Home > Uncategorized > The void in neoclassical orthodoxy

The void in neoclassical orthodoxy

from Julie Nelson 

Since the 1990s, I and some other feminist economists have been pointing out that the mainstream discipline of economics has a profoundly masculinist bias. That is, aspects of human nature, experience, and behavior that fit a culturally “macho” mold have been emphasized and elevated, while those that are culturally associated with a lesser-valued femininity have been ignored.

The neoclassical orthodoxy focuses on markets and perhaps the public sphere, but categorizes families and unpaid work as “non-economic”. The discipline adheres to exaggerated notions of (strictly logical) reason, while neglecting emotion and embodiment. It sees the economy in terms of autonomous agents, while glossing over all connection, dependency, and interdependency. It elevates self-interest, considering an interest in the well-being of others to be an anomalous and largely unnecessary trait. It defines objective “rigor” in terms of detachment and abstraction, treating normative or moral concerns as overly subjective, and assuming they can be safely denied or excluded. It elevates mathematical proof and fine-tuned econometric methods while downplaying detailed, concrete observation and good, verbal narratives.

These are all legacies of particular, and peculiar, Enlightenment notions of human nature and of science. Susan Bordo wrote, “The Cartesian ‘masculinization of thought’, is one intellectual ‘moment’ of an acute historical flight from the feminine, from the memory of union with the maternal world, and a rejection of all values associated with it” (Bordo, 1987, p. 9).

James Hillman has written,
“The specific consciousness we call scientific, Western and modern is the long sharpened tool of the masculine mind that has discarded parts of its own substance, calling it ‘Eve,’ ‘female’ and ‘inferior’” (quoted in Bordo, 1986, p. 441).

The counterpoint to “rational man”, Elizabeth Fee has pointed out, is
“woman [who] provides his connection with nature; she is the mediating force between man and nature, a reminder of his childhood, a reminder of the body, and a reminder of sexuality, passion, and human connectedness” (Fee, 1983, p. 12).

While other schools of economics that share the pluralist umbrella have pointed out the limitations of various orthodox assumptions, I believe that feminist economics has made a unique contribution in pointing out the systematic – and unremittingly gender-biased – nature of the assumptions and exclusions made by the orthodoxy.

Of course, recognition of the gender biases in the profession is only a first step. Some would try to reassert that “masculine is good”. Others, doing what I call “feminine” economics, try to simply turn the tables: disavowing competition and self-interest, for example, they call for a discipline – and society – founded exclusively on cooperation and altruism. To me, that is still playing with half a deck. The variant of feminist economics that I have propounded seeks to go further. I have wanted to think past the dualism, to think about characteristics we all – men and women both – share, and to explore how one-sided views of any kind tend to create traps.

Julie A. Nelson,
“Nature abhors a vacuum: sex, emotion, loyalty and the rise of illiberal economics”, real-world economics review, issue no. 79, 30 March 2017, pp. 35-42.

  1. Benjamin Morgentau
    March 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    I am tired of the feminist encounters especially those against men in general but also those seeking some specific differences between men and woman. I am against this since the role of men has not been definied in any positive and supportive way and there is absolutety no goodwill for any men to see.
    As far as i can see, the feminist agenda has achieved one thing perfectly, the reduction of rights for men and woman versus investors, versus the globalists. There are simply no new rights for men and all this with the massive support of some higher up agenda the world over… the end is, that neither woman nor man have anything more of subtantial value like for example favorable pension and social security or more rights for all those who have to work. There are not more rights for the families, nor for the kids, nor for the woman… the equalising just goes all the way down for all and i can not see anything substantially different comming from the feminist agenda than the still fashionable neoliberal agenda…

  2. March 4, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Try these facts:
    • Political and economic power in the United States of America still is patriarchal
    • Women consistently are paid much less than men for the same job
    • The glass ceiling still exists nearly everywhere
    • Too many women, in their otherwise laudable attempts to break through the glass ceiling, try to act like men in order to win; thus we all are burdened with such as Hillary Clinton and the twisted feminism to which you refer

    And try this viewpoint:
    John Gray, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”

    And, from my alma mater, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) (Goggle it), and my viewpoint: plaintiff Allan Bakke was a whining white boy who brought disrepute upon his privileged gender/race

    • March 4, 2018 at 5:50 pm

      I misposted this comment, which is directed at Mr. Morgentau, not Ms. Nelson

  3. March 7, 2018 at 6:41 am

    Julie, admirable effort. And there’s loads of anthropological and archeological evidence that supports your conclusions. There are clear biological differences between male and female Sapiens. But these differences are minor compared to the cultural differences Sapiens have invented and used during the last 30,000 years. These range from Hammurabi’s Laws, which locked people into fixed and unchangeable gender and class cultural categories, to United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Impressive differences. Voltaire once said about God, “there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.” The same can be said of both Hammurabi’s Laws and United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Homo Sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, chimpanzees have no natural rights. Both don’t tell that to our accountants, ministers, CEOs, lest they murder us at night. A natural order is a stable order. Natural orders do not collapse. But since neither Hammurabi’s Laws nor the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is natural they are subject to change, revision, and collapse. Things like human rights exist only in human imagination. Giving humans ever new opportunities to reinvent them. No human today (apart from sociopaths like Donald Trump) believes in Hammurabi’s Laws. Most humans today (again apart from Trump, et al) believe in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s what they expect to see in their daily lives, and they’re angered when it’s not there. We’re squandering this expectation right now by giving in to sociopaths, oligarchs, fascists, and strong “men.” The women and men I meet and interview at #MeToo and now gun control gatherings seem to understand this. Economists certainly do not.

