I stumbled recently upon this passage from Murray Rothbard’s review of Unemployment in History by the distinguished historian John A. Garraty. Rothbard’s review, published in 1978, raised an issue that has come up in previous discussions of the Freakonomics phenomenon (1,2, 3, 4): Can a little theory, without accompanying real-world knowledge, be a dangerous thing?
After chiding Garraty for writing about unemployment without knowing the basics of business-cycle theory, Rothbard adds:
My strictures against history which lacks any sound theoretical base are not meant to be an act of intellectual imperialism on behalf of economics and against history or other disciplines. Quite the contrary; the economist who ventures into the historical arena armed only with a few equations and mathematical razzle-dazzle has wreaked far more damage than the uninspired and slightly bumbling historian. For the economist, particularly the latter-day “cliometrician,” aims to flaunt his arrogant “scientific” pretensions of encompassing and explaining all of world history by means of a few mathematical symbols. The economist who knows no history understands far less than his opposite number in the historical profession; but his claims are far greater. Therefore, he is much wider off the mark.