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.

A Case for Pluralism in ‘Microeconomics’

[My return to blogging is motivated by the extremely warm response I’ve received in person – in the last 6 months – from several people who have been readers of this blog. I’m also happy to announce the publication of my co-edited book on the history of economic thought.]

The subject matter of microeconomics is enshrined in the economics curriculum at all levels – school, undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral. The central objective of microeconomic theory is to provide a solution for equilibrium price and quantity in both the commodity (say, apples or coconuts) and factor (wage and ‘capital’) markets. Indeed, questions of what is the source of value and what is the exchange value of two commodities have been posed much earlier. You can find answers in Kautilya, Aquinas, Petty, and Cantillon – all of them writing prior to Adam Smith’s foundational treatise on political economy.


Kautilya’s Arthashastra contains discussions of a fair price. Aquinas, drawing inspiration from Aristotle and Christianity, tries to arrive at the notion of a just price. One of the founders of political economy, William Petty, derives the distinction between necessary price and political price and possesses a rudimentary labour theory of value. Following Petty, Cantillon distinguishes between ‘intrinsic value’ and ‘market price’ based on a land-cum-labour theory of value. The contributions of Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Sraffa to value theory follow this tradition of objectively determining value.


The dominant theory of value in contemporary economics is not the objective theories of value found in Ricardo, Marx, or Sraffa but the subjective theories of value whose pioneers are Jeremy Bentham, William Stanley Jevons (whose son taught at Allahabad University), Alfred Marshall, AC Pigou, and Paul Samuelson. The value theory (or microeconomic theory, as it is now called more fashionably) found in the textbooks of Hal Varian or Gregory Mankiw take the following as data when solving for equilibrium prices and quantity: (i) preferences, (ii) technology, and (iii) endowments. On the other hand, Piero Sraffa’s value theory, found in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960), takes the following as given when arriving at a solution for prices and one distributive variable: (i) size and composition of output, (ii) technology, (iii) the real wage or rate of profit.


How do you measure the data listed above’ While technology, endowments, and real wage can be measured in terms of the commodity-mix, the rate of profit is a pure number. However, how are preferences measured (or ordered)’ They are measured in a subjective manner. This is one of the core differences between the dominant marginalist theory of value and the Classical/Sraffian objective theory of value. Given this core difference, it is incorrect to treat the objective theory of value found in Ricardo or Marx as a precursor or rudimentary version of modern subjective theory of value. And therefore, it is important that students of economics learn about different value theories in microeconomics.


I shall end by drawing your attention to the practical implications of believing in the marginalist conception of the labour market vis-a-vis that of the classical economists (see an earlier post on wages). Under conditions of perfect competition, the equilibrium real wage is determined by the marginal product of labour. Any intervention, such as a minimum wage legislation or collective bargaining by the workers, results in imperfections and consequently leads to unemployment. However, in classical economics, real wage is exogenously determined though historical and social factors. If you believe in the marginalist conception, the logical policy recommendation is to eliminate any intervention/imperfection (such as minimum wage legislation or collective wage bargaining) whereas if you believe in the classical conception, you would treat collective wage bargaining and minimum legislation as legitimate ways of improving workers’ conditions.


This post argues that value theory matters for both contemporary politics and policy. And consequently, the teaching of microeconomics needs to become pluralistic. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, the politics of microeconomics ought to be made explicit. It is, as Keynes, said that we are the ‘usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”