Approaches to History: Economics

The goal of these lectures and the associated tutorials is to introduce ideas from the discipline of economics that students may find useful in understanding history.

There is a large overlap with economic history, but the goal is to illustrate how economists think, more than to introduce the main themes or facts of economic history. (Nor is our subject the history of economics as an intellectual discipline, though we may at times refer to important historical thinkers such as Malthus.) I have selected a few themes that can be drawn out of the material covered in previous editions of the course. Changes with respect to last year are thus incremental and mainly to do with emphasis or interpretation.

I have suggested some possible tutorial essays and readings as default options, and these reflect my familiarity with the modern history of Europe and North America. But the themes are intended to be sufficiently general that tutors and students with interests in other periods and places should be able to explore the issues in a context that most suits their interest and expertise. Slavery, for example, could be studied around much of world, from antiquity to the 20th century.

Lectures in MT 2017 will be Thursdays of Weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8, at 12:00 in Exam Schools. The lecturer is Brian A'Hearn, Pembroke College.

Week 2 - Institutions

Lecture: the Rise of the West, or the Great Divergence      slides

How do we measure economic development, prosperity or activity in the past? What do economists mean by "institutions" and how do they analyse them? Can institutional differences explain the divergence of Western Europe and Asia?

Tutorial: Guilds         possible essay

Were guilds efficient solutions to problems of collective action and imperfect information, or monopolistic, "rent-seeking" organisations that benefited their members at the expense of everyone else?

Week 4 - Nature

Lecture: Natural resources and the economy      slides

Natural resources, food, and the Rev. Malthus. Fossil fuels and the industrial revolution. Economic expansion and environmental degradation.

Tutorial: Famine          possible essay

Were historical famines the result of population pressure on natural resources? What was the role of markets in alleviating or exacerbating famine?

Week 6 - Slavery

Lecture: The economic logic of slavery in theory and practice      slides

Why did the institution of unfree labour emerge in some times and places but not others? How did slavery work in the 19th century American South?

Tutorial: Slavery and industrialisation          possible essay

What was the contribution of unfree labour in the periphery to industrialisation in the core?

Week 8 - Money

Lecture: Money, inflation and the state      slides

What do economists mean by "money"? How is money created, and what are the consequences of money creation? Hyperinflations. The role of the state.

Tutorial: Irrational exuberance      possible essay

Were historic speculative bubbles the result of irrational behaviour?