By Chris Calton
After the collapse of the housing market in 2008, professional historians gave birth to a new sub-field of history usually referred to as “the new history of capitalism.” Economic history is hardly novel, but the new history of capitalism takes the approach that capitalismis the “thing” that needs to be explained. In the past decade, this field has become one of the most fashionable trends in the history profession, with centers for the study of capitalism being established at Cornell and the University of Georgia.
Predictably, the scholarship that falls under this label is replete with problems. Most self-described “historians of capitalism” know nothing of economic theory even as they try to incorporate it into their writings. Seth Rockaman, from Brown University, for instance, supports his analysis of antebellum Baltimore by quoting Adam Smith’s exposition of the labor theory of value. Rockaman seems to be taking a sly shot at proponents of capitalism—“even your precious Adam Smith believes labor is the source of value”—but he appears to be entirely unaware that economists abandoned the labor theory of value more than a century ago.