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Monday, March 30, 2009

"Why Bother with Adam Smith?"

Gavin Kennedy reacts to some of the recent criticism of economists for reading and citing the sacred texts and ancient tomes:

Thought for the Day - 3, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy: ...There is a debate underway among historians of economic thought on whether economists really need to study the history of ideas in what we may loosely term our discipline. Those economists who take the view that the history of economic ideas really has nothing to do with modern economics, point to it being unnecessary for ‘real scientists’ to read the works of Isaac Newton, and his lesser luminaries, so why bother with Adam Smith and the rest?

My views on this debate (I have not joined in, so far) are predictable. The physical world is fairly constant – each and every carbon atom is assumed to behave the same way, and has done so through the ages, and unless that changes in known circumstances, its properties and relationships with other atoms are not expected to change. Knowledge gains in hard sciences build upon earlier knowledge gains, and future knowledge gains continue the process.

Turning to economics – part of human sciences – it is quite different. We hardly know about past economic history; even recent history is controversial and is well short of arriving at a settled view. There are political views of economic behaviours – as far as I know, we do not have ‘leftwing’ or ‘rightwing’ carbon atoms – and we do not have a settled view on what constitutes economic society or on what would constitute a society that could be said to be the basis for all further societies without (controversial) changes.

As economics was derived from political economy, shedding within a century, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, politics, psychology, and such-like, though, unfortunately not shedding mysticism, idealism, utopianism, and, eventually, all traces of real human beings, an imaginary world has replaced the real world. 

Now, that there were great gains from this process is not disputed, of course, but questions arise as to the costs in what the great ‘gains’ do not explain. Apart from which there is genuine concern about the usefulness of the abstract when directed at policy-making in real human societies. Even among the most mathematically-oriented of economists there is no agreement as to whether policy A is ‘better’ than policy B (or policy C to Z).

It is not as if modern economists are better fitted in 2009 to understand (stepping down from ‘to advise’) than their predecessors, already starting down the road we’ve travelled, in 1909 (or for that matter 1809). The current ‘global crisis’ has not produced a consensus among the brightest in our profession (Nobel prize winners stand on opposite sides with different prescriptions) as what should be (could be) done, even if the players in the mix of, say, the G20 were minded to accept whatever advice the equations would give them.

And that’s the rub. The players do not behave as the mythical Homo economicus prescribes, and neither do all the other players in all the levels below them. The aggregates in an economy, however expressed neatly in well-behaved functions, do not capture what the models require of them. And their authors are impotent to make them do so.

It is not as if we are talking about wildly improbable outcomes from clearly defined categories (the effect of heat on molecules of a specific quality as taught in Physics 101). For a ‘hard science’, surely we can expect a straight answer to a simple operation like ‘quantitative easing’ and its likely affect on activity? My colleagues among the historians of economic ideas are debating, hotly, just now about what constitutes money. Unlike, the physicists, who agree on the role of gravity, modern economists are not so sure about the venerable role of money.

No wonder, that ideas of modern economics fall foul to the barely understood ideas of past economists, where they are not simply made up (as has been the fate of Adam Smith among many modern economists who assert his so-called ideas shamelessly without reading him). We may not need to read Newton’s Principia to add to the knowledge base (so far it has not let us down, though it has been improved upon safely because its foundations were so strong), but where did our ideas about money, for instance, come from, and where may our ideas about money be built on less secure foundations than the ‘certainties’ we were taught recently?

I leave these thoughts for the thoughtful readers...

    Posted by on Monday, March 30, 2009 at 09:09 PM in Economics, History of Thought, Methodology | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)


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