Philosophy of Economics
On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry
© 1989, 1991, 2007 Subroto Roy
First published by Routledge of London & New York , 1989, in the International Library of Philosophy
Library of Congress HB72.R69 1989
British Library 330’.01-dc19
Economics – philosophical perspectives
Reprinted in paperback, 1991
Library of Congress HB72.R69.1991
British Library 330’.01-dc20
Apropos *Philosophy of Economics*
“Dr. Roy’s book, Philosophy of Economics, which I have read in galleys, I regard as a masterpiece, not only in economic analysis but in philosophic analysis as well.” Sidney Hook 1989
“I shall have to ponder your rejection of the Humean position which has, I suppose, been central in not only my thought but that of most economists. Candidly, I have never understood what late Wittgenstein was saying, but I have not worked very hard at his work, and perhaps your book will give guidance.” Kenneth J. Arrow, letter to the author, 1989
“I was grateful for the reminder of the passage of Aristotle at which I had not looked for many years and found the criticism of Arrow well justified and important.” FA Hayek, letter to the author, 1981
“It is an extraordinarily well-written and well-thought through book that shows a wide-ranging capacity and understanding of economics as a discipline in both its macro and micro aspects.” Milton Friedman 1991, Evidence in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that he has a thorough and deep understanding of the major issues that have occupied macroeconomics over the past fifty years…. It is a sign of real understanding that Roy can state these ideas not in terms of jargon, not in terms of equations or technical terms, but in straightforward English using only a minimum of specifically economic terminology. All in all, it is a very knowledgeable and sophisticated performance.” Milton Friedman, 1989
“I had the privilege of reading early drafts of this book. I saw it emerge as an in-depth analysis of the philosophical foundations of economics. It is scholarship of a high order. It is an original contribution of major importance to economic thought.” Theodore W. Schultz 1989
“The core of Roy’s study is devoted to the nature and grounds of economics as knowledge; it examines the basic intellectual roots of economics. It is cogent and, what is exceedingly rare these days, it is refreshingly lucid…. Roy’s book is in several important respects an original contribution, the most important being his treatment of the philosophical foundations of economics as knowledge. He is all too modest in assessing the importance of his contribution.” Theodore W. Schultz, 1983
“This is a very ambitious work directed at the foundations of normative judgements in economics. The author arrives at some conclusions very closely matching those I arrived at some years ago. It is clear, however, that Dr. Roy arrived at his conclusions completely independently…. Dr. Roy reveals a clear understanding of the methodological positivism that invaded economic policy analysis in the thirties and still dominates the literature of economics…. Following Renford Bambrough, he arrives at a position equivalent to that of the American pragmatists, especially Dewey, who insist that the problematic situation provides the starting point for the analysis of a problem even though there are no ultimate starting points. The methodological implication is the support of inquiry as fundamental, avoiding both scepticism and dogmatism.” Sidney S. Alexander, 1985
“A work altogether well written and admirably clear.” Renford Bambrough, 1985
“I like very much the courage in trying to produce a genuine philosophy of economics. Such a book is badly needed and could be very useful to economists. The fine use made of extensive readings in older as well as contemporary theorists and the splendid choice of quotations would themselves be worth the price of admission. The style maintains a fine level of clarity and emphasis.” Max Black 1985
“The discussion of Arrow’s theorem under unintended interpretations focuses our understanding on what is really fundamental to this famous result…. Roy has obviously thought much harder about the foundational and methodological problems in economics than most of his fellow-economists.” Anonymous
“Roy’s platonist view of what is the purpose of government is very odd at this stage of history. He seems to suppose that there is an objectively best state of affairs which we must simply discover. The more urgent issue in politics is generally not that of knowing what is the best thing to do but of dealing with conflicting interests. Conflict of interests is not merely disagreement over facts.” Anonymous
“The author has performed a very valuable service for economists interested in the philosophical problems and positions discussed. He has not misrepresented the positions he discusses and his account of various issues and different positions on those issues is philosophically adequate. Many economists will be stimulated as a result of reading this work to reconsider their own positions on the issues Roy addresses.” Anonymous
“The work has many strengths. It is wide in its references and its outlook. Its endorsement of objectivism is both right and timely. The chapter on mathematics in economics is particularly fine.” Anonymous
“The author intends to discuss some of the central philosophical questions facing modern economic theory. In the foreground is a disposition of the conventional problem of value-independence. Roy sees the value-independence postulate as “Hume’s Scepticism”. He defines Hume’s First and Second Laws on the basis of two signified propositions taken from R. M. Hare. (1) From positive empirical premises, no normative postulate can be derived; in order to establish obligatory propositions, at least one normative proposition is needed. (2) In a specified economic context, after all empirical and formal/logical matters are resolved, little scope exists for further intersubjectively valid answers. Valuations beyond this limit are based on the subjective feelings of the economist to the concerned problem. The scientific/theoretical attitude representative of most economists of the 20th century has been based on this characteristic Humean scepticism. To show this, the author reviews short representative quotations from some of the known names of recent economic theory: Friedman, Myrdal, Lionel Robbins, P. A. Samuelson, Hicks, Joan Robinson, Hayek, Oskar Lange, Schumpeter, Arrow, Blaug, Frank Hahn. Subsequently, the author raises the point as to what explains this scientific-theoretical approval. A cursory survey of important real and virtual historical developments since antiquity confirms that the essential reason for the reported wide acceptance of a humean position by the economic scientist indeed could have been as a defensive posture against dogmatism and political dictatorship (“It is part of the democratic reaction against medieval authoritarianism” p.45). Conditioned by their “disgust with the tyrannies and ideologies of the twentieth century”, these authorities tried to protect economic science and guarantee the objectivity of research by resort to moral scepticism. Hence the author arrives at the starting position of his actual subject: After using Hume to escape from dependence on Plato e tutti quanti, has not value-free economics gotten into a fresh dependence, namely, moral scepticism and its philosophical consequence, moral indifference? Here too a contradiction is shown to arise, namely, that each argumentation against the normative can stand its ground only through normative premises. Thus ultimately something like correct standards become necessary. This however is only a marginal problem compared to a very much more important point: whether the moral scepticism permeating the strict scientific-theoretical position, is not just part of a very much more comprehensive scepticism, which includes Hume’s own criticism of induction as well. But then the same scepticism makes positive theory dubious as well: “Either all of positive economics is attacked with just as much scepticism as anything in normative economics, or we accept one and reject the other when instead there are reasons to think they share the same ultimate grounds and must be accepted or rejected together”(p.47). The author illustrates the difficulties with radical scepticism in a continental traversal of economic theory: micro and macroeconomics, mathematical economic theory and welfare theory are stations on this tour. A solution of the problem in the strict sense is not given nor could have been expected. But Roy delivers a methodical rule which permits a more exact definition of the limits to which normative discussion can take place precisely and objectively: first, to distinguish always whether an objective answer is at all possible to certain questions, and secondly, to ask who is competent or in the best position to give an answer. For readers interested in a new, thoroughly subtle discussion of a basic yet customary problem, this book will be profitable reading. However, the author could have argued some matters slightly more elaborately and others less redundantly, and set forth the central idea more clearly through appropriate summaries.” Karl Georg Zinn, translated from the German by NB, in Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik (Germany).
