Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Thought-Provoking Gem of a Little Book


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I came across a little gem of a book (58 pages), The Secret Sins of Economics by Deirdre McCloskey (Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2002) during the course of ordering from Amazon her book, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd edition, University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. I read the pamphlet this afternoon when watching Scotland beaten by Belarus in a World Cup qualifying football match that proved too much to bear... 

What a scorcher! Working in close detail on Adam Smith’s works and picking up any professional journal while doing so, the contrast is stark. You can put this down to 200 years additional work of a scientific nature, or to a complete change in approach. While Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” teems with people closely involved in what is happening to them, today’s economic science seems to have dropped people from the subject entirely. If people are mentioned, they are automatons without the full range of recognisable human characteristics.

Anyway, my current research and writing topic in my new Adam Smith book (for Palgrave’s “Great Thinkers in Economics series”) is what is sometimes described as his “labour theory of value”, though I do not think it should be described as such, nor as ‘proto-Marxist’. Knowing the approach of Karl Marx in “Capital”, I could not help but be struck by the non-scientific approach of Marx to prove his labour value theory is also, albeit, a negative confirmation of McCloskey’s criticism of majority trends in modern economics (deductive theory without content).
What Marx and, what McCloskey calls ‘Samuelsonian’, economics have in common is that Marx wraps his claims to ‘science’ in verbiage without people and the ‘Samelsonians’ wrap their scientific relevance in abstract mathematics also without people.
The opening chapters of Capital are notoriously ‘difficult’ (‘explained’ to me many years ago by a tutor that Marx suffered from a nasty attack of carbuncles while writing these chapters) and they use an invented language, where words mean whatever he wants them to mean; modern journal contributions also are often ‘difficult’ too, and use notation that can also prove whatever their authors want them to ‘prove’ by loading the premises anyway they want to.
It seems economics has been captured by an approach to ‘science’ that led Marx to the dead-end of communism and millions of dead, and the best brains in ‘Samuelsonianism’ to the dead-end of nothingness, leading to an analytical paralysis when we have so much to do to address the real problems of real people. Thankfully, the Samuelsonians don't actually kill anybody, except perhaps from boredom.

As far as I can see, at present, a better hope for economics is to be found in the recommended Blogs listed on this page. When I have read McCloskey’s other book on ‘Rhetoric’ I will report on its content.

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