28 July 2010

Engaging Conservative Economics

The inspiration for this post came from a recent exchange on the list serve of graduate students in the economics department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (many of whom also blog, a list of these blogs can be found HERE).

I will not summarize the email thread for reasons that should become clear in the following post.

I feel that far to much effort on the part of so called "heterodox economists" is spent criticizing what is often referred to as "mainstream" or "neoclassical" economics.

I do not dispute that critical analysis of the mainstream is an important part of our task as radical economists. The very nature of the terms mainstream and radical (or heterodox) imply that their theories are more commonly accepted than ours, and thus are more widely taught, and unfortunately accepted.

The flip side of this which is commonly ignored by many of my colleagues is that the very process of criticism legitimizes neoclassical economic theories as being worth our time. The process of criticism relies on the implicit assumption that these theories are worth the time to think about.

A person presenting a theory that human civilization started on jupiter and migrated to earth when jupiter was full would find their basic intelligence criticized, not aspects within the theory that they are presenting (such as how people traveled through the solar system). This big picture approach needs to find a larger role withing radical economics. By accepting assumptions of the mainstream economic theories we are wasting valuable resources (time) that could (and I argue should) be spent further developing weak points in our own theories of the workings of the economy instead of implicitly validating equilibrium based nonsense.


Mark S. said...

Fair points. But what if the Jupiter theory of human creation were not merely limited to the academy, but was actually disseminated throughout political culture? And disseminated so effectively, that people barely were even aware of it? So effectively, that is, that it were nearly impossible for people to think about human evolution in different terms, let alone articulate a different theory. And let's, say,further, that this limitation on thought in turn created limitations on human progress. Would the project of critiquing the Jupiter theory not then seem of more significance?

James Miehls said...

Absolutely you are right, the process of discrediting the theory becomes more significant when said theory is hegemonic and undesirable (from my perspective of course). What I am attempting here is to draw a distinction between critiquing of a theory and discrediting of a theory. I need to articulate further that I feel it legitimizes neoclassical theory to spend time critiquing small aspects of it, .....hmmm.........is there a distinction between critique and attempted discreditation? I think for this argument I am lumping critique in with "constructive criticism", in that critique will help make the said theory stronger, I am not sure now that this is the correct thing to do in this case. More later maybe? Thanks Mark.

Mark S. said...

You know, my whole argument was made by the use of rhetorical questions. Which some people would say is sloppy. You have to actually agree with them in their declaratory form to agree with the implied conclusion. And, as I think I said recently somewhere on the EGSO list-serve, assuming that neoclassical economics actually serves an ideological function is, for me in a way, self-serving, because I want to critique it.
Which I suppose brings us to the use of the word "critique." I guess I'm using it differently than you are. You're saying a more proper word might be "discredit" yes? What I mean is: I think that there is a seductive logic to it. I actually think that it is *difficult* to refute. And that one has to dig in fairly deep to show the ways in which it is being intellectually dishonest. But maybe not. Maybe you can just call it crap. I don't know.
Anyway, your larger point in the post is obviously an exceptionally important one. I don't want to waste time giving the "mainstream" any more legitimacy than is its due either.