“Effectively demonstrates the direct and significant links between the basic philosophical beliefs held by economists and their fundamental disagreements” Kyklos (Switzerland).
“Every rule of good argument is flouted. Does little to grapple with the large issues to which he rightly urges us to attend.” Times Literary Supplement (UK).
“Not the book to set off the revolution in economic epistemology and it is not even a reliable introduction to the field for undergraduates.” Journal of Applied Philosophy (UK).
“Subroto Roy’s Philosophy of Economics is a formidable contribution…. The author’s aim is to steer a middle course between scepticism and dogmatism in his account of the knowledge we can have of economic phenomena, and in this he largely succeeds. The result is a most distinguished and valuable exploration of the nature of economic inquiry.” John Gray, Economic Affairs (UK).
“Interesting and well-written. Definitely worthwhile being read by any economist interested in the philosophical foundations of his subject and profession.”
Journal of Institutional & Theoretical Economics (Germany).
“Roy’s basic argument is that the theory of economic knowledge underlying the work of most economists is logically inconsistent… The inconsistency lies in not permitting the skepticism that undermines the analysis of normative problems to destroy the logical foundation underlying positive analysis….. This well-documented study is a worthwhile contribution to the burgeoning literature on the philosophy of economics.” Choice
“The central argument of the book shows that the skepticism/dogmatism choice is a false dichotomy, that one need not embrace dogmatism in order to have objectivity or give up objectivity for freedom…. In the final section of the book Roy applies his critique… to several debates in economics. Chapter 8 presents the development of macroeconomics from John Maynard Keynes to the present through a dialogue between economists of opposing schools… Chapter 9 is a rich, wide-ranging discussion of mathematical models in economics…. Chapter 10 discusses the foundations of welfare economics… Roy shows how philosophical mistakes can lead economic thought astray, even though some of his arguments are also unsound. As a philosopher I find it encouraging to see an economist apply recent developments in epistemology to economic debates.” Journal of Economic History
“Accomplished, interesting and ambitious.” Manchester School (UK).
“Perfectly sensible.” De Economist (Netherlands).
“Engaging and illuminating study. His seamless style may lull the reader into underestimating the extent and difficulty of the philosophical ground covered.” Research in History & Methodology of Economics (USA).
“(Roy’s) message is for his fellow economists, urging them not to shy away from the treatment of normative issues in their discipline.” – Economics and Philosophy
“When Roy refers to the present received theory of economics, he means that this is the view not only of Chicago, but also of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England, of Friedman, Samuelson, Myrdal, Hayek, and Joan Robinson. His coverage is broad…. In one place he states that it is precisely because it is possible for even a unanimous group of experts to be wrong that we have a reason, an objective reason, why freedom is to be valued. ‘Freedom is necessary for objectivity.’…. Whether one agrees or disagrees, one has to be impressed by the knowledge and sophistication involved in Roy’s presentation. Involved here is no run-of-the-mill carping at the economics establishment. This is a serious thoughtful work.” Social Science Quarterly
Preface to 2007 WordPress.com Republication
This book germinated when I was 18 or 19 years of age in Paris, Helsinki and London, and it was first published when I was 34 in Honolulu. I came to economics from natural science (biology, chemistry, physics), not mathematics. It was inevitable I would be drawn to the beauty of philosophy as a theoretical discipline while being driven, as a post-Independence Indian, to economics as the practical discipline that might unlock secrets to India’s prosperity and progress. I belonged to an ancient family of political men, and my father, who had joined India’s new foreign service the year before I was born, inculcated in me as a boy an idea that I had “a mission” (though he later forgot he had done so).
I was fortunate to fail to enter Oxford’s PPE and instead go to the London School of Economics. LSE was at an intellectual peak in the early 1970s. DHN Johnson in international law, ACL Day in international monetary economics, Brian Griffiths vs Marcus Miller in monetary economics with everyone still in awe of Harry Johnson’s graduate lectures in macroeconomics, Ken Wallis, Graham Mizon, JJ Thomas, David Hendry in econometrics with the odd lecture by Durbin himself – I was exposed to a fully grown up intellectual seriousness from the day I arrived as an 18 year old. Michio Morishima as my professorial tutor told me frankly that, as an Indian, I would face less prejudice in Western academia than in the private sector, and said he was speaking from experience as a fellow-Asian. He turned out to be wrong but it was wise advice nevertheless, just as wise as his requiring pupils to read Hicks’ Value and Capital (which, in our undergraduate mythology, he himself had read inside a Japanese gunboat during war).
