Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Only Slightly Disappointed

A correspondent writes to inform me that Dan Ariely is not a graduate economist but, in fact, he was a graduate in psychology (BA), cognitive psychology (MA), cognitive psychology (PhD) and Business Administration (PhD). Apart from his second PhD, he is not an academic economist, so I was wrong to be astonished that he wrote what he did about Adam Smith (it depends on how much history of economics he read on the business administration programme).

However, Duke University is home to one of America’s strongest centres for history of economics and very much the current ‘home’ of the subject. It publishes the leading academic, refereed journal, History of Political Economy (HOPE), regularly recruits graduate students for its PhD programmes.

But it is still surprising that a specialist in behavioural economics, which is justifiably critical of the rational Home economicus model, has not read what Adam Smith actually wrote in both Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations, and appears to have accepted on trust what 20th-21st century ‘authorities’ claim were his ideas.

If a major figure is claimed to be the foundation of so-called rational economics and one’s major work is about developing a more realistic model of human behaviour, I would have thought it incumbent to read for oneself the original works and published papers.

Call me old fashioned but that’s my approach. When I taught undergraduate students in Economics I, many years ago, I often reminded them that St Thomas, the Doubter, was the patron saint of students. Should I ever visit the subject of behavioural economics, I would start with a long reading list before commenting on what has proceeded my interest or curiosity.

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