It isn’t often that economics makes the pages of Science, but I finally got around to taking a look at E. Roy Weintraub‘s review of Steve Marglin‘s The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. (Gated copy here.)
The prophet Jeremiah is alive and well and teaching economics at Harvard. It is not often that a scholar with no particular historical or philosophical expertise trashes the Western Enlightenment in order to stomp on the discipline of economics as a manifestation of all that was lost in creating the modern world.
And one suspects, Weintraub doesn’t think that this is a particularly good idea. He provides some useful history of economic thought:
The professionalization of economics was a late 19th century phenomenon. Cambridge’s Alfred Marshall, in attempting to construct a scientific economics, was not able to establish economics as a separate discipline until the death of Henry Sidgwick, the university’s professor of moral philosophy, under whose direction lectures in political economy had been organized. In the United States at that time, economics was growing from different sources. One stream followed from individuals who had obtained Ph.D.’s in Germany, where social policy issues — labor unions, socialism, the nascent welfare state, etc. — were galvanizing the universities. But a second stream nurturing the American progressive economists grew from the social gospel movement, which sought to promote the kingdom of God on Earth through enlightened social policy and the kind of market interventions that Adam Smith in fact quite welcomed.
The kind of economics from which Marglin recoils is, however, not of the sort that was present in writings of individuals (e.g., Smith, Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Marshall, and John Commons) who have been claimed as ancestors by modern economists. It is instead what developed in the post-World War II stabilization of economic discourse and the final professionalization of the discipline. It was during that postwar period, not in the Enlightenment, that economic science became normal in Thomas Kuhn‘s sense.
Marglin’s account appears confused by this history. Moreover, he appears to believe that the ideas he engages and then casts aside (ideas about the economic agent, preferences, equilibrium, models, and markets) all grew up not in the 20th century but hundreds of years earlier — and that those ideas have had stable meanings ever since: “For four hundred years, economists have been active in the enterprise of constructing the modern economy and society, both by legitimizing the market and by promoting the values, attitudes, and behaviors that make for economic success. No apology is due for this — except for the pretense of scientific detachment and neutrality and the unwillingness to confront the ideological beam in our collective eye.”
The ahistoricity of such a statement is startling; for instance, it assumes wrongly that there were individuals called economists 400 years ago and that science in 1600 meant the same thing as it does in 2008.
But do you really want to know what Weintraub thinks about the book?
I note in closing that the lead dust-jacket blurb for this volume was provided by the noted economist and social theorist Bianca Jagger (sic).
To be fair, her ex-husband, Mick Jagger did (briefly) attend the London School of Economics.