What was relatively weak at LSE was general economic theory. We were good at deriving the Best Linear Unbiased Estimator but left unsatisfied with our grasp of the theory of value that constituted the roots of our discipline. I managed a First and was admitted to Cambridge as a Research Student in 1976, where fortune had Frank Hahn choose me as a student. That at the outset was protection from the communist cabal that ran “development economics” with whom almost all the Indians ended up. I was wholly impecunious in my first year as a Research Student, and had to, for example, proof-read Arrow and Hahn’s General Competitive Analysis for its second edition to receive 50 pounds sterling from Hahn which kept me going for a short time. My exposure to Hahn’s subtle, refined and depthless thought as an economist of the first rank led to fascination and wonderment, and I read and re-read his “On the notion of equilibrium in economics”, “On the foundations of monetary theory”, “Keynesian economics and general equilibrium theory” and other clear-headed attempts to integrate the theory of value with the theory of money — a project Wicksell and Marshall had (perhaps wisely) not attempted and Keynes, Hicks and Patinkin had failed at.
Hahn insisted a central question was to ask how money, which is intrinsically worthless, can have any value, why anyone should want to hold it. The practical relevance of this question is manifest. India today in 2007 has an inconvertible currency, vast and growing public debt financed by money-creation, and more than two dozen fiscally irresponsible State governments without money-creating powers. While pondering, over the last decade, whether India’s governance could be made more responsible if States were given money-creating powers, I have constantly had Hahn’s seemingly abstruse question from decades ago in mind, as to why anyone will want to hold State currencies in India, as to whether the equilibrium price of those monies would be positive. (Lerner in fact gave an answer in 1945 when he suggested that any money would have value if its issuer agreed to collect liabilities in it — as a State collects taxes – and that may be the simplest road that bridges the real/monetary divide.)
Though we were never personal friends and I did not ingratiate myself with Hahn as did many others, my respect for him only grew when I saw how he had protected my inchoate classical liberal arguments for India from the most vicious attacks that they were open to from the communists. My doctoral thesis, initially titled “A monetary theory for India”, had to be altered due to paucity of monetary data at the time, as well as the fact India’s problems of political economy and allocation of real resources were more pressing, and so the thesis became “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”. When no internal examiner could be found, the University of Cambridge, at Hahn’s insistence, showed its greatness by appointing two externals: C.J. Bliss at Oxford and T. W. Hutchison at Birmingham, former students of Hahn and Joan Robinson respectively. My thesis received the most rigorous and fairest imaginable evaluation from them.
I had been attracted to Cambridge partly by its old reputation for philosophy, especially that of Wittgenstein. But I met no worthwhile philosophers there until a few months before I was to leave for the United States in 1980, when I chanced upon the work of Renford Bambrough. Hahn had challenged me with the question, “how are you so sure your value judgements promoting liberty blah-blah are better than those of Chenery and the development economists?” It was a question that led inevitably to ethics and its epistemology — when I chanced upon Bambrough’s work, and that of his philosophical master, John Wisdom, the immense expanse of metaphysics (or ontology) opened up as well. “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes, He star’d at the Pacific…”
It has taken me more than a quarter century to traverse some of that expanse; when I returned to Britain in 2004 as the Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham, I was very kindly allowed to deliver a public lecture, “Science, Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom”, wherein I repaid a few of my debts to the forgotten work of Bambrough and Wisdom — whom I extravagantly compared with the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, also saying that the trio of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough were reminiscent of what Socrates, Plato and Aristotle might have been like.
I had written to Bambrough from within Cambridge expressing my delight at finding his works and saying these were immensely important to economics; he had invited me to his weekly discussion groups at St John’s College but I could not attend. Between 1979 and 1989 we corresponded while I worked in America on my application of his and Wisdom’s work to problems in economics. We met only once when I returned to Cambridge from Blacksburg for my doctoral viva voce examination in January 1982. Six years later in 1988 he said of my Philosophy of Economics, “The work is altogether well-written and admirably clear”, and on another occasion he said he was “extremely pleased” at the interest I had taken in his work. The original preface of Philosophy of Economics said he was not responsible for the use I had made of his writings, which I reiterated in the 2004 lecture. At our meeting, he offered to introduce me to Wisdom who had returned to Cambridge from Oregon but I was too scared and declined, something I have always regretted since. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to grasp the immensity of Wisdom’s achievement in comprehending, explaining and extending the work of both Wittgenstein and Freud. His famous “Virginia Lectures” of 1957 were finally published by his admirers with his consent as Proof and Explanation just before his death in 1993. As for Bambrough, I believe he may have been or become the single greatest philosopher since Aristotle; he told me in correspondence there was an unfinished manuscript Principia Metaphysica (the prospectus of which appeared in Philosophy 1964), which unfortunately his family and successors knew nothing about; the fact he died almost in obscurity and was soon forgotten by his University speaks more about the contemporary state of academic philosophy than about him. (Similarly, the fact Hahn, Morishima and like others did not receive the so-called Economics “Nobel” says more about the award than it does about them.)
All I needed in 1980 was time and freedom to develop the contents of this book, and that I found in America — which I could not have done in either Britain or India. It would take eight or nine very strenuous years before the book could be written and published, mostly spent at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (1980-1985) and the University of Hawaii (1986-1990) Economics Departments, with short interludes at Cornell (Fall 1983) and Brigham Young (1985-86). I went to Virginia because James M. Buchanan was there, and he, along with FA Hayek, were whom Hahn decided to write on my behalf. Hayek said he was too old to accept me but wrote me kind and generous letters praising and hence encouraging my inchoate liberal thoughts and arguments. Buchanan was welcoming and I learnt much from him and his colleagues about the realities of public finance and democratic politics, which I quickly applied in my work on India, published in 1984 in London as Pricing, Planning & Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India and republished elsewhere here. The visit to the Cornell Economics Department was really so I could talk to Max Black the philosopher, who represented a different line of Wittgenstein’s students, and Max and I became friends until his death in 1988.
