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?

What sort of discipline is women’s studies?

Some of the central tenets of women’s studies — and gender or multicultural studies — of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, don’t work with the dominant model of scientific hypotheses, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories like patriarchy as quasi-theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political ones.

To demonstrate the point: firstly, schools like these posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish (whether through problems with central planning or otherwise), or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like third-wave feminism, so far from Steinem; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.

Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to belief and orthodoxical obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculinist oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are part of mandatory classroom cirricula, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn (pdf)
  2. Flat-footed Giants: Zaibatsu and Industrialization in Meiji Japan, 1868-1912 (pdf)
  3. A hypothetical federation between Japan and the United States

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Sectarianism and the New Shiism
  2. Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot
  3. The Bullshistory of “Sykes-Picot”
  4. Never Alone: Let’s Retire the Word “Isolationism”
  5. Morals and the Free Society: On Cultural Group Selection
  6. The Creeping Militarization of American Culture

The Myth of Primitive Communism

Juhoansi02In my new article at FEE, “The Myth of Primitive Communism,” I argue that hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi share food with each other, not because they are selfless communists, but because favors and obligations are their most valuable commodities.

Please take a look. I’d be very interested in my fellow Notewriters’ erudite responses.

Why Don’t Tribes Transition to Market Defense?

Ongka, a “big man” of the Kawelka tribe. Image from http://www.stewartstrathern.pitt.edu/

Watch almost any anthropological film about a newly discovered “isolated tribe,” and you’re likely to see at least one “tribesman” wearing a t-shirt.

People in bands and tribes and chiefdoms — who have since time immemorial handled most of their economic transactions for food, clothing, and shelter through traditional economies of gift exchange and family sharing — eagerly become buyers and sellers for products on the global market as soon as they get the chance.

They grow coffee beans or trap furs, and they use the money to buy firearms, machetes, cell phones, and jean shorts. In other words, they jump right in to the market. And usually, the tendrils of global trade have arrived way before the anthropologists and their film crews.

But people in the same bands, tribes, or chiefdoms seem to hang on to their family and gift-based economies for political, military, and legal services.

They do not jump to create or hire market solutions (mercenaries, defense corporations), and they instead eventually transform — by hook or by crook — into a state or into a people subjugated by a state.

Why does this happen? Why do we get states for defense and markets for everything else?

Let me back up and explain my terms:

In the examples I’m familiar with, humans use one of four main methods to organize law enforcement and military protection:

1. Kin-based. Your extended family (a “band,” “clan,” or a “lineage”) and maybe an alliance of intermarried and neighbouring extended families (a “tribe” or a “village”), protects you. You are technically free to leave the family or the village, but that could leave you without protection unless you are marrying into a new one.

Examples: Cree, Tahltan, Ju/‘hoansi

2. Prestige-based. A famous leader (a “big man” or “chief”) and his warriors protect you in return for material gifts and social deference. You can pull your support from the leader — more easily if he’s just an informal “big man” and less easily if he’s a formal “chief.” And there are usually other nearby leaders or aspiring leaders who would happily accept your patronage.

Examples: Yanomamo, Kawelka, Trobriander

Systems #1 and #2 are often blended together, as in the Trobriander case, where each man’s connections to the chief are determined partly by family relatedness and partly by gift exchange.

3. State-based. A compulsory ruler (a “king” or “president”) and his warriors protect you in return for taxes and/or labor. You are never free to pull your support, although you are sometimes free to leave through emigration.

Examples: Aztec Empire, Canada, People’s Republic of China

4. Market-based. A private enterprise (a “defense contractor”) protects you in return for money. You are free to pull your support and choose another contractor, or go without.

Example: Detroit’s Threat Management Center

Now, we could also sketch out the same 4 methods for the basic kinds of economic exchange people do for food, shelter, and all the other goods and services in life besides defense. People can give and receive the things they want and need through #1 family networks, #2 prestige-oriented gift exchange, #3 state redistribution, and #4 markets.

What I see throughout the world in the last 500 years is that as globalisation advances, people in all or almost all cultures eagerly take their systems of food, shelter, etc. out of systems #1 and #2 and go into system #4. In other words, people in bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all over the world desperately want the metal tools, firearms, t-shirts, cell-phones, and everything else that the market offers, and so they find ways to sell goods or services and thus money that lets them buy that stuff.

For instance, hunter-gatherers who once collected food to share with their family now collect furs to sell internationally, or instead serve as bush guides to wealthy tourists from foreign cultures.

But people almost never eagerly or rapidly take their law and defense systems out of kin and prestige and into markets.

Instead, they tend to hang on to kin or prestige-based methods of law enforcement and warfare until they (a) get conquered by a state or (b) organize themselves as a state (whether to fend off would-be conquerors or to become conquerors themselves).

So in highland Papua New Guinea for instance, the Dani and the Kawelka were happy to grow coffee beans and other crops to put on the market by the 1970s. But they didn’t start hiring mercenaries for defense. Instead, they stuck to their big men and their tribes until their military organizations were absorbed into state militaries or turned into paramilitary movements aiming to create or seize control of a state.

Markets became the center of food production. States became the center of defense production.

Later on, after states have arrived as military organizations, sometimes they start expanding and controlling parts of the economics of food, shelter, education, etc., through compulsory redistribution.

Conversely, shifts to market-based defense seem to occur after a society has already had state-based defense — like in Moresnet or Kowloon (PDF). And the market organizations arise when, for some reason, the state-based defense system relaxes or collapses.

Why does this bifurcated trend keep happening?

Why do people in these societies transition into markets for most goods and services but states for law and war?

Do state-based militaries and police forces simply outcompete (or outfight) market ones?

Am I missing major counterexamples, or even misunderstanding my own examples?