I recently walked into a room of graduate students with a copy of Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation (very thin essay) and Jonathan Israel's Democratic Enlightenment (over 1000 pages), and pronounced to the students that despite the modern age and the insights that can be found in works such as Cowen's, as scholars we still should aspire to write tomes like Israel's. Weighty subjects require weighty books. Political economy and social philosophy, economic and intellectual history, comparative institutional analysis of economic and political systems is all weighty stuff.
I am not sure how my visual aid worked among the students. The professional rewards in economics are decidely not in the direction of producing works such as Israel's --- our profession is not a book-culture, but a journal-culture. And while economics books can still sell well, they tend to be shorter and more policy focused than say an unwieldy subject such as the Enlightenment. Still those who do tackle such a subject, such as Deirdre McCloskey or even more directly Joel Mokyr, do tend to write weighty tomes. McCloskey's work on the bourgeoisie is a multi-volume project, Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy is over 500 pages. But neither McCloskey nor Mokyr are fresh out of graduate school, but established veterans of the business, and leading practitioners of economic history (which remains in part of book-culture). Still they established themselves professionally by learning the art of the skillfully crafted research paper that is published in the established scientific outlets. We all must do this to have a career as a professional economist, and the better you are at doing that, the more successful your career will be.
Still, I was trying to make a broader point to graduate students interested in following in the intellectual footsteps of Mises, Hayek, Buchanan, etc. There is, I will quickly admit, nothing worse in the social sciences and humanities than badly done "big-think", even poorly executed "little-think" at least tends to be in a form that you can dismiss quickly. But bad "big-think" goes on and on and on. So the the length of a book isn't at the core of the message I was sending. It is instead the aspiration of such overarching narratives, and what it takes to produce such a narrative, that I wanted to the students to see as the challenge worth pursuing.
My use of the Democratic Enlightenment also was not an endorsement of Israel's work per se. Though his earlier work on the Dutch Republic, The Dutch Republic (another 1000+ page tome) is outstanding and should be read by all those political economists who are interested in the general narrative that Barry Weingast puts forth in his classic JLEO paper from 1995, "The Economic Role of Political Institutions" and his idea of market-perserving federalism since the Dutch Republic sort of starts the entire issue off of incentive compatible economic growth and development. But that is a topic for another day.
In the most recent issue of the London Review of Books, Margaret Jacobs -- a professor at UCLA and the author of the wonderful book, Strangers Nowhere in the World, which discusses the rise of cosmopolitan beliefs in the work of Kant and others -- reviews Israel's A Revolution of the Mind. Her review is appropriately respectful, yet harshly critical at a fundamental level.
In looking closely at her review, I can see why my students might be hesitant to follow my advice to jump into the murky waters of grand narratives. "Big-Think" has a lot of intellectual traps that if you fall into, you can get hopelessly lost. Better to 'stick to your knitting' with economic analysis. I agree with them, but for 1% of them, they should break the mold and dare to think big thoughts and tackle ambitious projects. At GMU these students have the opportunity to study closely the genius works of Adam Smith, David Hume, J. S. MIll, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Knight, F. A. Hayek, and James Buchanan. A subset in our PhD program encourages them to study these works and to contribute to that on-going convesation that exists in those works, and which in part is at the core of the intellectual history of western civilization. The economic way of thinking can in fact prove to be essential in tackling the quesitons that a Jonathan Israel or a Margaret Jacobs is asking; ultimately an adjudicator between competing claims about the operation of political and economic institutions and their interaction.
James Buchanan always told us in class to "dare to be different". That advice is as wise today as it was 25+ years ago when I first heard it. Tackle big questions, write big books, and cross disciplinary boundaries without a care in the world. There may indeed by high returns for pithiness, as Tyler has told me on many ocassions, but there is also great pleasure in striving to tackle the biggest questions one can ask in a serious and professionally responsible way. And we economists have a great advantage in such thinking --- we have economic theory as a tool to guide us. Lets put that tool to use to explain our past, our present, and our possible futures.