More Politics, Many Recipes

by Henry Farrell on November 12, 2007

A good way to start thinking about Dani Rodrik’s genuinely excellent new book is to contrast its statement of objectives with a programmatic statement from another new book on international economics, Roberto Unger’s _Free Trade Reimagined_.

First of all, Rodrik:

First, this book is strictly grounded in neo-classical economic analysis. At the core of neoclassical economics lies the following methodological predisposition: social phenomena can best be understood by considering them to be an aggregation of purposeful behavior by individuals – in their roles as consumer, producer, investor, politician, and so on – interacting with each other and acting under the constraints that their environment imposes. This I find to be not just a powerful discipline for organizing our thoughts on economic affairs, but the only sensible way of thinking about them. If I often depart from the consensus that “mainstream” economists have reached in matters of development policy, this has less to do with different modes of analysis than with different readings of the evidence and with different evaluations of the “political economy” of developing nations. The economics that the graduate student picks up in the seminar room – abstract as it is and riddled with a wide variety of market failures – admits an almost unlimited range of policy recommendations, depending on the specific assumptions the analyst is prepared to make … the tendency of many economists to offer advice based on simple rules of thumb, regardless of context (privatize this, liberalize that), is a derogation rather than a proper application of neoclassical economic principals

Now Unger:

[rethinking the traditional debate over free trade] is an intellectual task for which the present methods of economics are inadequate. It would be tempting to adopt a strategy of caution, insisting that economics, purged of abusive applications and restored to analytic purity, provides help, and imposes no obstacles, to such a campaign. In this book I reject that claim: its modesty does not make up for its falsehood. The practice of economic analysis inaugurated in the late ninetheenth century by Walras, Jevons, and Menger, which came to be labeled “marginalism” and which guided the mainstream of subsequent economic theory and culminated in the theory of general equilibrium, is not only insufficient to the execution of the task. It is also, in certain decisive respects, incompatible with it. If economics continues to swing between purity of analysis, retreating from all controversial explanatory and prescriptive ideas, and abuse of application, unjustifiably equating abstract conceptions like the idea of a market economy with particular contingent sets of economic arrangements, it will not open the way. It will stand in the way. There are many past and present varieties of economic analysis, from the old institutional economics to the new behavioral economics, that suggest different methods and directions. However, they have not developed – and maybe they cannot develop – into ways of dealing with the problems that are central to the argument of this book. Their characteristic inability to imagine the possible forms of economic life cramps their insight into its actual forms.

These quotes seem to reflect positions that are starkly opposed to each other. Rodrik is proposing that we can and must develop new ways of understanding trade and growth from within conventional economic theory – it’s the only sensible way of laying out the issues. Unger claims that not only can conventional economic theory not help us to do this, but conventionally unconventional forms of economic theory such as behavioural economics can’t do this either. Nonetheless, I think that Rodrik is closer to Unger than he presents himself as being (similarly, Unger is much closer to Rodrik and conventional economic reasoning than _he_ says he is, but that’s the topic for another blogpost). Rodrik provides an account of economic institutions that in many places rests less on neo-classical analysis than on a non-conventional account of institutional experimentation in a world characterized by uncertainty. Indeed, both Rodrik and Unger give us visions of international economics that deviates from the conventional account in two ways. First, they both provide _pragmatic_ accounts – they are both much less interested in a Procrustean fitting of the world to an abstract theory than in figuring out what bits of theory help us to understand real life problems. Second, both explicitly acknowledge the _primacy of politics_ – the market shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for political decision making, but rather embedded in a political context where important collective choices are made through democratic means.

Enough about RodrikandUnger – what does _Many Economics, Many Recipes_ have to tell us?? First, even I don’t think that Rodrik delivers a systematically neo-classical book, he does very useful work, especially in the early sections, in clarifying the subtleties of the neo-classical approach, and in disentanglng it from the brutish simplifications of the so-called Washington Consensus. As Rodrik points out, there is _no necessary reason_ that the latter follows from the former. Not only are the Consensus’s prescriptions for institutional change – market liberalization, privatizating everything that moves, deregulation – not the only ways that we might think about reforming economies to improve economic growth, but they don’t seem to work very well. Our experience of economic reform suggests that many of the countries that have embraced the Consensus most enthusiastically (mostly in Latin America) have done, by and large, rather dismally, while countries that have adopted different sorts of reforms have done much better. This isn’t conclusive proof that the Washington Consensus is wrong – there are lots of confounding factors – but it is strongly suggestive. Nor, as Rodrik discusses at length, is the Washington Consensus the only – nor the most attractive – way to apply neo-classical principles to economic development.

