J. Laurence Laughlin. “The Study of Political Economy in the United States.” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Dec., 1892), pp. 1-19
1892- the year that the Chicagoan “Journal of Political Economy” was first published. It is a chilling time for American economists, less than thirty years after the civil war, the field is slowly becoming dominated by the Marginalists.
Writing in the nineteenth century, James Laurence Laughlin contends that “the fact must be frankly acknowledged that the influence of scientific economic thinking in the United States has little or no authority with the masses of the people.” [How much that has changed can be debated. It is interesting to note that Laughlin would go on and found the Federal Reserve] However, there is sweep of political sentiment. “Persons of sensibility, refinement and intelligence have been touched as never before by a strong desire to do for the classes below them.”
Laughlin makes a strict attempt to separate normative and positive economic thinking and claims that the understanding of scientific ideas can only be understood by a few. He states that “the great working classes can be reached only by the literature which comes from within their own ranks.” Therefore, the journal was started as an attempt to clearly divide the schism between the two lines of analysis. It is an attempt to instigate underlying scientific ideals to the study of economics.
One interesting thing is a claim that the vitalization of economic thinking emerged due to newfound interest in money and finance. In many ways, it’s still true that welfare and public economics have been traditionally studied in a secondary nature.
In the time of the Marginalists, the author makes clear that “at first extreme views were ascribed to many writers; but more careful examination has made it clear that Adam Smith, Ricardo and Cairnes' had never adopted laissez -faire as a principle of action,” and at the same time tries to make clear that he does not fully support state intervention. How much of this line of thinking has changed in one hundred years? This marginalist sentiment has not changed over the years.
There is mention of the changing face of America due to advances in transportation, mention of Henry George’s proposal on single-tax on land, the growth of organised labour and concerns about poverty. It ends on the note “Inasmuch as existing scientific journals have a tendency largely towards discussions of theory, and as popular journals do not usually treat practical economic problems scientifically, the JOURNAL OF POLITICAL ECONOMY may, therefore, find for itself in the scientific study of this latter class a free field.”
Has economics changed at all in the past hundred years? It seems not. The underlying sentiment seems the same- all that has advanced is understanding in the field.