The Development Economist as Historian of Economics: The Case of William J. Barber

Interesting paper by Mauro Boianovsky of Universidade de Brasilia.

The paper shows how William Barber’s background as a development economist influenced his research agenda in the history of economic thought, in terms of the questions he asked and the way he approached them. The links between the history of economic theory and of policy-making are highlighted, as well as Barber’s investigation of the engagement of British economists with India’s economic matters throughout the time span of the English East India Company.

The last bit on British economists on Indian economic matters:

Barber’s engagement with Myrdal’s project on India made him mindful of the role played by British economists – from Thomas Mun to James Steuart, Adam
Smith, Lord Lauderdale, Thomas R. Malthus, James Mill, J.R. McCulloch, Richard Jones and J.S. Mill – in maters related to the government of the sub-continent by the British East India Company between 1660 and 1858, as well as the influence of those issues on their respective theoretical frameworks. That is already noticeable in Barber’s (1967, p. 96) remark about James Mill’s “zeal for translating Ricardian and utilitarian doctrine into a massive program of reform in India” and its influence on the development of Mill’s thought (unlike his son John Stuart Mill), fully developed in his 1969 HOPE article and in the 1975 book.

Barber’s main contribution, qua development economist, to the history of economics was his 1975 investigation of the interplay between British economic analysis and colonial policy in India. Whereas Lewis did not address the classical views about the economic development of “backward” areas (such as India or Ireland), that captured Barber’s attention. With its focus on the interaction of economic theory and policymaking, the book on India set the tone for Barber’s trajectory as a historian of economics for the next decades, when the history of American economic thought came to the fore in his agenda (Barber 1985, 1996). Barber (2008, chapters 8-10) would come back to the history of development economics as Myrdal’s biographer, his last major work in history of thought.

It is amazing how little western world economists have paid any attention to colonial era while discussing world economy and development. This is not something new but has been going on for a long time as likes of Barber discovered….

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