Buchanan’s departure from Blacksburg led to a gang of inert “game theorists” to arrive, and I was immediately under attack – one senior man telling me I was free to criticise the “social choice” work of Amartya Sen (since he was Indian too) but I was definitely unfree to do the same of Sen’s mentor, Kenneth Arrow, who was Jewish! (Arrow was infinitely more gracious when he himself responded to my criticism.) On top of that arose a matter of a woman, fresh off the aeroplane from India, being assaulted by a senior professor, and when I stood for her against her assailant, my time in Blacksburg was definitely up.
The manuscript of this book was at the time under contract with University of Chicago Press, and, thanks to Mrs Harry Johnson there, I had come in contact with that great American, Theodore W. Schultz. Schultz, at age 81, told me better to my face what the book was about than I had realised myself, namely, it was about economics as knowledge — its subject-matter was the epistemology of economics. Schultz wrote letters all over America on my behalf (as did Milton Friedman at Stanford and Sidney Alexander of MIT, whom I had also met and become friends with), and I was able to first spend a happy year among the Mormons at Brigham Young, and then end up at the University of Hawaii where I was given responsibility for the main graduate course in macroeconomics. I taught Harry Johnson-level IS-LM theory and Friedman-Tobin macroeconomics and then the new “rational expectations” vs Keynesian material.
I was also offered a large University grant to work on “South Asia”, which led to the books Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, and Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, both created by myself and WE James, and which led to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform and the India-Pakistan peace process as told elsewhere. Also, this book came to be accepted for publication by Routledge, as the first economics book in its famed International Library of Philosophy.
Just as I was set to be evaluated for promotion and tenure at the University of Hawaii, I became the victim of a most vicious racist defamation (and there was some connection with Blacksburg). Quite fed up with the sordidness of American academia as I had experienced it, I sued in the federal court, which consumed much of the next half dozen years as the case worked its way through the United States Supreme Court twice. Milton Friedman and Theodore Schultz stood as expert witnesses on my behalf but you would not have known it from the judge’s ruling. There had been not only demonstrable perjury and suborning of perjury by the State of Hawaii’s officers, there was also “after-discovered” evidence of bribery of court-officers in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii, and I had to return to India in 1996 quite exhausted to recuperate from the experience. “Solicitation of counsel, clerks or judges” is “embracery curialis”, recognized as extrinsic fraud and subversion of justice since Jepps 72 E R 924 (1611), “firmly established in English practice long before the foundation” of the USA, Hazel Atlas, 322 US 238 (1943). “Embracery is an offense striking at the very foundation of civil society” says Corpus Juris 20, 496. A court of equity has inherent power to investigate if a judgement has been obtained by fraud, and that is a power to unearth it effectively, since no fraud is more odious than one to subvert justice. Cases include when “by reason of something done by the successful party… there was in fact no adversary trial or decision of the issue in the case. Where the unsuccessful party has been prevented from exhibiting fully his case, by fraud or deception practised on him by his opponent, as…where an attorney fraudulently or without authority assumes to represent a party and connives at his defeat; or where the attorney regularly employed corruptly sells out his client’s interest to the other side ~ these, and similar cases which show that there has never been a real contest in the trial or hearing of the case, are reasons for which a new suit may be sustained to set aside and annul the former judgment or decree, and open the case for a new and a fair hearing….” (Hazel Atlas). There is no time-limit in United States federal law for rectification of fraud on the court of this sort, and I remain fully hopeful today of the working of American justice in the case.
The practical result was that this book was never able to be properly publicized among economists as it would have been had I become Professor of Economics at the University of Hawaii by 1992 as expected. The hardback sold out quickly on its own steam and went into paperback by 1991, and a friend told me it was being used for a course at Yale Law School. The reviews were mostly intelligent. Upon returning to Britain as the Wincott Visiting Professor in 2004, I found times had changed and so had Routledge who would not keep it in print let alone permit a second revised edition. But I am now free to republish the book as I please, and today in 2007, with the Internet growing to a maturity which allows the young geeks at WordPress.com to want to encourage blogging worldwide, I can think of no more apt place to reproduce the first edition of this book than here at my own blog http://www.independentindian.com.
This is not a second or revised edition, and it is unchanged in content except for this lengthy new preface made necessary by the adventures and dramas the book’s author found himself unwittingly part of since its first publication. I am 52 now and happy to say I endorse the book just as I had published it at 34, though I do find it a little impatient and too terse in a few places. The 1991 paperback corrected a few slight errors in the 1989 hardback, and has been used. I am planning an entirely new book which shall have its roots in this one though it will be mostly in philosophy and not economics — the outlines it may take may be seen in the 2004 public lecture I gave on the work of Bambrough and Wisdom mentioned above and published elsewhere; its main aim will be to uncover for new generations the immense worth there is in their work which is in danger of being lost.
At least two names failed to appear in the original list of acknowledgements. G. Bruce Chapman, now of the University of Toronto, and I talked much of serious ethics and political philosophy when I first arrived at Cambridge in 1976. And in 1980 in Blacksburg, Anil Lal, then a graduate student and house-painter, borrowed my copy of Bambrough’s work, read it, and later made a comment on the metaphysics of John Wisdom which allowed me to see things more clearly.
