The Academic Publisher's Role?

Recently I discussed J.K. Galbraith’s review of Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action. In that review Galbraith took issue not only with Mises’s radicalism but also with the publishers’ plug on the book jacket. He chided Yale University Press for stating that Mises’s approach bears little relation to what “is usually taught in classrooms or to the hopeful, revolutionary but bankrupt ‘economics’ that conquered the Western World in the last decades,” and for seeming to agree with Mises’s claim about the “malignant” consequences of not following Mises’s advice.

Today’s document is from the letters section of the New York Times. Eugene Davidson, the editor of Yale University Press at the time, responded to Galbraith’s attack, and Galbraith in turn responded to him (hat tip to Emily Skarbek). Davidson pointed out that “[i]t is an important thesis of the book, and therefore of the jacket copy . . . that government intervention in the market economy produced systems of increasing economic and political coercion that have led to totalitarianism in some countries and to near bankruptcy in others. This intervention in his opinion was supported by erroneous popular economic theories that have swept through Europe and made great headway in the United States.” As a result Davidson claims the jacket is merely condensing Mises’s view, as any good book jacket would. But Galbraith still didn’t buy it, claiming that Yale University Press took authorship of the plug.

Galbraith’s position seems strange. Why wouldn’t a publisher promote the book it has put out? Yale University Press, like any good academic press, will publish works on a wide range of topics and positions in order to engage in scientific discourse. It wants individuals to read the books.

Galbraith strangely ignores that this is a work of positive economic science; he viewed Human Action as a mere polemic, completely overlooking the value-free, means-ends approach Mises took. Human Action is a work of economic science and should be judge accordingly.

This exchange between Davidson and Galbraith raises a few questions. What is the role of a university press in the science of economics? How should a press go about promoting the works it puts out? Between the publisher and Galbraith, who do you think is right?

Download the Yale University Press’s response here.