  4. March 7, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Leaving aside Ken’s irrelevant anti-religious bias and “things like human rights [or Ken’s Voltarian absolutes] exist only in the imagination”, I agree with him that “Most humans today (again apart from Trump, et al) believe in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. The contentious word here is “belief”, which individualists since John Locke’s 1690 “Essay concerning Human Understanding” associate good and evil with liking pleasure and disliking pain, but reasoning people means assent on the basis of external evidence: “by their fruits you shall know them”. We can surely agree that human rights will exist only inso far as we don’t merely like the sound of them but are prepared to assent to and act on them.

    Getting back to Julie’s contribution, like Ken I think it an admirable effort. The only point about which I have doubts is Susan Bordo’s phrase, “The Cartesian ‘masculinization of thought’”. It was not so much Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” (1637) (“the ghost in the machine” argument) which was the problem as Locke’s (“tabula rasa”) rejection of it in the above-mentioned essay. Locke kept the machine, but got rid of what is now ridiculed as a ghost, but more sympathetically can be understood post-Einstein as the flow of energy (in Descartes’ time wind under its ancient name ‘spirit’) guided by the bound energy embodied in the material structure of the machine, the channelling in which is itself continually rearranged by the passage of the energy. I’m merely pointing this out; I hope readers will come to believe it not because they like the sound of it but because they have taken the trouble to look up and weigh the evidence.

    Agreeing with Julie’s verdict that naked feminism “is still playing with half a deck”, let me suggest that Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” etc sees Eastern thought (summed up as “yin and yang”, the environment and sub-systems within it) is also trying to go further, broading the argument by comparing dynamic behaviour rather than observable physical differences. Had Capra studied the physics and embodied logic of communication as well as atom smashing, he might have got further in understanding the pivotal role of language in the evolution of both understanding and societies, but here again, that’s “food for thought”.

    • March 8, 2018 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Dave. You make my point exactly. Locke is famous for telling the world and some of the founders of the US that something called “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property exist and should be the basis of human knowledge and government. But humans have no “natural” rights. As I’ve said they have rights that are invented by and used by themselves. In other words, using their fertile imagination humans invent their societies. What reason is there to create these as Lockean vs. fascist? Simple, experimentation and feedback. Fascism benefits only the few, whereas Lockean ways of life have the potential to benefit most of society. Thus, are more likely to lead to stable and durable societies. Less conflict, more cooperation, and economic and political security for most of the population. This is what belief and preferences are all about. Of course, some of the few who benefit from fascism may oppose a Lockean society, as is happening currently.

      • March 8, 2018 at 4:56 pm

        Ken, look at what I said: that Descartes was more right than Locke! His view allowed for the energy necessary to do things outside themselves and thereby create the feedback necessary to reform a society which existed by dint of people being animals able to talk to each other and keep track of their own thoughts and hence intend and direct future actions.

        ‘Rights’ involve words interpreting observations in light of previous conclusions, and can be ‘natural’ in relation to those conclusions, which (for both Locke and Descartes, and whether you like it or not), still based the brotherhood of man on God being our father and our rights on what we and our brothers need to be human. Locke did not invent ‘rights’: he invented forms of words which articulated and accepted what he saw would lead [in his terms] to pleasure rather than pain. The arguments in his “Two Treatises of Government are couched in terms of individuals. What has perverted them has been the legal fiction of states, estates and corporations being individuals and slaves or servants not.

        That was worth discussing, so thank you. However, it was not what I was trying to explain. Put in your language, only one’s “fertile imagination” is inside one’s head; “experimentation and feedback” involve processess outside it which shape the form rather than the existence of relationships. I find the word “experimentation ” a bit narrow in the present context. I would emphase learning from the unexpected, and from our mistakes.

      • March 10, 2018 at 10:44 am

        Dave, Descartes’ “coordinate” systems are useful for humans, sometimes, in some ways. There’s no right or wrong, until people invent it. Humans invent to be used. Humans soar in imagination. But imagination is not seated in individuals. Human brains and physical activity function effectively only within communal settings; only within society and culture. Within communities, humans invented individualism. Which makes individualism a social construction.

        Locke and the others with who he corresponded had no experience with human rights other than some religious and philosophical texts. They wondered what such a society would look like and how it would function. Human rights are a goal to pursue, but not one contained in or mandated by nature.

        To be clear. Humans are social animals. Imagination is in the community, surging through one’s brain and body. You mention “outside.” Neither God nor the universe nor nature created outside. Humans created it. And they created it 70,000 years ago.

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