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Hansen: Edward Baptist’s ‘New History of Capitalism’ is Fundamentally Fiction

In The Back of Ed Baptist’s Envelope, Professor Bradley A. Hansen after explaining why Baptist’s approach of “double counting” The Half Has Never Been Told, is “fundamentally flawed,” he goes on to point out “an even greater problem” with Baptist’s “back of the envelope accounting.”

Writes Hansen:

perhaps $40 million

probably added up to about $100 million

might have added up to $200 million

Baptist is simply pulling numbers out of thin air, or a hat, or wherever it is that he gets them. Back of the envelope calculations tend to involve simplifying assumptions. Baptist seems to understand the term to mean that he can just make things up. The only reference provided is to Table 4.1. Table 4.1 does not provide, as one might assume, information about shipping and insurance. It does not even have any information at all for the year 1836.

Both historians and authors of fiction tell stories, but the stories that historians tell are distinguished from fiction by their grounding in the sources. Historians are constrained to tell stories that they can support with evidence from their sources. Baptist has thrown off this constraint and set himself free to simply make up numbers (or events). This really is a new history of capitalism.

Also recommended:

  • A Description of the Problems with Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told” for Non-Economists by Bradley A. Hansen
    “There are other problems in the book, but, in my opinion, none are as fundamental as the inability to rely upon the author to accurately represent either the primary or secondary sources.”
  • Why the History of Capitalism Subfield Got Slavery (and Almost Everything Else) so Terribly Wrong by Robin E. Wright
    This article summarizes the argument of Wright’s 2017 book, The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy, which critiques the work of “historians of capitalism,” especially Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. It then explains how those historians were able to convince themselves, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that slavery and other forms of unfreedom can spark economic growth and development. It concludes by suggesting that governments should continue to ban even so-called “voluntary slavery” because they cannot effectively enforce labor contracts.

 

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