The Economic History Review

History as heresy: Unlearning the lessons of economic orthodoxy

Volume 75 Issue 2
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Pages: 297-335Authors: Mary A. O'Sullivan
Published online: November 16, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13117

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Unprecedented liquidity injections by central bankers have gained legitimacy in recent years to stave off economic crisis and enjoy strong support from prominent economists and economic historians. Such radical action by central bankers is underpinned by a remarkable agreement on a specific interpretation of the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US, an interpretation proposed by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A monetary history of the United States (1963). This article explores the origins, the limits, and the influence of A monetary history’s interpretation of the Great Depression for the insights it offers on theory and history in the study of economic life. The book was inspired by Wesley Clair Mitchell’s mobilization of historical research to insist on the inherent instability of capitalism. Friedman and Schwartz exploited the heretical potential of historical research to dismiss any claim that the crisis reflected a systemic dysfunction of the US economy. Now that their interpretation has become our orthodoxy, this article shows how we can develop the fertile link between history and heresy to open up new lines of research on the causes of the greatest crisis in the history of capitalism.