Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

The original Thünen model and its modern caricatures

Dusek Tamas, Szechenyi Istvan University, Gyor

According to a view about the accumulation of scientific knowledge, contemporary publications contain all achievements in a most perfect and mature way of the previous generations. Scientific progress is a continual upward march, without gross systemic errors. Apart from the interest in the history of theories and the purpose of learning from the failures of corrected theories, examination of older works is superfluous. The soundness of this antihistorical mentality is an empirical question, it can be proved by reading original, classical writings, by comparison of the original works and their latter and actual interpretations, and by comparison of the original works and the contemporary writings about similar topics. This research carries out this task by the analysis of Thünen spatial model. Thünen's Isolated State has almost 700 pages, the most comprehensive German edition has 1260 pages. However, the typical interpretation of his spatial model concentrates only on the first page which introduces the basic assumptions and the graphical presentation of the results. Therefore, it is well justified to briefly describe his model. This is the task of the first section of the paper. The second section deals with the contemporary misinterpretation of Thünen, such as Samuelson’s patronizing caricature of Thünen model and the common textbook simplifications. The third section describe the typical contemporary neoclassical treatment of spatial economics. The fourth section focuses on general conclusions and lessons. Comparing the two models, the original Thünen and contemporary neoclassical land use and contemporary neoclassical land use theory, many writers treat contemporary theory superior to Thünen. Thünen is only admitted as a great pioneer who does not have the advanced tools for model building. However, this statement is not based on the original Thünen and it is not legitimized by any reasonable and correct criteria of the commensuration of two rival theories.


Keywords: Thünen, history of spatial economics, reinterpretation of original theories