The Political Economy of Textbook Writing: Paul Samuelson and the Making of the First Ten Editions of Economics (1945-1976)
History of Political Economy, Vol. 46, No. 5
41 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2011 Last revised: 19 May 2014
Date Written: August 21, 2011
Over the past two decades, numerous contributions to the history of economics have tried to assess Paul Samuelson’s political positioning by tracing it in the subsequent editions of his famous textbook Economics. This literature, however, has provided no consensus about the location of Samuelson’s political ideas. While some authors believe that Samuelson has always had inclinations toward interventionism, others conclude that he more often acted as a pro-business advocate. The purpose of this paper is not to argue for one of these two interpretations but to depict the making of Economics itself as a political process. By ‘political’ it is not meant the conduct of party politics but one's dealing with the many political elements that a textbook author must take into account if he wants to be published and favorably received. I argue that the “middle of the road” stance that Samuelson adopted in the book was consciously constructed by the MIT economist, with the help of his home institution and his publishing company, McGraw-Hill, to ensure both academic freedom and the success of the book. The reason for which the stance developed is related to pre-McCarthyist right-wing criticisms of the textbook and how Samuelson and the MIT department had to endure the pressures from members of the Corporation (MIT’s Board of Trustees), who tried to prevent the publication of the textbook and threatened Samuelson’s position at MIT as soon as 1947 – when early manuscripts were circulated. As a result, it was decided in accordance with both the Corporation and McGraw-Hill that the Readings volume would be published to balance conflicting ideas about state intervention. Following these early criticisms, the making of the subsequent editions relied on a network of instructors and referees all over the US in order to make it as successful and consensual as possible. This seemed to work quite well in the 1950s and for a good portion of the 1960s, until Economics became victim of its own success and was seen, in an ironical twist of fate, as a right wing text by younger, radical economists. From now on, Samuelson will try to have his book sent as often as possible to the radicals for referring process, with mixed results. Eventually, the book became criticized from both its left and its right.
Keywords: Paul Samuelson, Economics, Textbooks, Politics, Economic Education
JEL Classification: A14, B20, B31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation