “the institutional embodiment of the voluntary exchange processes that are entered into by individuals in their several capacities. This is all that there is to it” (p. 219). This is where Buchanan goes astray. 

I ask: how voluntary is the process of exchange under capitalism? How voluntary is the process of exchange under patriarchy? How voluntary is the process of exchange under the caste system? Smith is very cognizant of the fact that employers have more power than workers in capitalist societies. Smith is aware that big corporations (with/without support from the government) have more power than small entrepreneurs. Buchanan is unable to view power as a structural feature of our economic system—unlike Smith. One reason for the inability could be his adherence to an extreme version of methodological individualism. 


To conclude, the spaces wherein exchanges are truly voluntary for all parties, I think, are very less. Household? Firm? Village? City? International trade?

Political economy, in the work of Adam Smith, recognizes social classes and social power. And it is this recognition that will enable us to design better markets and governments. And this means better designs for pricing commodities, determining wages, setting interest rates, improving employment levels, and recharging our environment.  

My new book on Macroeconomics

I started blogging as an undergraduate student, in 2006. Since then, I have written posts about (i) the Indian economy, (ii) history of economic thought, (iii) classical political economy, and (iv) critiques of marginalist or neoclassical economics. In the recent years, most of my writing time has been devoted to articles and book reviews in journals and less to blogging. Although I do frequently wish I could spend more time blogging. 

I am now happy to share that several issues I have written about in this space has significantly helped me in writing my book Macroeconomics: An Introduction (2021), published by Cambridge University Press. The conceptual discussions are situated within the Indian context. 

For a preview, see Google Books

If you have institutional subscription to Cambridge Core, you can access the ebook

The price for the Indian edition is Rs. 495 and will soon be available through Amazon and independent bookstores. 

I had given an early book talk at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad; the video recording is available on my YouTube channel

International pre-orders have opened in many countries; for a list see here

On the Capital/Output Ratio

A post on the capital output ratio was perhaps inevitable given my teaching and research engagements with macroeconomics, growth theory, and capital theory. This blog post seeks to critically discuss some of the manifestations of the capital-output ratio (K/Y ratio henceforth) in economics. 

K/Y ratio in Macroeconomics

The K/Y ratio captures a technological characteristic of the economy as a whole. It conveys to us the amount of capital required to produce one unit of output. A reduction in it therefore implies we require less capital to produce one unit of output. 

Since capital refers to the stock of produced means of production, which are of a heterogenous nature, K for the economy as a whole requires aggregation via prices: k1p1+k2p2+…+knpn=K. That is, K refers to, as H. G. Jones puts it (p. 17) in his 1975 book An Introduction to Modern Theories of Growth, “an index of aggregate capital.” Of course, Y too requires aggregation via prices.

Roy Harrod, in the chapter ‘Capital Output Ratio’ in Economic Dynamics (1973) treats K/Y ratio as a “kindred concept of the capital-labour ratio” (p. 46). Subsequently, he outlines the scope of the capital-labour ratio in economic studies. 

“It is to be stressed that the capital-labour ratio is a useful weapon for comparing alternative methods of producing a given object, for comparing methods of producing different objects or for comparing the changes through time of methods of producing a given object. It is on the whole an unserviceable tool in relation to national income as a whole, but it can be employed in a very rough sort of way for comparing different countries” (p. 48, emphasis added). 

Similarly, Harrod writes that “the concept of the capital labour ratio is not very helpful, if applied to the economy as a whole, owing to the difficulty of assessing the value of K, namely capital as a whole” (p. 50). 

Additionally, I think that such an aggregate conceptualization conceals more than it reveals. For instance, it conceals the nature of interdependence of production in an economy. What if K/Y changes because of a change in the nature of structural interdependence? Or, what if it changes because of a change in the volume and composition of aggregate consumption demand? After all, the volume of investment influenced by consumption. As Keynes rightly writes in Chapter 8 of The General Theory, “capital is not a self-subsistent entity existing apart from consumption”. 

K/Y ratio in Growth Theories

The K/Y ratio is used as an argument in Kaldor’s (1957) stylized facts: ‘steady capital-output ratios over long periods’. Here too, what is it saying about the structural nature of production and consumption in the economy? 

While Kaldor is talking about ex-post K/Y ratios, the ex-ante K/Y ratio plays a crucial role in Harrod’s growth equation g=s/v. Here, s refers to the marginal propensity to save and v refers to the desired or normal K/Y ratio. A decrease in v raises g, or more accurately, the ‘warranted rate of growth’. 

In the super abstract setup of the corn model (as in Ricardo) or the single-commodity model (as in Solow), since the input and the output are the same commodity, aggregate K is a homogenous set. This assumption allows us to sidestep the problems associated with the measurement and aggregation of ex-ante K. 

One cannot help but wonder how Solow’s single-commodity growth model (expressed via the aggregate production function) continues to be applied in growth accounting exercises on actual multi-commodity economies. We had noted some of the theoretical and empirical problems with one such exercise on the Indian economy in a short note in Economic & Political Weekly.  

K/Y ratio and Capital Theories

Capital theories are concerned with the conceptualization, measurement, valuation, determination, and aggregation of capital. Owing to the central role capital plays in production, the choice of the capital theory has a significant impact on both microeconomics and macroeconomics. Moreover, since capital accumulation is central to growth theory, the choice of the capital theory has a significant impact on development theories too. Similarly, on international trade theories; on this subject, you can consult the 1979 book Fundamental Issues in Trade Theory edited by Ian Steedman. 

In sum, while mathematization of the growth models gives us a better sense of its grammar, capital theory helps us understand its epistemology. And it is the latter which can better guide the use of K/Y ratio in economic theories, empirics, and policies.