April 7 2007
2. Hume and the Economists
3. Understanding the Consensus
4. Difficulties with Moral Scepticism
5. Objectivity and Freedom
6. Expertise and Democracy
7. An Example from Microeconomics
8. A Dialogue in Macroeconomics
9. Mathematical Economics and Reality
10. Remarks on the Foundations of Welfare Economics
Notes and References
The publication of this work marks the end of an adventure of more than a decade and a half, most of the writing being done between 17 December 1980 and 22 May 1987. It has been quite perilous at times, especially as a foreigner in the West, and over the years many teachers, colleagues, friends and members of family have contributed to the author’s learning with their thoughts and actions. A number of senior scholars in economics and philosophy — especially Professor Frank Hahn, Professor James Buchanan, Professor Sidney Alexander, Professor Milton Friedman, Professor Max Black, Professor Sidney Alexander, Professor Amartya Sen, Professor Peter Bauer, Professor T. W. Hutchison and Dr C. J. Bliss, have lent their support to the work as it developed, even when they may have not known of its final form, or disagreed with its content, or been themselves a subject of its criticism. Most especially, the work has been honoured in the last six years with the unwavering encouragement of Professor T. W. Schultz of the University of Chicago. And Professor Ted Honderich of University College London has shown it the kindest consideration, without which publication would have been much delayed. Finally, a large philosophical debt will be seen to be owed to the work of Mr. Renford Bambrough of St. John’s College, Cambridge; however he should not be considered responsible for the use that has been made here of his writings.
15 AUGUST 1988.
1. IN this book, some of the central philosophical questions facing the modern economist will be raised. Most attention will be given to the question of the appropriate relationship between the positive and the normative, as well as to its parent question of the appropriate scope of objective reasoning in the making of evaluative judgements. Closely related is the question of the appropriate role of the economic expert in society, while slightly more distant questions have to do with the significance of interpersonal comparisons of utility, with the philosophical status of the concepts and theorems of mathematical economics, and with how judgements of probability should be understood. It is this family of questions which will be the concern of the present work.
Economics is a science with potentially important practical bearing upon the lives of men and nations. The state of the modern world may have been affected more profoundly and subtly by the use or misuse of economic knowledge than by many another science. Yet anyone familiar with the intellectual history of the field will know it to have seen more conflicts, and often conflicts of a more destructive kind, than may be reasonably expected or tolerated in the development of a scholarly discipline. The reader will be familiar with the many explicit and implicit divisions of opinion that have occurred upon theories and methods and evidence and policies, which have sometimes torn apart individual university departments and even threatened the integrity of the science itself. Indeed the modern economist in a despondent mood might be inclined to say of the state of his discipline as David Hume once said of philosophy: “There is nothing which is not the subject of debate, and in which men of learning are not of contrary opinions. The most trivial question escapes not our controversy, and in the most momentous we are not able to give any certain decision. Disputes are multiplied, as if everything was uncertain, and they are settled with the utmost warmth, as if everything was certain.”
At the same time as there have been deep and persistent divisions on substantive questions of economic theory and method and evidence and policy, there has been a deliberate or inadvertent consensus about the answer to an important question in the theory of knowledge. Modern economists happen to have been practically unanimous in their opinion on the possible scope of objective reasoning in the making of judgements, and thus in their opinion on the appropriate relationship between the positive and the normative. A broad consensus has developed to the effect that while common reasoning can have some scope in evaluative discussion, it is quite possible in practice and in principle for this scope to become exhausted. At such a point of the exhaustion of reason, only sheer and unadulterated subjective differences will be found to remain between people. Put another way, it has been believed possible for judgements ultimately to become immune to rational question and criticism.
Many of the pioneers of twentieth century economic thought, Kenneth J. Arrow, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Sir John Hicks, Oskar Lange, Gunnar Myrdal, Lionel Robbins, Joan Robinson, Paul Samuelson, Joseph Schumpeter, Jan Tinbergen, to name but a few, who between themselves would represent all of the main schools of contemporary economics, may be found to have shared such a thesis in the theory of knowledge, differing amongst themselves only upon the relatively minor question of the precise amount of room reasoning should be considered to have: some saying a great amount, others saying almost none, but all agreeing that whatever the exact amount it is a finite amount, both actually and potentially. The theory of demand, the theory of macroeconomic policy, the theory of welfare economics, the theory of social choice — each has in whole or in part rested upon an epistemological premise of this kind. If such a consensus can be shown to have existed, the reader may agree it to be something of a remarkable fact, since it would be difficult indeed to find a single substantive proposition of theory or method or evidence or policy to which a similar measure of consensus among modern economists might obtain.
One of the objects of the present work will be to argue that the fact there have been tremendous disharmonies on substantive economic questions, may not be independent of the fact there has been this kind of harmony in the theory of knowledge among many of the pioneers of twentieth century economics as well as the many more who have followed them. If the epistemological point hitherto accepted as true happens in fact to be false, it becomes possible that the scope of objective reasoning on substantive questions has been artificially prevented from being extended as far as it could have and should have been. Evaluative judgements are clearly of indefinite variety: attitudes towards goods or people, expectations of the future, recommendations to buy or sell, advice to a friend or a student or a government, etc. — roughly, all judgements taken by an individual or social agent about a right or optimal course of action in given circumstances. We shall find the consensus has been that it is possible for reasoning to come to a necessary halt in the process of coming to such judgements, whether the maker of the judgement is a public body or a private individual acting in the capacity of consumer or voter. A large amount (and possibly the whole amount) of what may deserve to be within the domain of common and objective reasoning comes to be placed instead under the rule of subjective will and caprice. Not only must we live with the fact that discussions between citizens or economists or politicians or spouses or states do frequently come to end without resolution, because there happens to be a lack of patience or tolerance or perseverance or good humour or whatever, but also that such outcomes may be written into the script from the start. In any normative discussion, we are to be permitted to call a unilateral halt merely by declaring “Well that is a value judgement of mine” or “That is a personal opinion of mine”, with the implication that any further questioning is out of bounds and unacceptable. Given a theory which allows us in this way to declare as we please what to call objective science and what to call subjective opinion, and given that it may be but human nature to be sceptical of the other fellow’s dogma while being oblivious to one’s own, we may have some explanation of how the consensus among economists in the theory of knowledge may have caused and preserved a state of affairs in which rival substantive dogmas can thrive — because the processes of common reasoning and even communication itself may have been allowed too often to come to a virtual standstill. (Or move at a snail’s pace.) “Disputes are multiplied, as if everything was uncertain, and they are settled with the utmost warmth, as if everything was certain.”