Rodrik’s alternative approach is likely to annoy both adherents to the aforementioned Consensus and many of their critics. While Rodrik argues that the drafters of economic reform need to be sensitive to context, he wants them to be sensitive in quite specific ways. He would like them to use neo-classical tools of analysis, but to think first about (a) which problems need to be tackled when, and (b) to think carefully about the possible unanticipated repercussions of reform. First, he suggests, you need to analyze what are the most important constraints on growth in a particular economy. Second, you need to analyse the specific distortions that are causing these constraints. Third, you need to think about policy instruments that can target these problems narrowly rather than trying to change everything at once. Fourth(he doesn’t state this as part of his decision tree, but it’s an important part of his argument), you need to make sure that whatever reforms you advocate don’t have unanticipated repercussions elsewhere. The broader effects of reforms in a specific area (such as property rights or incentives to grow food) will vary between countries with different institutional settings, and second-best solutions that don’t badly disrupt other parts of the economy are likely to be vastly preferable to first-best solutions that do. Finally, he argues (foreshadowing the second and third parts of the book) that short term spurts in economic growth aren’t that uncommon, but they don’t necessarily mean all that much either. What you need if you want to create long term economic growth is to institutionalize economic success by (1) encouraging diversification of trading sectors through appropriate public sector strategies, and (2)ensuring that domestic institutions of conflict management are strengthened.

This is an unusual set of prescriptions for an economist to be giving, but it doesn’t deviate far from neo-classical orthodoxy if it deviates at all. It merely applies it in somewhat unorthodox ways. Where Rodrik begins, in my opinion, to really stray from the traditional account is in Chapter Four, the beginning of the section on institutions and industrial policy where he fleshes out what he means by appropriate public sector strategies and strengthening institutions of conflict management. After taking some entertaining swipes at the fainting spells that industrial policy produces in most economists (he points out in passing that many currently fashionable policy recommendations such as export zones are in fact industrial policy under a new label), he gets down to talking about why he thinks that states should be engaged in industrial policy, and how they should be doing it.

The why comes from standard economic reasoning – it’s an incentives problem. Discovering new activities or products that can profitably be produced in a given economy is costly, and only a small fraction of the benefits can be captured by the entrepreneur who succeeds in finding such an activity or product. Therefore, we may reasonably expect that what Rodrik and his colleague Ricardo Hausmann call ‘self-discovery’ – the discovery not of fundamentally new products, but of products that are suited well to production under local conditions – will be undersupplied. Thus, there is a case for the government to come in and subsidize investments in non-traditional industries.

Rodrik’s specific account of how this should be done, however, doesn’t really rely on standard economic reasoning. And this is for good reason – economics, despite some significant advances, still has fundamental difficulties in understanding innovation because it involves decision making under uncertainty rather than risk. Thus, Rodrik resorts instead to a thoroughgoing pragmatism, grounded in common sense rather than in economic theory, to make claims about how self-discovery can best be promoted. Rodrik is certainly still sensitive to incentive problems, such as the risk that any industrial development agency will be subject to regulatory capture. However, equally (and arguably more) important in his account is the need for a process of pragmatic deliberation in which businesspeople and bureaucrats engage with each other to figure out what errors government is making, and how it can engage in targeted financial and logistical support and coordination for new activities that these sets of deliberations identify as likely candidates.

