Roger E. Backhouse


On his book The Puzzle of Modern Economics: Science or Ideology

Cover Interview of October 26, 2010


The Puzzle of Modern Economics is aimed at non-economists, or those who know a little economics.  I hope these readers will take a more balanced view of economics.

Modern economics does have serious faults. But a lot of economists agree that there are problems—and they are working hard to improve economics.  Their success may be limited, but a lot of economic problems are very difficult. Moreover it is often those who are firmly “inside” the profession, and who take seriously the mathematical models and other techniques that critics don’t like, who come up with most promising new ideas.

This may not sound like a startling position—but it usually gets lost in the cacophony of voices, from insiders as well as outsiders, either praising the subject or condemning it.

If the book sparked some debate among economists, there will be those economists who will think I have been far too critical and others who will think I should have been much more critical.

Economists would, I believe, be taken more seriously if they were more modest in their claims.  Of course, they are not helped by a public culture that polarizes all views in the interests of generating excitement.

I would also be very happy if the book helped to promote an interest in the recent history of economics—and indeed in the recent history of the social sciences.  I have, in fact, edited a book, together with Philippe Fontaine, titled The History of the Social Sciences since 1945; it is also just published by Cambridge.

Economics and the other social sciences have been an integral part of society for much of the twentieth century, yet their history is neglected.  For many years, history of economic thought meant the exegesis of old books, Adam Smith or Karl Marx.  This is no longer the case: serious historical work is being done on modern economics, engaging with historians, as the term is usually understood.

Only by understanding the history of the economics—taking the history seriously, not reading the potted accounts of progress that are retailed in economics textbooks—can we understand the discipline we have today.

© 2010 Roger Backhouse