The gist of the present work will be that the present consensus in the theory of economic knowledge is logically inconsistent. It is therefore untenable and deserves to be abandoned. Men can aspire to, and in fact do attain and possess, certain and objective knowledge in an indefinite number of contexts. At the same time, there is no proposition of any kind held by anyone which must be thought of as necessarily closed to further question on grounds of reason or evidence. This simple maxim is something that may be found to hold in any field of human inquiry or endeavour one cares to mention — mathematics or medicine, ethics or physics, history or probability, logic or theology — and it will be our purpose in this work to examine its consequences in the context of economics in particular.
§2. Our study is one in what may be called theory of economic knowledge, and it may be worth a moment to consider what may be meant by this.
Bertrand Russell said of pure mathematics that it was a subject “in which we do not know what we are talking about” — meaning that the pure mathematician does not normally intend to refer in his theorems to substantive factual truths about the world. The epistemology or theory of knowledge of a discipline may be thought of similarly as being not concerned with either affirming or denying, corroborating or refuting the substantive propositions that happen to be made within the discipline. The study of the theory of economic knowledge may be thought of as not making any commitment one way or another to the substantive propositions which are to be found within the department of economics itself. Instead it is a more abstract undertaking, which seeks to examine certain kinds of questions from outside the department in the practical hope of dissolving or at least clarifying the character of substantive questions and controversies that may be occurring within. For example, to ask whether a criterion of truth and falsity can be applied to economic propositions, or whether objective knowledge is possible in the field, or how the kinds of propositions made in economics are to be justified, or how they compare and contrast with propositions made in other departments of inquiry — these would be the kinds of question we might see asked in the theory of economic knowledge; from which too the importance can be seen of generally abstaining from making substantive commitments in the process.
Much of the present work, especially Parts I and II, may be understood to be an attempt to provide a theory of economic knowledge of this kind. Thus the reader will not find in it commitments made to any substantive economic propositions. There is no theorem reported of the existence or efficiency of some new kind of economic equilibrium, no new model or evidence offered of the influence of the supply of money on prices, no new theory of how the expectations of economic agents may be formed or fulfilled or disappointed, no new evidence or explanation of why some country may be experiencing rapid growth or high inflation or increasing unemployment. No new result within economic science; one might almost say, nothing substantive! The present work will offer no more than “a machine to think with” on certain philosophical aspects of economics; it intends to leave economics as it is — and yet in so doing to have shown the way out of some of the philosophical difficulties that are encountered in its study. “For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”
Yet the practical purpose to making an investigation of this kind may be stated quite readily. For suppose, for sake of argument, we granted the truth of our simple maxim and assumed the epistemological concepts ‘knowledge’ and ‘doubt’, and their allied concepts ‘objectivity’ and ‘freedom’, should not be seen as incompatible in the project of inquiry. What consequences would follow from accepting such a viewpoint? Clearly first of all, we would be placed in a happy position of being able to say that no matter how deep or persistent the actual disagreements between economists or between citizens on economic questions happened to be, there is knowledge to be had in the study of economics. Not just high sophistry or rhetoric or political posturing or the opinions and prejudices of different people — but certain and objective knowledge about those actions, events, and phenomena that are part of the economic context. We would be able to say, in other words, there are at least some propositions in economics which are true, and which moreover can be known to be true.
An important ambiguity is possible here in asking whether there is knowledge about a given matter, insofar as such a question can be taken either as asking whether it is possible for there to be any knowledge about the matter, or as asking whether it is known that someone actually possesses such knowledge and how that has been determined. Defining as an expert someone who has the most reasonable and justifiable answer to give to a question, we need to distinguish, in other words, the relatively cool logical question of whether here can be any such thing as expert knowledge from the more heated political question of who is supposed to be such an expert and how we are supposed to know that. For instance, a question like “Is there a proof to Fermat’s last theorem?” can be understood either in the manner of the pure mathematician, as asking whether there can be a proof to the proposition it is impossible xn + yn = zn for positive integers x, y, z, n, and n > 2; or in the manner of the historian of mathematics, as asking whether any human being has come up with such a proof, as Fermat himself claimed to have done but of which no record exists. Among the great thinkers, Plato is the most influential to have crossed these wires in suggesting it possible not only for there to be objective knowledge about mathematics and ethics and statesmanship, but also for a special and closed set of experts to come to be identified to whom such knowledge should be thought of as being exclusively given. Plato’s theory can be and has been interpreted as giving license to elitism and dictatorship, yet the natural protest which the ideas of these would evoke in most of us may lead to an equal and opposite error of denying the very possibility of knowledge because we feared or wished to reject the idea of being ruled by a closed set of self-described experts. Once these wires are uncrossed, we may see it to be quite possible to maintain there can be objective knowledge and expertise in economics, without making any commitments toward specifying who should be considered an expert on some economic issue, or how we are supposed to determine that, or for that matter claiming any such knowledge or expertise for ourselves.