In short, the core sections of One Economics set out the virtues of a kind of pragmatic deliberation that can better foster self-discovery. Where standard economic theory enters in, it is as a corrective to the risks of regulatory capture. Attention to incentives is important if we are to design institutions to minimize the likelihood of collusion among the bureaucrats and business people who are involved in deliberation. But as Rodrik notes, there is a balance to be struck – trying to make regulatory capture impossible would rule out the information flows and processes of experimentation and argument that allow the government to help address the underlying problem of self-discovery. Attention to static incentives can help us avoid certain pitfalls, but actual discovery involves complex processes of deliberation and conversation. Interestingly, Rodrik borrows some of his arguments about deliberation from Charles Sabel, who is vehemently opposed to standard economic theory (he is a strong constructivist who doesn’t believe that anything resembling stable interests or identities exist). While I don’t think that Rodrik’s argument requires him to buy into Sabel’s stronger claims (there are more rational-actor-friendly accounts of pragmatic deliberation than Sabel’s out there) his use of Sabel’s ideas suggests that he is less wedded to the neo-classical approach than his opening statement would suggest.

This is in no sense whatsoever a bad thing (when you’re looking to give practical advice to policy makers, you shouldn’t let abstract theory get in your way when it’s unhelpful or irrelevant) – but I’d like to see more in the way of micro-level grounding. If neo-classical economics doesn’t provide us with a good grip on how self-discovery is likely to occur, there are other theories out there that at least provide some initial ideas of how best to think about innovation. “Arnold Kling”: has already claimed Rodrik as a neo-Austrian. Economic sociologists also have some interesting things to say about these issues. Finally (and my personal preference) the more mathematically grounded variants of complexity theory (people working on the consequences of network topology for innovation, and agent based modelling as a means of capturing the importance of heuristics) have interesting things to say that might help flesh out Rodrik’s practical advice, and give it more analytic bite.

Finally, it’s useful to highlight a more subtle way in which Rodrik deviates from the usual economic account – his discussion of the relationship between institutions and democracy. Here, even if the difference is one of normative position rather than explanatory focus, it’s still quite important. The new institutional economics is strongly biased towards functionalist explanations (in which institutions come into being to fulfil certain broadly valuable functions), and towards explanations that fill inconvenient holes in conventional economic theory without challenging the fundamental emphasis on the primacy of markets as a means of social choice. This approach is the result of attempts from Coase through Williamson to(rather uneasily) North to explain how institutions can support certain kinds of functions that the market needs to work, without at the same time undermining basic claims about the virtues of freely functioning markets. This approach regularly slides from examining how political institutions may support market exchange to the tacit or explicit normative claim that political institutions are primarily valuable and good _insofar_ as they support market exchange. It thus pushes for a quite narrow vision of politics (in which the state limits itself to protecting property rights, supporting impersonal exchange and so on), and in which democracy is seen as being rather ambiguous (it is good insofar as it limits the predatory aspirations of the state, but bad insofar as it allows for either interest groups or populist politics to interfere with market processes). Markets always come first.

While Rodrik favors some of the same institutions as do standard new institutional economists (e.g. effective property rights), it seems to me that his overall emphasis is quite different. This comes out most clearly in his discussion of trade, where he stresses that it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Democracies may legitimately choose to value other things than trade expansion, such as environmental and labour standards, and they should be allowed to do so. In Rodrik’s words:

Trade serves at best as an instrument for achieving the goals that societies seek: prosperity, stability, freedom, and quality of life. Nothing enrages WTO bashers more than the suspicion that, when push comes to shove, the WTO allows trade to trump the environment or human rights. And developing countries are right to resist a system that evaluates their needs from the perspective of expanding world trade instead of alleviating poverty

It may be that there is a greater trade-off than Rodrik acknowledges between democracy and economic growth (Adam Przeworski suggests that Rodrik’s empirical claims about this relationship are hard to substantiate given the virtual impossibility of establishing the direction of causation from available empirical evidence). But even if this were true, Rodrik’s fundamental claim for the primacy of democracy rests less on its economic benefits than its normative attractiveness. Over the very long run, people should support a kind of global federalism (which Rodrik distinguishes sharply from world government), because it would allow them to exert democratic control over choices that are currently denied to them under existing multilateral institutions. Over the shorter term, trade rules should be changed so that they accommodate diversity better.

