Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Hypothesis fingo: Harold Hotelling’s and the mathematization of political economy.

Mueller Thomas, LED - Paris 8
Gaspard Marion Gaspard, Triangle - Lyon 2

If historians of economic thought were to award an Oscar to Harold Hotelling (1895-1973), they probably would bestow him the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role. Except Darnell (1990), editor of Hotelling’s collected economic works, and Hands and Mirowski (1998), who see in the « failure » of the "Schultz-Hotelling inquiry” a turning point in the history of neoclassical economics, the name of Harold Hotelling often appears in the background, in studies devoted to other economists or as one of the early members of the econometric society, among others. His name is often reserved for footnotes or mentioned in passing, as a teacher or as a correspondent. On the contrary, it may be considered that Harold Hotelling was an important figure in the history of mathematical economics. First of all, because his theoretical contributions (1925, 1929, 1931, 1932, 1938, among others) proposed as many results (theorems, rules) brought to be discussed throughout the twentieth century, in various subfields of economics. Second, because Harold Hotelling also conducted seminal researches in mathematical statistics, which have modified the empirical treatment of economic issues. Finally, because Hotelling, as a tireless defender of the creation of chairs, academic societies or departments of mathematical economics, then mathematical statistics, could have played a significant role in the institutional dissemination and the shape of quantitative approaches in economics. In this article, we intend to qualify Harold Hotelling’s use and conceptions of mathematics in economics, in order to evaluate his possible part in the history of mathematical economics and the history of its diffusion in the middle of the twentieth century, in the United States. We first recall the construction of a vocation in the 1920s: to contribute to the transformation of social sciences with mathematics. This allows in particular to link Hotelling’s interest in mathematical economics and in mathematical statistics. Thanks to archival documents, we then reconstruct Hotelling’s road in mathematical economics, in the 1920s and 1930s). This allows us to reconnect contributions what were historically linked, but are nowadays considered as contributions to separate subfields (spatial economics, natural resources economics, public economics) and to reconstruct the calendar of his research agenda. We identify common features and argumentative leitmotivs, but also two periods with different dominating thematics. Thirdly, we intend to capture the specificity of Harold Hotelling’s views on mathematical economics in the middle of the 1930s – and eventually to distinguish it from his collaborators (Schultz, Fisher, Working) – when he was delivering lectures in mathematical economics in Columbia.


Keywords: Hotelling, mathematics, natural resource economics, public economics, welfare

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