(Mark Thoma’s link to Daniel Little’s review of Putnam and Walsh ‘s The End of Value Free Economics gives me a chance to explain why I’m such a horrible person.)
In economics value is swallowed up by price. I was actually taught that in about 1966 by an economist who thought that this was a good thing. Through the market, price supposedly aggregates the values of all individuals into an objective public value. This is not “normative” (and thus, in a pluralist world, biased and non-universal) because it’s just a way of allowing the individuals in any group to establish a group value — economics itself is supposedly value-neutral.
This is wrong at many levels. For example, the method of aggregation tacitly assumes or imposes specific sorts of values and suppresses others. The claim to universality (derivative from the claim to neutrality) is bogus — economics is a normative system which interprets value as price and suppresses all other approaches to value. The claim to Science is equally bogus, since economics does not have the univocity, exactness, and certainty of physics. (Some areas of physics, anyway). But for decades these two arguments have been very effectively used to discredit the opposition to whichever economic orthodoxy was in power at any given time.
It was hoped that by this method major issues of public policy could be taken out of the mess of the political process and protected from the Mussolinis and Lenins. It was also hoped that by this method an expert elite could be created to manage the big questions public life without external interference from the populace. The first hope was pardonable but wishful, and the second was self-serving.
This rather abstract methodological principle has had major policy consequences — without it, Ayn Rand’s disciple Alan Greenspan would not have had the power to cripple to global economy.
I’ve been living under the domination of this crap for 46 years now and I’ve always known it was crap. The majority of my mainstream friends during that era, and some of my radical friends, swallowed the whole boatload and repeated its principles as though they were self-evidently true. Many of them still do. Minds are changing far more slowly than social reality itself is, and by the time my friends in the lumpen-intelligentsia have changed their minds, we will be living in an authoritarian neoliberal world and all these questions will be moot.
So that’s how I became a troll.
One of the unfortunate things is that most liberal economists are attached to the science myth and the value-free myth, and the best alternative methodological models I’ve found come from conservatives. F.H. Knight and Hayek and the other Austrians did not accept the science myth or the overambitious claims to predictivity, and James Buchanan (the public choice theorist) described economics as half science and half political theory. Buchanan is a Southerner (a self-confessed redneck) and his conservative Madisonian political theory is about what you’d expect from a plantation owner (which Buchanan’s father sort of was) thrown into the 20th century.
ADDENDUM II (from Thoma’s comments).
J. Random Schmoe: Going splat is a bad thing.
J. Random Psycho: Going splat is a good thing.
They both agree: If you fall a mile, you will go splat.
The first two are value judgments. The third is a fact. Science only addresses the third statement.
Often, when discussing the third statement, they will express the sentiment of the first statement. But that’s just the scientist being humane and decent. The scientist can only speak with authority about the third statement.
The scientist might even point out a situation where the third statement is false. For example, the Vomit Comet falls close to a mile without going splat. Anything in orbit falls continuously without going splat.
ou’re repeating the myths. The myth that economics is a descriptive science, and the myth that economists is descriptive and not prescriptive.
As I said, for the last 45 years, whenever I have tried to question these myths, the response has almost always been simply to repeat the myths without bothering to argue in their defense. And that’s exactly what you just did.
The key point here is that these myths have had harmful effects and can no longer just be assumed. It’s quite normal to accept the conventions of a society or an intellectual discipline when things are going well, but now that economics has disastrously failed us, you have to look at the foundational myths — these two along with many others.