As a young graduate student in the early 1970s, I had the pleasure of listening to E. P. Thompson, the British labor historian whose book, The Making of the English Working Class, rippled like an electric current through liberal academia. As the aristocratic Thompson understood it, the imposition of a market economy on once self-sufficient English farmers led to the food riots in remote sections of the British countryside during the early eighteenth century. But when my mentor, Julius Rubin—a rumpled, soft-spoken economic historian at the University of Pittsburgh—responded that the towns where the food riots occurred were precisely those lacking roads to connect them with the emerging market economy, Thompson seemed taken aback. He had assumed, with ideological certainty, that capitalism induces poverty. But Rubin argued, with supporting evidence, that it was the absence of roads—that is, the absence of capitalism—that sparked the food riots. As they jousted back and forth, Rubin asked if Thompson could name a developed market economy that had suffered a food riot. The question left the loquacious academic celebrity temporarily speechless.
I was reminded of the Thompson-Rubin exchange in 1979, when I sat in a packed audience at the CUNY Graduate Center listening to Thompson explain that Jimmy Carter’s supposedly aggressive behavior had forced the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. Thompson’s audience, me included, did little to challenge him. But afterward, a heated debate broke out among young liberal professors who felt that Thompson had turned cause into effect and vice versa. Part of the appeal of such inverted arguments is that that they are not always subject to immediate empirical refutation. [...]
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