A second consequence of our simple maxim may seem more troubling. For by its second part, we should also have to say that even while there is objective knowledge in economics, there is nevertheless no proposition in the field which must be thought of as being necessarily closed to further question. Not the proposition that every human act is a rational act, nor the proposition that economic agents continually maximize utility, or are well modelled as doing so, nor the proposition that the market economy cannot be expected to reach full employment and needs to be and can be actively supplemented by macroeconomic policy, nor the proposition that the growth of money is necessary and sufficient for inflation, nor the proposition that free trade will maximize world output given factor immobility, nor the proposition that externalities imply a possible scope for taxes and subsidies, nor the proposition that the histories of nations is a history of class struggle. By the second part of the maxim, there is no axiom or theorem of economic theory, no finding of economic history, no estimate of the value of an economic coefficient, no prediction of the course of an economic variable, no proposal of economic policy, which must be thought of as being closed to further question. None whatsoever. “No statement is immune to revision” (Quine).
Taken together, then, the net consequence of supposing objectivity and freedom, knowledge and doubt, to be compatible concepts deserving of equal respect, is that we shall be able to chart a course which steers us clear of two perennial and opposing hazards besetting all projects of human inquiry, viz., Scepticism and Dogmatism — the modern origins of which were traced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to the cartesian proposal that philosophy “must begin with universal doubt, whereas scholasticism had never questioned fundamentals.” In the pages to follow, we will be denying universal doubt and we shall be free to question fundamentals. In an indefinite number of contexts, there is certain and objective knowledge to be had. Scepticism, understood technically as a logical thesis denying that we can possibly have or know that we have certain knowledge, is therefore a false thesis. At the same time, there is no proposition which is necessarily closed to question. Dogmatism, understood technically as a logical thesis implying there can be or must be some propositions which are absolutely and incorrigibly true, is therefore an equally false thesis. In place of a theory of knowledge restricting the scope of common reasoning to the finite or even the potentially finite, it is possible to have a theory of knowledge extending this scope to the potentially infinite. In particular, while normative proposals in economics or elsewhere may be supposed to be objectively better or worse depending on the soundness of the positive grounds given in their support, there are no unquestionable normative proposals — because there are no unquestionable positive grounds. The simple practical result of making the present investigation is that it will permit a sure and safe course to be found between Scepticism and Dogmatism for any project of economic inquiry.
§3. Would such a simple and straightforward thesis be new to economics in any way? To what extent would the argument which has been summarized above and which will be developed in the chapters to follow not been expressed before? The reader may wish an answer to such a question, and the author presently takes this to be as follows. With respect to the general debate which has occurred about knowledge and scepticism especially in moral philosophy, there will be little if anything in the present work which is a direct or novel contribution to it. While the philosophers have not been concerned with political economy at all, we shall be passive participants to their discussions, listening in to see what can be learned for our purposes and not intending to add to them directly. It may be remembered of course that it has not been long since economics formally broke away from philosophy to become a specialized discipline in its own right, in the belief the concerns of economics are of a more concrete and practical kind than those of philosophy. Since then we have made many highly abstract and theoretical claims, while also becoming scornful of philosophical thinking and believing ourselves to be exempt from its influences. Yet serious philosophical thought constitutes a mature and magnificent conversation which it would be foolish for any serious science to be deaf to. Moreover, it has been quite widely believed that there have been significant advances in philosophical understanding in the present century, and we are responsible to take such a claim seriously. It will be one of the aims of the present work to apply what may be learned from these discussions towards resolving, or at least clarifying, some of the main substantive disputations in modern economic science.
These are two broad traditions of moral philosophy relevant to our subject-matter, one deriving from Aristotle, the other from Hume (and a line of sceptics before him). Even though it would be unwise to expect agreement within either tradition, we may for convenience speak of an aristotelian and a humean tradition respectively. With respect to the discussions among economists on the relationship of the positive to the normative, we shall find an eminent consensus to have appeared on the humean side. This work will declare for the other side, and in so doing shall have to dissent from the humean consensus upon which all of the theory of social choice and much of the theory of welfare economics and theory of economic policy have appeared to rest. As far as is known by the author, there seem to have been but two published dissents on similar lines among economists in recent decades: those of Sidney Alexander and Amartya Sen. Of these, Professor Sen’s dissent has been very short and hesitant, and he would seem to have withdrawn it in other writings. Professor Alexander’s dissent has been clear and vigourous, but unlike his work on the balance of payments, his philosophical work has not received attention, and the present work was mostly developed in complete ignorance of its existence.
By the end of this work however, a clear choice should have been set out for the reader on the question of the relationship of the positive to the normative — between the consequences of accepting the humean consensus among economists and the consequences of the position of Professor Alexander and the author and possibly Professor Sen. The simple maxim “Objective knowledge is possible and yet there is no proposition which is closed to question” should not undermine its own content by being closed to question itself — instead it is supposed to refer and apply to itself as well. It may be true and deserving of our belief but it is not self evidently so, and will have to earn its credentials at the common bar of reason. Ultimately it will have to be the reader’s individual judgement whether it has been successfully shown that, contrary to what has been supposed by many of the pioneers of twentieth century economics, no conflict must arise between knowledge and doubt, objectivity and freedom. The history of the discussion may accord to our side the advantage J. S. Mill had seen to be enjoyed by all minority opinions: if the opinion of one or a few is false then not much will be lost by believing in it, while if it proves better able to stand the tests of time then much may be gained by allowing it to replace error. Put differently, it may seem quite risky that the pioneers of modern economic science have placed all their philosophical eggs in the humean basket — just in case it is Hume himself who happens to be mistaken.
§4. In Part I of the work will be found described the received theory of economic knowledge and its possible justification, as well as an account of the logical difficulties that arise with it. Chapter 2 has the task of documenting as fully as possible the existence of a humean consensus among economists in recent decades. Chapter 3 then examines the kinds of reasons that may incline us to be persuaded to such a view, and which may go to explaining how it has seemed to be an attractive theory to so many economists. These reasons appear to have been of two different but related sorts.
