Life Among the Econ: Talking history with Axel Leijonhufvud

[Cross posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Like many economists, I have enjoyed Axel Leijonhufvud’sLife among the Econ” and nodded appreciatively when he described the social classifications of the Econ as “Grads, Adults and Elders” and chuckled when the young grad tries to impress the elders of the ‘dept’ through adept ‘modl’ building; so when the man himself was holding a glass of champagne and chatting with me at the INET conference, I had to ask how he got that paper started.

“Ah that, you know, of all the papers I have written that is the one they probably translated into the most languages”. [At this point Till jumped in and said of course we all started with ‘Keynes and the Keynesians’ but I digress].

“You know, that paper came out of me being department head, and after a long day of administrative duties, I found myself writing a paragraph here and there, and putting them all in a drawer by my desk.”  Over time those paragraphs accumulated, but there was further inspiration from Farlay Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf – a study of arctic wolves in their harsh northern climate – and it might have provided more than just the homeland of the Econ, as Mowat later wrote:

When I began ‘Never Cry Wolf’ thirty years ago, I intended to cast the wolf in a rather minor role. My original plan was to write a satire about quite a different beast – the peculiar mutation of the human species known as the Bureacrat, who has become the dictatorial arbiter of all our affairs. I also thought it would be fun to take the mickey out [i.e. make fun] of the new high priests of our times, the Scientists, who now consider themselves the only legitimate interpreters of truth. (Mowat, 1963 2001 paperback edition, Preface p. V)

Mowat’s intention was never published with the original book, but life among the Econ definitely puts it across very nicely for the economists…

Publication is a different story of editorial (mis)fortune. The new editor of the Western Economic Journal, Bob Clower, was in the process of changing the journal to Economic Inquiry and was purging a lot of previously accepted papers which he felt were not good enough for his new standards. Clower was in the rare position of being short for the next issues, and as a close friend of Axel, and sometime co-author, Bob asked Axel for his sociological piece (which Axel “had no plans to try and get into print”). The many paragraphs and loose sheets from the drawer were put together in a “somewhat consistent manner” and if you haven’t yet read it, or it’s been a while, it starts a little something like this:

“The Econ Tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding… More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed… Read on