How to build a narrative linking the various heterodoxies: Part 3
In the seven weeks since its inception, our discussion on how to build a narrative linking the various heterodoxies so as to have an alternative paradigm with which to challenge, both in the media and the classroom, the neoclassical/neoliberal mainstream has generated a lot of thoughtful comment and interchange of ideas. In addition to Part 1 and Part 2, the discussion includes “Wilde, Radford and Davies on complexity theory and building a narrative”, Bruce Edmonds’ “5 suggested common themes for an Economics that takes its subject matter seriously” and some especially cogent discussion of Edmonds’ suggestions. To start Part 3 here is a brief essay from Nuno Martins.
The nature of modern economics, including an account of heterodox unity and coherence
About one month ago the editor called for some new thinking on “how to build a narrative linking the various heterodoxies so as to have an alternative paradigm with which to challenge” the mainstream of modern economics. This is a good idea but it seems wasteful to overlook what already exists. Tony Lawson and his colleagues at Cambridge have set out a coherent analysis of just this, and even if one disagrees with the conclusions drawn, it is a forceful contribution to the subject.
In brief Lawson’s argument is that the mainstream is not a project consistently pursuing a neo-liberal or any political or substantive programme; rather it is a project that prioritises mathematical deductive reasoning believing (wrongly) that this is essential to achieving an image of scientificity. Such a methodological emphasis essentially commits mainstream economists (whether they are aware of it or not) to an implicit social ontology, or account of the nature of social reality. This is an ontology of closed systems of isolated atoms, that is easily seen to be inconsistent with the nature of the social world in which we live.
Lawson develops an alternative social ontology or account of the nature of social reality, one that emphasises the dependence of social phenomena on human being and understanding, openness, structure, transformation/dynamism, relationality, totality, meaning, values, and so forth. And he shows that underpinning the heterodox opposition to the mainstream emphasis on formalism, is a commitment to such an alternative ontology (of openness etc). It is this latter commitment that unites them qua heterodox economists.
Lawson further argues that the separate heterodox groups are thereafter differentiated according to focus, questions , interest, and ontological emphasis, etc. Lawson uses this analysis to elaborate the nature of the projects of post Keynesianism, Old Institutionalist, Feminist Economics, Marxist Economics and so on, arguing that they are best seen as divisions of labour in a broader project united by a shared social ontology. Thus, while all heterodox projects are viewed as being committed to the ontology Lawson elaborates in total, different traditions emphasise some aspects above others.
In brief, post Keynesians are associated with the aspect of openness in particular (underpinning categories like uncertainty and money ); old institutionalists are especially associated with the aspects of process and stability (underpinning the concern with evolutionary theorising, technology and institutions in particular); feminist economics emphasise relationality (underpinning a concern with care, power, oppression, democracy, emancipation, etc); Marxian economists focus in particular on the structured totality in motion that is capitalism; Austrian economists emphasise subjectivity and meaning; and so on. Of course¸ this is but a schematic overview. For Lawson on the nature of heterodoxy see: http://cje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/bei093v1?ijkey=K8S2IrIyzHltXNr&keytype=ref, or http://www.econ.cam.ac.uk/faculty/lawson/PDFS/Replytodavis.pdf, or Part III of Lawson’s Reorienting Economics. And for an excellent short introduction/review of it by an outsider to the Cambridge group see the contribution by Lynne Chester: http://www.heterodoxnews.com/htnf/htn75/Lawson%20(Heterodox%20Economics).doc
In short, according to Lawson we find consistency in mainstream economics at a methodological level, while the consistency of the heterodox traditions is to be found at an ontological level.
It is clear that in producing this conception Lawson and his colleagues are simultaneously both assessing heterodoxy and significantly influenced by heterodoxy in turn, most especially by the writings of economists like Keynes, Hayek, Marx, Dobb, Veblen, Marshall, Smith, Shackle, Menger, Boulding, and Kaldor (see eg Lawson (1997, 2003), Fleetwood (1999) or Fullbrook (2009).
Readers might disagree with the assessment advanced by Lawson and his Cambridge group. But given the paucity of systematically elaborated and defended alternative accounts, a contribution that is as thorough, systematic and coherent as this ought to be a comparator for novel contributions. In my view, the Cambridge group have got it about right.
Note that if Lawson is indeed right, a danger of overlooking it is that others will offer novel mathematical approaches that commit all the usual errors in a slightly different guise (complexity analysis is an obvious example). Indeed, there is evidence that such is already happening. For Lawson himself on these sorts dangers see: http://cje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/33/4/759 or http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue50/Lawson50.pdf.
Fleetwood, S. (ed.), (1999), Critical Realism in Economics, London, Routledge.
Fullbrook, E. (ed.), (2009), Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and his critics, London, Routledge.
Lawson, T. (1997), Economics and Reality, London, Routledge.
Lawson, T. (2003), Reorienting Economics, London, Routledge.
Lawson, T. (2006), “The Nature of Heterodox Economics”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 30, 483-505.