Reversing our priorities would have a simple but powerful implication. Instead of asking what kind of multilateral trading system maximizes foreign trade and investment opportunities, we would ask what kind of multilateral system best enables nations around the world to pursue their own values and developmental objectives

Furthermore, these different choices and values are worthy of respect precisely insofar as they reflect democratic processes of choice. Rodrik emphasizes that national standards should receive presumptive respect only if they are made by democracies, and thus reflect some reasonably fair process of choice and deliberation.

I hope Rodrik won’t be offended if I say that this is the kind of claim one expects to hear from a political theorist, not an economist. It suggests quite emphatically that politics (more precisely democratic politics) should have primacy over markets. It points to the need for a set of international institutions that are not only better geared to support economic development, but that are democratically accountable either through national governments, or (perhaps in the future) through a combination of national governments and supranational democratic bodies. Reading through my own particular set of cognitive biases, it seems to me that a more accurate title for the book would be “One Economics (plus some extra-economic reasoning, Many Politics, Many Recipes.” Or perhaps instead, Rodrik should write another book or long article that draws together the threads of his claims about deliberation and democratic choice – while there seems to me to be an underlying consonance between his prescriptions for industrial policy and his arguments about how best to reform the multilateral trade system, much of it is buried in footnotes and asides. Either way, this is a provocative and important book that should be read not only by economists, but by political scientists, political theorists, economic sociologists and anyone with an interest about how global economic processes do and should work. Most of these ideas have already been published elsewhere – but when brought together they pack a normative and analytic punch that they didn’t as individual pieces. Good stuff.



Tracy W 11.13.07 at 12:28 pm

Hmm, I am starting to think that any discussion that uses the word-phrase “neo-classical economics” needs a definition of “neo-classical” up front.

A common definition of “neo-classical economics” I’ve heard is the idea of things mattering at the margin – marginal value, marginal decision-making – that economic value is dependent not on yes/no but on how much. Which is one of those ideas that once it was first articulated is so blindingly obvious. For example eat too little food and you die of starvation, eat too much food and your stomach hurts, and presumably if you keep going your stomach eventually explodes.

For that definition of “neo-classical” then as far as I can tell any economic theory is going to be neo-classial and use neo-classical tools. The labour theory of value is dead. These things are gone. Perhaps some amazing theorist will come along and disprove the idea of the margin, but this strikes me as being about as likely as some amazing theorist coming along and disproving Newton’s Laws of Motion.

But people seem to use “neo-classical” in a far broader sense. General equilibrium analysis is far more debatable than marginal thinking, and the Washington Consensus is far more debatable again. I can see economics proceeding without general equilibrium analysis.

But the more and more I read, the more and more confused I get whenever someone criticises neo-classical economics. Everyone appears to have a different definition.


Tracy W 11.13.07 at 12:44 pm

Second, both explicitly acknowledge the primacy of politics – the market shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for political decision making, but rather embedded in a political context where important collective choices are made through democratic means.

Well, the first thing that comes to mind here is that markets are not necessarily embedded in a context where collective choices are made through democratic means. Markets have functioned in very non-democratic societies, for example markets were around in England hundreds of years before the English parliment asserted its primacy over the monarch in the Glorious Revolution. To understand markets only as things embedded in a democracy is to limit our understanding of markets.

Secondly, what do you mean the market shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for political decision-making? Which decisions are you talking about? Market-determined exchange rates (floating rates) strike me as very much a replacement for fixed exchange rates. Another example, before zoning laws, indeed, at the earliest stages of government, people made decisions about land use. I’m trying to make sense of your argument here, but I don’t follow it. Do you want to apply a blanket rule against considering the market as an alternative to political decision-making, or are you meaning something more nuanced, and if so, what?

And who wants to get rid of all political decision-making? That’s the position of anarchy. Many supporters of the Washington Consensus were/are not anarchists which means that they supported some political decision-making in at least some areas, eg the provision of pure public goods. The debate amongst economists and policy-makers is, on the whole, not about markets vs political decisions full stop. It’s about what decision-making processes are appropriate where.

And what do you mean when you say the primacy of politics? Markets have acted to subvert the intention of politicians throughout human history. If politics are primary, why is it so easy to buy marjuna and heroin? At best I think you can say that politics has a complicated relationship with markets.


