I am a know-nothing
from Peter Radford
Beware of the possible snark in the following:
One of the possibilities you face when you commit to writing about something is that you get called names. Sometimes you are called wrong. And sometimes when you are called wrong, you are indeed wrong. Such is life. We learn.
This is not one of those times.
Because I am right.
Anyway, this time I have been called wrong because I asked that we raise a collective voice to ask questions about economics. I made no substantive claim in my call for questions. I just asked for questions and then did claim that the resultant conversation would/could be interesting. I thought this was uncontroversial.
One correspondent let fly with a torrent of abuse that requires some unpacking and examination.
Economics, I am told, is NOT what economists say it is. This is disturbing. The practitioners of an art or science are being told that what they study is not what they study. Economists need to find another name for their discipline; and, presumably, for themselves [we’ll get to that below]. Now I am aware that I myself have called economics into question along similar lines. I sometimes argue that economists spend too much time examining economics rather than economies. But I do not dispute that economists have the right to give their discipline a name they like. So if economists want to call what they do ‘economics’ it is not up to me to argue. I would prefer to argue more substantive issues, such as the discipline’s content.
Then I am told I don’t understand philosophy. Or at least I infer that from the correspondent’s next sentence or three. Further, I am too understand that my ignorance stems from my having been trained as an economist. Since the correspondent has no idea what I was trained as — it wasn’t economics — I find this somewhat surprising. Somewhere in this accusation I also learned that economics may be about ‘what it does’, but that this is definitely NOT about “a mere balancing of dishonest monetary measures of supply and demand of unspecified goods by covertly printing IOU’s”.
How do I respond to that? Apparently economics is some fraudulent pursuit reeking of dishonesty and covert IOU’s. Or is it that the economy is fraudulent and filled with covert IOU’s? I don’t know.
But it is comforting to be mentioned in the same long paragraph as God, Hume, Aristotle, Bacon, and Harvey. Four of whom I look up to and one of whom doesn’t exist. Oh, but I’m not quite sure what to make of the reference to Humpty Dumpty.
Economics we are told should revert to its etymological roots and be about household management or people living together. This leaves the field open for a new science to worry itself about people who not live together or who merely interact at arms length. Since this is what economists tend to worry about most — although there are plenty who study household issues — I suppose this is another way of saying economics is not about economics. Or ought not to be. I imagine we could play this game of enforcing reversion to etymological roots across all the sciences, and/or our entire language. But why stop there? Why not revert back to the ancient Greek itself and just stop with all this silly 2,000 year long evolution of speech? That would clear everything up nicely.
But we don’t stop there. Next we are told that the words ‘economics’ absolutely must not be used to refer to money-making or marketing which are consigned to the word ‘chrematistics’. This word for those who may be baffled by it harkens back to days of yore when money-making was deemed somehow nasty. It was old Aristotle who came up with the distinction between economics and chrematistics, and he wanted us to ignore the latter because it was unseemly. Aristotle believed a lot of things, some of which would not fit well within our contemporary world: for instance, he seemed to think that some people were naturally slaves and others naturally slave owners. This is lovely. Hopefully our correspondent has a nice word — not economics — to cover that.
How did that ghastly chrematistics get muddled up with economics? Here we are sent to Shakespeare for enlightenment. It has something to do with usury, the Bank of England, and the City of London. Or it has something to do with Hume’s friend Adam Smith who was SEEING it about the wealth of nations and not the well-being of mankind. I am not sure which. Actually I am not sure Smith was using either the word chrematistics or the word economics in his work. Perhaps he did. I don’t care. He was most certainly interested in the wealth of nations, ands since it was his book why should we care if that isn’t the same as well-being of mankind? If he had wanted to write about the latter maybe he would have. This is like saying that Francois Furet’s book about twentieth century communism is a lousy book about New York. I usually leave it to authors to define their own topics. I find it easier to critique them that way..
Next we are left hanging: what is the purpose of an economist? Whatever God, Aristotle, Hume, Bacon, and Harvey say it is. Or at least I think so, since here we are simply referred back to the paragraph in which they turn up. This leaves me somewhat quizzical since I am not sure any of them actually ever met an economist, and attributing a purpose to a person would have sent poor old Aristotle off on one of his long winded explanations about causes the end result of which might just have been more confusion.
I won’t respond to the next part of my correspondent’s tirade since it appears more to focus on other correspondents and their errors. So let me move on the last paragraph.
Just for good measure this starts with this:
“Peter, [that’s me] I repeat, has got it wrong.”
I put this in emphasis so as to releive you of any qualms about ignoring me. Leave me to wallow in my ignorance for I know nothing. I am pre-Aristotle. Perhaps Socratic? Don’t I wish!
The answer, we are told, is not to be FOUND in a collective voice, though IF FOUND it is desirable to be taught that way. I have one small point to make here: it was the search I was advocating. Oh, and if we are so sure it won’t be found there, we won’t bother looking and thus the desirable outcome of collective teaching, whilst desirable, is for ever impossible. Anyway we are assured — by implication — by our correspondent that the common voice is drowning out diverse and possibly unique contributions that see through the superficialities and untruths that are what is now known as economics. Or chrematistics. Or whatever.
Anyway. It’s been cathartic talking about it.
This is what I learned: I am ignorant. I am an economist — and hence even more ignorant. I don’t understand much about etymology, and even less about Aristotle who is, apparently, the go-to guy for economics. I learned that the Bank of England is usurious despite its interest rates being near zero — which kind of conflicts with my understanding of usury. I now realize that Smith ought to have written a book about something other than the wealth of nations. And I remain confused about the purpose of an economist — although I will check with Aristotle to clear that up.
That’s quite an edukation.