Mea Culpa: Storytelling Part Two
from Peter Radford
I have been accused of a few things. I appear to have upset some people. For this I apologize.
I need to explain in order that we can all move on.
Let me begin my stating my belief that economics, in all its multiple instantiations, is a vital discipline. It seeks to get at the heart of one of our most important activities, and it seeks to discover what can be called truths about those activities. It then propagates what it learns and passes its wisdom along to those outside and who might then act upon that wisdom in order to organize human life more properly. However they define ‘properly’.
So I begin with a profound belief in the importance of economics.
I also recognize that it is not possible to have just one idea or set of ideas as an explanation of human economic activity. People are diverse. Their interactions and relationships multiply the diversity. The continuation of technical progress and the application of ingenuity to previously intractable problems further amplify this diversity. The end result being that the economy looms large as a vast and almost incomprehensibly complex subject. This dictates that there will almost always be many competing and plausible explanations of human economic activity all claiming to be ‘scientific’.
From which I conclude economics is more story telling than science. Informed story telling certainly. Story telling backed by heaps of very clever analytical insight as well.
Then there’s the performative aspect of economics.
Whereas I give a wide berth to many of these competing theories and tend to choose the story that best fits my personal view, I get much more heated over the role that economics plays in society at large.
After all it is supposed to be a center of excellence: a place where those who want to solve problems can go to learn how to act. Economists are not shy about this role. They are everywhere in public and private places passing along the lessons of their own particular brand of economics. And, of course, they teach students which is of even greater import because those students then become workers, managers, and leaders of society reliant upon what they have been taught.
This performative role, whether through shaping policy or shaping minds, places an ethical burden on economics. The stories it tells ought to have the benefits promised within them, and ought to be plausible rather than fantasy.
I don’t for a moment imagine that economists are unable to comprehend the ideological message their stories carry. Of course they are. What I suspect, though, is that many prefer to hide behind the ‘scientific’ image they like to project and to argue that outcomes they don’t like are somehow ‘natural’ and thus cannot be avoided.
I think this preference is what lurks behind the effort to dehumanize economics. Looking back through history economists have gone to great lengths to avoid the words that indicate that it is s subject about human behavior. People become ‘units’ or ‘agents’. So too do business firms which massively elides the difference between a person and a firm. Psychology is simplified and bent to make analysis more tractable. Political outcomes are simply set aside as outside the domain for study. Strategic interaction is reduced to games of varying degrees of complication. And markets become ‘impersonal’ even though they truly exist only when populated by persons.
Sometimes when I look at this effort to gloss the topic with such a rigorous veneer of objectivity I wonder whether economists comprehend the radical bifurcation they impose on themselves: the world they study and the world they live in seem, to me, to be so distinct that they scarcely intersect, if at all.
One of the outcomes of all this is that I sometimes read or hear economists making startling statements that I think they cannot possibly believe. Or, rather, if they do believe what they say then they are presumably employing figures of speech to illustrate or expand upon a point.
This is especially true of the great benefits of markets.
I do not doubt that those benefits exist. I am too rooted in the modern capitalistic narrative not to see, or think I see, those benefits. There is clearly, in my mind, some benefit to allowing people to trade, invent, explore, and own property in order to make a profit. As a society I think those benefits are around us: Our prosperity is manifest. Our health is better than our ancestors. We struggle less to survive. We have more leisure time. And we are less afflicted by nature. These are all outcomes, to my mind, of the hard won freedoms our ancestors clawed away from the traditions and social arrangements of olden times.
But those freedoms were not won by the market. Indeed the existence of the modern market is an outcome of the fight for freedom it is not the cause of the freedom. To argue, as I have seen some argue, that it is the market to which we owe our debt of gratitude is wrongheaded. This is because it is too narrow an attribution. The fight for freedom extended across many domains: Political, social, religious, and intellectual wars had to be fought before the particular freedom we now know as the modern market emerged to work its prosperous magic. Sometimes those were actual wars in which people died.
Now I understand that to someone rooted in economics it is easy to conflate the wider struggle for freedom with that of the struggle for commercial freedom. After all we all tend to see greatness within whatever we have worked hard at our entire lives. And we want to claim priority in any discussion over where the gold medals should be awarded. But we need to recognize that when we indulge in this rooting for our own subject we are simultaneously indulging in story telling and that others might look a little askance at our claims.
It is natural, I suppose, for those who hold ardently to the marketplace story to use it to explain as much as they can. They are heavily invested in it. But let’s not get carried away. And when someone calls us to account and suggests that such radical claims are questionable at best and misleading at worst we ought not get too upset.
After all there are other plausible stories within economics let alone scattered throughout other domains of study. And, as well, all the great benefits I mentioned above have brought along with them some formidable problems that seem to need solution: How do we distribute our bountiful prosperity? How do we balance democratic values of equal citizenship with capitalistic values of returns measured against risks and variable talent? How do we balance growth with sustainability? How do we temper commercial activity within a broader social setting? How do we balance the individual and the community? And how do we accommodate both the human urge to compete with the human urge to cooperate? There are plenty more.
These are not just questions for economics. They are much too broad to be answered successfully within one intellectual tradition, but they are a challenge for economics.
They are also a challenge that lies beyond the scope of the marketplace. At least I think so.
So let’s be more modest about the triumphs of the market. Let’s acknowledge that the big questions are those that are best answered in a broader sphere. Perhaps within political economy. Perhaps within the social sciences. Whatever, I don’t care.
And if you get upset when I attack what I perceive to be a narrow point of view, you now know why I am attacking it. I may misunderstand. But I am being straightforward and bear no malice.
Economics is wonderful. It isn’t everything. There are other ways to tell the same story.
paperback edited by Edward Fullbrook and Jamie Morgan
This collection of 17 essays by some of the world’s most prominent economists explores Piketty’s book at depth and from various vantage points.
“Indispensable reading for everyone who is interested in one of the most important challenges of our time.” – John King