First the concept of value as used in ordinary life and ethics may have become confounded with the concept of economic value or scarcity or rareté in Walras’s term. Where economists have referred to a theory of value, they may have meant to refer more accurately to a theory of relative prices as determined by conditions of scarcity. The advance of the original neoclassicals in the late nineteenth century was to establish the importance of subjective estimations of economic agents to the determination of the relative prices of goods — as opposed to say how much labour went into different production processes as the classical economists might have said, or how much intrinsic value God had placed in the goods as the scholastics might have said. While it is clear by now that such an observation is broadly correct, it would be a mistake to go from a premise that market prices are determined in part by subjective estimations to a conclusion that the relative prices thus determined in any sense establish an order of how goods deserve to be valued or not. Goods are indeed valued the way they are because people happen to value them. Yet equally, in most cases, people seem to value goods in the way they do because the goods deserve to be thus valued — for example, because, like food or clothing or shelter, the goods are conducive to some valuable human purpose.
Secondly, it is possible the consensus has been motivated by a desire to find an effective shield against dogmatism and tyranny. For example, the context of an open parliamentary democracy presupposed by the modern theory of economic policy may have derived out of the experience of the great tyrannies of twentieth century history. There may have been a natural and understandable desire that the choices and decisions of citizens in the capacity of voters or consumers should be treated with the fullest due respect, and a humean scepticism may have been adopted because it has been believed to be something which is necessary and sufficient for this kind of respect to be shown. This would be an outstanding reason for adopting a humean point of view, and one which any critic must be required to account for. Yet it also places in relief the fatal self-contradiction that is present within the humean theory. For example, a theory of economic policy which has to rely upon an assumption of the polity being open and democratic would have to be silent about the conduct of economic policy in societies which were demonstrably not open or democratic, making it a theory very special and contingent in its range of application. Moreover, to give the defence of political or economic or religious freedom as a reason for holding a subjectivist epistemology would be to have left freedom entirely defenceless and toothless from those who would attack it from within precisely the same subjectivist framework. For example, if we conflated a general right to express an opinion freely with an idea that what such an opinion expresses is itself a matter of subjective opinion, then clearly, by the same token, an opinion that opinions should be freely expressed might also be considered merely subjective, and therefore no better or worse than its contrary. Within a subjectivist theory of knowledge, there ultimately can be nothing to choose between freedom and tyranny.
Chapter 4 is a survey of these kinds of logical difficulties with the humean position stated in Chapters 2 and 3. Its main result will be that the anti dogmatic campaign of the humean cannot succeed, and in fact comes to make the Sceptic resemble the Dogmatist more than anything else. It is possible this happens because both Sceptic and Dogmatist are sharing the same deductivist model of justification, to the effect that we cannot know a proposition to be true or right unless we have deduced it as the conclusion of a set of premises of whose truth or rightness we are certain. The Sceptic sees the threat of infinite regress that is implicit in such a model, and then denies we can be certain of anything. The Dogmatist sees the potential regress too, but responds to it by calling a halt at some arbitrary point, denying the need or possibility of going any further. In Part II a fresh picture will be given which attempts to preserve the truths the Sceptic and Dogmatist would each like us to take notice of, while correcting for the distortions both would force upon us by their unequivocal adoption of a deductivist model of justification. Chapter 5 reframes the main philosophical problems of Part I in the terms of the ancient dualism between Nominalism and Realism, and brings to light a possible resolution of this which has been advanced by a number of modern philosophers. Chapter 6 develops the argument further and applies it to the question of the appropriate role of expertise in a democracy. Taken together, Part II contains the main outlines of a fresh theory of economic knowledge with which to replace the flawed and inconsistent theory to which so many economists have thus far subscribed.
Part III of the work consists of a series of diverse illustrations and possible applications of the theory of knowledge developed in Part II. Chapters 7-10 all give examples of how inquiry and criticism can be seen to proceed in economics without sacrifice of either objectivity or freedom. Chapter 7 examines an actual debate on a concrete question of microeconomic policy, which may be compared and contrasted with the more academic examples of later chapters. Chapter 8 examines aspects of the division in macroeconomics and monetary theory since J. M. Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Chapter 9 considers a question with wide and general reference to economic theory: how the relationship between mathematical economics and real economic phenomena might be best understood. This has been the subject of long and bitter disputation, and some light is attempted to be shed on it from the vantage point of the philosophy of mathematics. It is possible that certain views in the philosophy of mathematics have been presupposed in modern mathematical economics; once these are exposed and aired, some of the conceptual problems which have been faced in this discussion may come to be dissolved. The theory of probability and expected utility and the theory of general equilibrium will be used as brief illustrations. Finally, in Chapter 10, the possible philosophical sources of the controversy surrounding the question of interpersonal comparisons of utility will be described, and a possible resolution suggested. This will be argued to have bearing on received understanding of the foundations of welfare economics.
§5. It will be found in the present work, then, that we shall be denying universal doubt on the one hand, while yet being free to question fundamentals on the other. Such a project will entail a critical examination of the philosophical premises and assumptions advanced by some of the most distinguished contemporary scholars in our field, and it is to be hoped the spirit in which the present criticism is offered will not be misunderstood. Every generation holds a peculiar advantage over preceding generations in having available to it what has gone before, while not being able to anticipate the criticisms of its own beliefs that will certainly come in the future. This kind of advantage that the present holds over the past may be thought of as being quite arbitrary, and we can expect it to carry with it a responsibility of taking what has gone before into serious account. Since no individual is able to do so on his own, we find every generation as a whole attempting to provide itself with critical discussions, which, when integrated over time, constitute the grand and unending conversation we call the history of human thought. It is with such a model in mind of a continuing and self-critical tradition of scholarship that we shall seek to address the questions raised at the beginning about the foundations of economic knowledge, while not making any pretence whatsoever to finality, and instead leaving the entire treatment as open as it can be made to the examination and criticism of others.