Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mark Blaug (1927 - 2011)

Was any historian of economics more prominent throughout the last half century? As I understand it, David Ricardo was an early area of concentration for Blaug, even influencing him in naming his son. It's been decades since I read Blaug's 1958 book on Ricardo, and I recall it hardly at all. As you can see, he wrote it just after Sraffa had provided a trove of new materials and scholarship on Ricardo, but before the novelty of Sraffa's interpretation was widely apparent. Blaug's work spans changes in standards in history, including the development of more contextualized, thick, postmodern histories.

The first edition of Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect was published in 1962, and later editions came out in 1968, 1978, 1985, and 1997. I can comment on the fourth edition. I particularly like the suggested readings at the end of each chapter, which, as far I can see, provide tasteful selections of competing interpretations. And I appreciate the reading guides to various classic books. The fourth edition guides are to Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Ricardo's Principles, J. S. Mill's Principles, Marx's Capital, Marshall's Principles, Wicksteed's Common Sense of Political Economy, Wicksell's Lectures. I find the book too Whiggish for my tastes, and I have differences with Blaug throughout. Nevertheless, I can say Blaug seems equally at home in writing about any economist in the period from before Smith to after Keynes.

Blaug has been quarreling with Sraffians for decades. Consequently, I have previously had something to say about his work. The current issue of the History of Political Economy contains a posthumous article by Garegnani and an article by Kurz and Salvadori, both counter-attacking Blaug's most recent attack on Sraffians. A demand for empirical demonstrations of Sraffa effects is a defense of neoclassical economics I have never found plausible. The Cambridge critique is a logical demonstration of the incoherence of neoclassical theory. I think this defense on the basis of supposed empiricism was introduced by C. E. Ferguson, but Blaug may have been the most consistent advocate of this point of view.

Blaug has also been a critic of trends in mainstream economics, especially the effects of the formalist revolution, which he dates to the 1950s. I found particularly surprising a recent article praising Henry George.

I have nothing to say about the economics of art and the economics of education, apparently two fields in which Blaug had a lot to say.


  • Mark Blaug (1958). Ricardian Economics: A Historical Study, Yale University Press.
  • Mark Blaug (1975). The Cambridge Revolution: Success or Failure? A Critical Analysis of Cambridge Theories of Value and Distribution, Institute of Economic Affairs.
  • Mark Blaug (1985). Economic Theory in Retrospect, Fourth edition, Cambridge University Press. [This is the version I have most convenient. I believe there is a fifth edition.]
  • Mark Blaug (1987). "Classical Economics", in The New Palgrave (ed. by J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman), Macmillan.
  • Mark Blaug (1998). Economics Through the Looking Glass: The Distorted Perspective of the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs.
  • Mark Blaug (1997). "Ugly Currents in Modern Economics", Policy Options (September): pp. 3-8.
  • Mark Blaug (1998). "The State of Modern Economics: Disturbing Currents in Modern Economics", Challenge (May-June).
  • Mark Blaug (1999). "Misunderstanding Classical Economics: The Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach", History of Political Economy, V. 31, n. 2: pp. 213-236.
  • Mark Blaug (2000). "Henry George: Rebel with a Cause", European Journal History of Economic Thought, V. 7, n. 2 (Summer): pp. 270-288.
  • Mark Blaug (2001). "No History of Ideas, Please, We're Economists", Journal of Economic Perspectives, V. 15, n. 1 (Winter): pp. 145-164.
  • Mark Blaug (2002). "Kurz and Salvadori on the Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach", History of Political Economy, V. 34, n. 1: pp. 237-247.
  • Mark Blaug (2003). "Rational vs. Historical Reconstruction - A Counter-note on Signorino's Note on Blaug", European Journal of History of Political Economy, V. 10, n. 4 (Winter): pp. 607-608.
  • Mark Blaug (2003). "The Formalist Revolution of The 1950s", Journal of History of Economic Thought, V. 25, n. 2: pp. 145-156.
  • Mark Blaug (2009). "The Trade-Off between Rigor and Relevance: Sraffian Economics as a Case in Point", History of Political Economy, V. 41, n. 2: pp. 219-247.
  • Pierangelo Garegnani (2002). "Misunderstanding Classical Economics? A Reply to Blaug", History of Political Economy, V. 34, n. 1 (Spring): pp. 241-254.
  • Pierangelo Garegnani (2011). "On Blaug Ten Years Later", History of Political Economy, V. 43, n. 3: pp. 591-605.
  • Heinz D. Kurz and Neri Salvadori (2002). "Mark Blaug on the 'Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach'", History of Political Economy, V. 34, n. 1 (Spring): pp. 225-236.
  • Heinz D. Kurz and Neri Salvadori (2011). "In Favor of Rigor and Relevance: A Reply to Mark Blaug", History of Political Economy, V. 43, n. 3: pp. 607-616.
  • Carlo Panico (2002). "Misunderstanding the Sraffian Reading of the Classical Theory of Value and Distribution: A Note", in Competing Economic Theories: Essays on Memory of Giovanni Caravale (ed. by Nisticò and D. Tosato), Routledge.


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent bibliography. I'm surprised by the inclusion of Wicksteed's book in the list of Blaug's study guides. Is it on par with the other books listed?

Blaug's piece on Henry George seems to have come about when the Georgist editors of the book Critics of Henry George approached him and asked him to justify his textbook's disparagement of George. The book chapter that resulted from this discussion is fairly interesting (especially with regard to Blaug's intellectual development) and can be found here:


Anonymous said...

I was going on memory above. Looking over that chapter again, I see I got the chronology wrong. Blaug's interest in George clearly preceded that incident.

Magpie said...

As you have already engaged with Blaug's writings, I was wondering if you could offer some views on the following.

I've recently found a paper [*] purporting to tell the story of the production functions.

In my opinion, the paper's author (Thomas M. Humphrey) seems to be erroneously representing a lot of contemporary neoclassical economics in the work of pre-marginalist authors like Turgot, Malthus and Ricardo.

Specifically in Ricardo's case, Humphrey cites Mark Blaug as one of the sources behind this statement:

"Like Malthus, Ricardo presents his [production] function in the form of a numerical example rather than an algebraic equation."

In other words, according to Humphrey, the notion of production function was implicit in Ricardo's work.

Furthermore, he goes on to say that "according to Ricardo, growth ceases when diminishing returns to capital applied to scarce land lower capital’s real reward to a minimum consistent with zero net investment".

That is, according to Humphrey, Ricardo also considered his "production function" satisfied the first and second order conditions of neoclassical economics (first partial derivative wrt capital positive, second partial derivative negative).

Are these ideas really coming from Blaug?

Thank you in advance for your attention.

[*] Humphrey. 1997. "Algebraic Production Functions before Cobb-Douglas", Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Quarterly, Vol. 83 no. 1

Robert Vienneau said...

As history, it is dubious to read current ideas back into past thinkers. Ricardo, however, does have an argument close to that in agriculture. One can read Ricard's Essay on Profits as presenting an example where, in farming, the output and the input consist of the same commodity, called "corn". Labor and corn is applied in fixed proportions to various qualities of land. You do not see this same assumption of diminishing returns to scale in manufacture, though.