Richard T. Ely's economic methodology was heavily influenced by the scholarship of nineteenth-century liberal German Protestantism. It held that religious beliefs, even scripture, were not final truths but evolving expressions of historical experience. Thus historical and empirical study of religion and its documents in their contexts was crucial. The outlook influenced other disciplines, including economics, by the time Ely obtained his doctorate in Germany. The approach was compatible with tendencies the young Ely had already evinced, and the outlook continued long into his American career. In particular, Ely consistently attacked laissez-faire economics for positing absolute economic laws rather than understanding the economy and economics as human enterprises subject to change. He advocated for empirical economic research as an antidote to the static premises of laissez-faire. As an economic reformer, Ely realized that the determinism of laissez-faire was fatal to reform and ethics; by definition, one cannot change practices dictated by unchanging laws. Even when he was not advocating specific reforms, Ely consistently taught that economic institutions and ideas are human creations, subject to change and improvement, and not manifestations of unchangeable economic laws beyond the reach of human will.

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