On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

2 thoughts on “On the rift between economics and everything else

  1. I reckon economics as history (that is, the use of VAR) is quite recent – would you agree? Adam Smith or Keynes – these were not historians, would you say?

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