Jan Luiten van Zanden recently published what I think is an important contribution to the discussion about the future direction of economic history research. His main point is that too much of recent research has focused on those factors that have had a causal, long-run impact on development outcomes today. Think, for example, of Nathan Nunn’s work on slavery, showing convincingly that the slave trades had the largest detrimental impact in those areas where most slaves originate from (Nunn 2008). Or, for an even more long-term causal link, Ashraf and Galor (2011) show that “in the course of the exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa, variation in migratory distance from the cradle of humankind to various settlements across the globe affected genetic diversity and has had a long-lasting effect on the pattern of comparative economic development that is not captured by geographical, institutional, and cultural factors”. In short: our level of income today is determined to some extent by how far our Kenyan ancestors walked. Seriously?

That deep historical changes matter today is clear, but Jan Luiten’s point is simply whether that is the right question to ask. Should we all be “prisoners of the history we inherited”? Should economic historians not focus on those factors that allow us to escape the historical legacies? In his words: “even if history can explain 60% or 80% of the outcomes, it would make sense to be most interested in the remaining 40% or even 20% that allows us to change things in the future”.
Understanding the impact of past effects on development outcomes today is important, as it allows us to avoid similar mistakes. It also informs and expands economic theory. But how policy-relevant is slavery, or the Out-of-Africa hypothesis, for African leaders today? Are the more critical questions for policy not those that investigate the determinants of societal change, the factors that give people agency? In other words, how do we overcome the disadvantages of slavery, or the large genetic diversity in African societies that might limit our productivity?

Jan Luiten asks: “Can we try to free our profession from an overemphasis on historic determinism?” Economic historians will have no choice if we hope to contribute to a better understood, and ultimately more prosperous, world.
Read the paper here.