Henry 11.13.07 at 5:40 pm

tracy – on the first, there is discussion of this in the dsquared post and in Dani’s reply, both of which I have just posted. On markets as replacements for political decision making, I am making an argument that borrows from Jack Knight and Jim Johnson, which is that we shouldn’t want democracy ‘all the way down’ – some policy areas are best dealt with through markets – but instead we should have democracy as a second order principle – that is, meta-decisions about which things should be dealt with through markets, which through delegation to bureaucrats, which through voting etc should be handled through democratic means. This is a normative claim – it doesn’t seek to deny that some people will seek to act against institutions, even democratically chosen ones, through black markets etc etc.


Tracy W 11.13.07 at 9:08 pm

Henry, so if I have you right, you are making a purely normative claim about some world in which there aren’t black markets?

If Rodrik and Unger make a similar argument – that politics are primary, then that implies to me that their arguments are not that pragmatic.


Henry 11.14.07 at 4:40 am

Tracy – no, I am not advocating that. Let me explain how I at least think about this (Dani may quite likely disagree). There is a widespread assumption among many economists, law-and-economics types and at least some libertarians that markets should enjoy a privileged normative status as the means of decision making of first choice. Dani – whether for reasons similar to those I find convincing or not – argues against this – saying that it is legitimate for people to make democratic choices even when these choices impair market efficiency. Borrowing from Knight and Johnson, I go a bit further, and say that democratic decision making should be treated as a meta-institution – that is, the institution through which we decide how specific issue areas should be governed (through votes, market choice, or other means). The process of democratic decision making can and should be entirely pragmatic. When, for example, strict regulation is impractical because of black markets etc, democratic decisions should take this into account (without letting it completely foreclose their options). In addition to this, Johnson and Knight make a pragmatic case for the benefits of deliberation – Knight talks about that case a little in his contribution (I would suggest you post a comment there if you want to pursue this further, as he has obviously thought about this a lot more than I have)


Tracy W 11.14.07 at 10:30 am

Henry, you sound to me exactly like you are making a normative argument.

I don’t understand what you mean about things like “democratic decisions should take this into account (without letting it completely foreclose their options)” and how this applies to black markets. Democratic decisions have been made to ban the sale of certain drugs, and yet despite this it is easy to purchase those drugs. And this has happened again and again around the world, it’s not the result of a bizarre single set of circumstances that frustrated the democratic decision-making process in one place. In the real world democratic decision-making processes do not have primacy.

It may be entirely legitimate for people to make choices even when those impair market efficiency. Whether it is possible to put any said choices into practice is quite another question.

I will also note that there have been a few examples in NZ at least where the democratically-elected government of the day has tried to decide that a decision should be made by bureaucrats or markets, but it has wound up back in the political realm. For example, the Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Engineering as far as I could tell took none of the political heat out of the GE debate.

I have posted this here because Knight doesn’t seem to think that democratic decision-making has primacy over market decisions.


John Emerson 11.14.07 at 12:51 pm

Value judgments are bad, Henry.


Tracy W 11.14.07 at 1:27 pm

Value judgments are bad, Henry.

Like most things on this planet, the truth of this statement is that it depends. What I am trying to figure out is whether, when Henry talks about the “primacy of politics”, he intends this to be read as a normative statement or a descriptive statement. And I am also arguing that as a descriptive statement “primary of politics” is wrong, no matter how desirable such a state may be in a normative sense.

I venture the proposition that confusing normative and descriptive statements is bad, at least when the purpose is to develop a pragmatic understanding that will “help us to understand real life problems.”


Tracy W 11.14.07 at 1:27 pm

Note, I just made a value judgment.


John Emerson 11.14.07 at 6:52 pm

At my URL is my solution. Separate theoretical and applied economics the way physics is separated from engineering, and then allow that any given area engineering varies according to one’s purpose, and is thus tacitly normative. Engineering will thus be plural, with civil engineers building bridges and military engineers blowing them up.

Engineering doesn’t seem normative because some norms are non-controversial, but for example, for decades forestry (botanical engineering) was entirely at the service of the timber companies.


