Boldizzoni, Francesco. The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2011. xi + 216 pages. Cloth, $39.50.
Despite its prestigious Princeton University Press imprint, The Poverty of Clio is less a work of scholarship than a polemic. Historian Francesco Boldizzoni sees "Cliometrics," the use of theories and tools from neoclassical economics in the study of economic history, as a "threat" (p. 169), and argues from the outset that economic history is "going through a deep identity crisis" (p. 4). Indeed, the very title of the work implies that economic history is dead. While there is nothing wrong with polemics in and of themselves, they often do not meet traditional standards of objectivity found in the best academic works. Boldizzoni flirts with powerful and relevant critiques of economic theory, reasoning, and methodology, but the style and slimness of this volume ultimately result in a critique that sacrifices depth for breadth and generates far more heat than light.
At his best, Boldizzoni deploys powerful examples that problematize and undercut key assumptions and predictions generated by neoclassical economic perspectives. He is quite successful in demonstrating that many preindustrial economies, particularly the feudal Polish and Italian economies, fail to show features and behaviors common to neoclassical economics. For example, using Witold Kula's An Economic Theory of the Feudal System: Toward a Model of the Polish Economy, 1500-1800 (1962), Boldizzoni adeptly demonstrates how feudal social structures and economic dynamics map poorly onto basic expectations from microeconomics. Such examples are instructive, varied, and articulated clearly. There is little doubt that foundational concepts of microeconomics translate imperfectly at best to reality, and it is perhaps in this regard that Boldizzoni misses a key opportunity.
Many of the criticisms of the types that Boldizzoni levels have been raised within the discipline of political science when approaches inspired by economics gained popularity and eventually became mainstream. This is worth mentioning because those criticisms influenced substantive and important changes in the study of political economy. Specifically, the rise of the "new institutionalist" economics in the 1980s can be seen in part as an evolution in economic reasoning which tries to maintain certain analytic methods and theoretical constructs while moving away from...