Skip to content

Shouting over each others’ shoulders

August 23, 2010

Tony Lawson is a Cambridge University economist who has argued persuasively against mainstream economics, suggesting that it over-prioritises formal methods in the mistaken belief that the more maths we use, the more scientific we will be.  He believes that mainstream economists have borrowed the tools of nineteenth-century physics, insisting on using these tools irrespective of whether or not they have anything to do with the real world.

Lawson proposes a different view of social reality, one which amongst other things emphasises openness, the possibility of human fallibility and the social origins of knowledge.

On the Real World Economics Review Edward Fullbrook, while praising Lawson’s critical realist project as the most developed and convincing current alternative to the mainstream, expresses:

doubt about the real-world efficacy of Lawson’s project.  My first essay on Lawson’s work cautioned that “his efforts risk evaporation through inward-turning discussions by a band of like-minded meta-theoreticians” and noted that this “is the classic road to nowhere travelled by most would-be reformers of all kinds throughout history.”  Likewise today the inward-turning discussions among groups of like-minded are the plague of heterodox economics…

Fullbrook’s doubts are similar to my own. On p.36 of my book I write that:

[few] mainstream economists know anything about critical realism… [F]urther practical research in economics using some of the ideas of critical realism might help the project become more internally consistent, gain more widespread acceptance, and therefore achieve its aims, which are partly to modify the practice of contemporary economics. If not, there is a danger of Lawson leading his followers off into the wilderness and separating them off from the rest of economic enquiry, however flawed it may be. Lawson might reply that it is mainstream economists who refuse to talk to him, rather than the other way round. Yet stalemate is no excuse for refusing to make the first move. Dialectic means conversation; and perhaps the worst fate for the critical realist project would be for the mainstream to continue to ignore it.

Most successful discourses or modes of thinking achieve hegemony partly by ignoring their critics. As I note in my post on the Scottish Enlightenment, many mainstream economists simply refuse even to listen to heterodox ideas. Heterodox economists often make themselves easy to ignore by failing to engage with the kinds of things that mainstream economists study. They are in such a minority that they represent no threat to the orthodoxy. Their concern is often with methodology, something that the mainstream resolutely shuns, and on the whole they do less practical research.

Meanwhile the mainstream carries on producing its mostly mathematical theories, sometimes supported by empricial evidence from increasingly arcane econometric models. So we have two groups, shouting over each others’ shoulders.

It seems to me it should be in the nature of academia — particularly the enlightened critics of the heterodoxy — to meet somewhere in the middle. The economic crisis, and the crisis in economics, should be a prime opportunity for post-Keynesian, feminist, Austrian, institutionalist and Marxist economists to show that they are relevant. But this will only happen if, rather than talking amongst themselves, academics from these traditions produce practical research that relates to the work of the majority of economists.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s