Tracy W 11.15.07 at 9:25 am

Having a degree in engineering, I think I can safely say that engineering’s foundations are built on a descriptive understanding of the world. For example, Kirchoff’s laws are descriptive, not normative.


John Emerson 11.15.07 at 1:54 pm

You miss the point. Kirchoff’s law is physics. Engineering is the use made of physics, including Kirchoff’s law. The foundations of engineering are science, which is non-normative. But engineering applications are normative, because they involve extra-scientific purposes. For example, in most circumstances electrical engineers try to avoid heat production, but in designing electric stoves they want heat production. In medicine, bacteriologists try to kill harmful bacteria and grow beneficial bacteria. And as I said, engineers build bridges where bridges are good to have, and blow up bridges where they were not wanted.

Forestry is the best example I have. The scientific forestry of 1960 or so was almost entirely devoted to increasing timber cut, with relative or absolute disregard for effects on water quality, wildlife, and esthetic qualities. As time has gone on forestry has changed, but very slowly, because the main consumers of forestry science are timber companies whose primary goal is to increase the timber cut. And the old-line foresters always weigh into arguments against environmentalism by citing their scientific credentials and accusing their adversaries of being ignorant. (This is not a hypothetical. I lived in Oregon for a long time, where these issues are of major importance, and various people from the Oregon State Forestry Department joined in the argument, almost always on the timber industry’s side.)

And my claim is that economics is too much like forestry, and has drawn tacit normative judgments up into the theory. And these judgments are those of the big consumers of economic science — roughly speaking, finance, and to a decreasing degree, government. Environmentalist economics, labor economics, and feminist economics have no necessary theoretical disagreements with finance economics, except for including aspects of reality that finance economics ignores.

They do have normative differences, because they’re applications for a different purpose. But they are not “more normative” than fincance economics is.


John Emerson 11.15.07 at 1:57 pm

To put it briefly, engineering’s foundations are science, as you said, but engineering is what is built on these foundations with extra-scientific goals in mind. (In fact, within science itself the apparatus is an engineering application of science, but the scientific results are science. When crystallography was used in decoding DNA, the crystallography was engineering and the biology was science.)


John Emerson 11.15.07 at 2:19 pm

In its highest metaphysical form, economics claims that free markets and rational choice are the best way of achieving any goal whatsoever (social or individual, but most think of social goals as just the agglomerations of individual goals), and that once free markets are dominant everywhere (for example, once the family is understood and organized as a kind of market) then we will have achieved the best of all possible worlds.

Another high economic belief is that economic growth will automatically bring all other good things (freedom, democracy, human rights, happiness, the end of poverty, etc.), and that per capita income is a good proxy for all other good things, so that everything else should be subordinated to economic growth. Anyone who disagrees is asked whether they’re in favor of starvation.


Tracy W 11.16.07 at 9:13 am

John, I have no idea what you are going on about. How does the normative aspects of forestry engineering make Henry’s statement about the primacy of politics any more right as a descriptive statement about the world? Or is that not what you are arguing about at all?

And how would separating economics in a way like engineering is separated from physics cause Henry to be clear on whether he is making a normative or a descriptive statement?


John Emerson 11.16.07 at 12:50 pm

It wasn’t a comment on Henry’s paper. I was commenting specifically on your “normative judgement” comment, and explained how value-judgements do belong in applied economics, though they don’t belong in theoretical economics. But in economics, unlike most science I know of that can be applied, there is no theoretical-practical pure / engineering separation. it’s all one department.

The practical purposes of different kinds of economists are different, because of different value systems (politics being a value system for this purpose, though value-free political science does exist too). But economists want to hide their values tacitly in their theory, in order to accuse their political adversaries of being anti-scientific. (I am thinking especially but not only of conservative economists). This is dirty pool.

I shouldn’t even be commenting here, but people who are actually in the econ biz and know what they’re talking about seem to be too timid to say anything. I’m always torn between trolling these thread, and letting the poor things sit all alone by themselves wih no comments.


