BC’s weekend reads

  1. NATO sends a message to Russia
  2. Iraq doesn’t need to break up to be successful (so says a scholar at Brookings)
  3. Benedict Anderson (political science) reviews Clifford Geertz (anthropology)
  4. The Muddled Mystique of Karl Polanyi
  5. The prison house of gender
  6. Investigating Madison’s Political Religion (central planning is hard to do)

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.

Economics in the ancient world?

Part of my research is located between philosophy and specific disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. I’m currently working on a project on several facets of economic life in the ancient Near East. I’m very serious about it, and even did some study in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hebrew to understand some of the debates on the interpretation of primary sources.

Some crucial questions that anybody in my situation have to ask relate to theory: Was there any such thing as an economy, to begin with? Okay, the answer is straightforward: people were indeed allocating scarce resources, trading them, producing them, and so on. I don’t know of anyone who doubts that, and in case anyone tries, I’d point them to the enormous amount of ancient Mesopotamian contracts, receipts and court cases dealing with the issue, not to mention the famous “law codes” of Hammurabi and other kings.

The answer to next question, though, is less obvious: Can we apply contemporary economic theory to interpret, understand, explain, model, etc. economic behaviour in the ancient world? So far, I’ve identified three schools of thought on this matter in the field of Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

First, there are those who focus on particulars on the “micro” level. Their research is predominantly concerned with the publication, translation, and commentary on hundreds and hundreds of inscribed clay tablets containing valuable information about everyday life in the ancient world. These scholars won’t have much to say in terms of generalisation, because the questions they address are a degree further removed from the questions we tend to ask, say, in economics or sociology.

A common type of research in this line (and, frankly, a type of research I wouldn’t mind executing someday) looks at the complete set of cuneiform tablets found in a specific place and tries to elucidate some patterns within that set of texts. I’ve heard, for example, of someone who did his PhD on the archives of a certain family in Babylon which was involved in trade. That scholar didn’t stop at telling the story of that family, but also synthesised a considerable amount of information about economic transactions and the everyday struggles for that town in that particular period. He also pointed out some interesting linguistic features present in the contracts, letters, and receipts that he transcribed, translated and published as part of his thesis.

In this kind of research, the emphasis is on detailed observation and description, and on a modest type of generalisation to a mid-range view of the local situation. It doesn’t really deal with the economy in general and, arguably, doesn’t make much room for any of today’s economic theories to be used.

The second school of thought borrows from economic sociologists and anthropologists the idea that any economy is intrinsically linked to the way a specific society operates in a given period of history. The works of Karl Marx, Max Weber and, more recently, Karl Polanyi and Immanuel Wallerstein are examples of broad statements of this thesis. Polanyi, in particular, has applied some of this thinking to ancient economies, arguing that, in the ancient Near East, there was no such thing as a “market” in the modern sense. If that’s indeed the case, then the task is to develop a new economics (or at least a new economic theory) to account for phenomena which are particular to that historical context.

In this second kind of research, a key procedure is to ask what the ancients thought they were doing when they were engaged in economic activity. This is analogous to the anthropologist’s “thick description” of a culture in its own terms. Hermeneutics and interpretation should play a major role. We’d need to read those primary sources in search for clues about the ancient view of the economy. Did they imagine the economy as we imagine it today? Or was it something different in their view? What were the words and notions they used to describe economic activity? And so on.

However, how would we know what to look for in the first place? Wouldn’t the very notion of an “economy” be alien to the ancient mind, at least until much later with the Greeks and Romans? Because of this tricky implication, people in this line of research may choose to ignore any subjective or discursive features and may opt instead for a reduction of ideas to material factors, perhaps driven by a Marxist philosophy.

Then, thirdly, there’s the view that presupposes the applicability of contemporary economics to ancient economies. So far, I’ve come across two lines of research, both of which seem underexplored because of the lack of interest of economists in the ancient world, or lack of ability to tackle primary sources. The first line of research looks at the relationship between institutions and the general operation of the economy. I’d place this within the broader approach of neo-institutional economics, or also the so-called law and economics tradition of economic thought.

One interesting question that has been asked in this line of research has to do with the impact of government regulations in the everyday functioning of the economy. For example, how clear were property rights? If we look at the “law codes” of ancient Mesopotamia, we see a large number of definitions of what was allowed and what was forbidden, but were those rules enforced? Were they simply a suggestion? Sometimes, there’s a contrast between what the law code says and what local judges decided in a concrete court case. This way of researching ancient economies, in my view, is more productively executed as teamwork, with an economist and a specialist in ancient texts, languages, and archaeology joining forces.

A second way of applying contemporary economic science to ancient economies resembles the mainstream way of doing research. A model is constructed on the basis of some initial hypothesis, and then the hypothesis is tested against “data”. An important problem with this is that there’s a dearth of concrete and unambiguous information amenable to this sort of treatment. However, this is not the case for all periods. As a matter of fact, we do happen to have access to sizeable sets of information about prices and wages for Babylonia in the Hellenistic period. The crucial source is a set of records that people made correlating the position of the stars and planets with all sorts of information, including economic information. Some preliminary analysis of those series has suggested that prices, for example, behaved more or less like a mainstream economist would expect them to behave.

This issue of the dearth of data leads me to the following thought. I believe that even a mainstream economist should be open to the possibility of another style of economics in the study of ancient economies. I don’t think economists should give up studying them altogether. Some cross-theoretical dialogue with those engaged in other ways of thinking about ancient economies may be in order. However, I understand that many on both sides of the attempted dialogue will feel uncomfortable. After all, a mainstream economist and a Marxist don’t just disagree on method. They also disagree on politics, ethics, the meaning of life, and a number of other issues.

As a possible avenue of research, then, I’d like to suggest a more deductive approach in theory construction and a more discursive approach in the study of historical patterns. From the deductive system we’d know how an economy works in general, even if there are historically-specific possibilities to tackle. From the discursive approach we’d be able to make the most of the “data” that we do have in abundance – thousands of clay tablets with textual information – and with that illustrate the general points.

In my view, this would look like a combination of Austrian political economy with rigorous philological use of primary sources. It would be the sort of research programme to be tackled with a team of people, good libraries, near a museum and in constant dialogue, learning, and interaction. Both fields could potentially benefit from the original interdisciplinary research programme that would emerge.

Around the Web

  1. Stiglitz and Toward a Theory of the Rent-Seeking Society
  2. The Truth About Our Libertarian Age; Straw men like this explain why libertarianism will continue to grow stronger.
  3. The Return of Karl Polanyi; Another article full of straw. See if you can spot the piles.
  4. What is the optimal number of immigrants to allow into the US? This is as close to a libertarian answer as you can get.
  5. Hayek and the Intellectuals