Tracy W 11.16.07 at 1:31 pm

John, normative statements do belong in theoretical sciences. The belief that one should carefully distinguish between descriptive statements and normative statements is a normative statement itself. Value-free political science does not exist, if nothing else a political scientist is trying to get at the truth, which means that that political scientist places a value on the truth. And note, Spock on Star Trek had values too.

Why do you particularly blame conservative economists for trying hide their values tacitly in their theory, when Henry has done that immediately in his post above? (Possibly unconsciously.) Personally I have yet to find a single political type that only goes for the truth, I don’t think liberals are any better in this respect than conservatives. We may be more aware of it in others, but research into self-deception finds it pretty evenly spread amongst humans. Are you sure that conservative economists are more inclined to tacitly hide values in their theory than liberal economists, or is it possible that you are deceiving yourself? That the value judgments jump out at you when you disagree with them, but don’t when you agree with them.

The practical purposes of different kinds of economists are different

Really? I had always hoped that feminist economists, labour economists, environmentalist economists, neo-classical economists, Austrian economists, electrical engineers, biochemists, doctors, etc, always aimed, first and foremost, at the truth. Of course, us humans are weak, self-deception is wide-spread, perhaps unavoidable, we all have other purposes, but surely in any area claiming to be a science, applied or theoretical, we should share the practical purpose of getting as close to the truth as possible?

As a feminist, I would really be depressed if feminist economics was not aimed at the truth. Please tell me it ain’t so.


John Emerson 11.16.07 at 3:00 pm

Really? I had always hoped that feminist economists, labour economists, environmentalist economists, neo-classical economists, Austrian economists, electrical engineers, biochemists, doctors, etc, always aimed, first and foremost, at the truth.

You have missed my point again, in a very predictable positivist (sensu latu) way.

As I’ve been trying to explain, here and at my link, theory is (or should be) one, but applications are plural and different.

The feminist application of economics values women more than non-feminist applications do. Non-feminist economists are willing for the “real” economy to be subsidized by unpaid labor of inferior people (mostly women), and will take that unpaid labor for granted unless it runs short. There’s no explicit declaration that women are inferior. They just leave stuff out.

There’s no falsehood in non-feminist economics. Being fair to women, or understanding how the family works, are not one of their purposes. Feminist economics isn’t any truer (or less true either). It just ahs different purposes.


John Emerson 11.16.07 at 3:09 pm

To go on, feminist economists, motivated by their intention of being fair to women, may have to expand economic theory. But their intention ian application (improving women’s lives, which earlier economists didn’t concern themselves with much.)

The case with equality is similar. Some economists have a concern for equality, some don’t. Malthusian and Social Darwinist law-of-the-jungle ethics have played a role in the history of economics, and heir shadow is always there. (Amartya Sen has recently tried to bring ethical concerns up into economics.)

Pragmatists always have to fight this fight. The difference between feminist and non-feminist economics isn’t a true-false difference. It’s a difference in goals. Like the difference between timber-industry forestry and evironmentalist forestry.


Tracy W 11.16.07 at 4:36 pm

Okay, John, now I’m depressed. I had gotten the impression from Marilyn Waring’s If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics that she was into improving the accuracy of economics. But that book is back at the library in another country, so I can’t check it. So I can’t argue with you that feminist economics is aimed at improving our grasp on truth.

I merely hope that, despite your assertions, it
still is. That was a normative statement, or hope.


John Emerson 11.16.07 at 5:02 pm

We’re arguing about Truth now. Positivists a.) think all meaningful disputes are about Truth, and can be resolved by finding the Truth and b.) Truth is a matter of fact and logic. They also almost invariably think that anyone who doesn’t think the way they do is an advocate of lies and deception. This smear seems to which seems to be the cause of your depression.

What I’m saying is that truth isn’t adequate to resolve all disputes, because intentions, plans, and “values” aren’t true. Truth constrains goals but doesn’t decide between them.

It may be that Marilyn Waring thinks or claims that improvements in the accuracy of economics with regard to the description of the role of women will in itself have feminist results, but I don’t think that that would be adequate. Becker’s work on the family seems clearly anti-feminist, and not simply because it’s descriptively flawed.

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