An Adam Smith for our times

Jesse Norman is one of the most thoughtful of the UK’s MPs, a principled Conservative, and has followed up his earlier biography of his hero Edmund Burke with Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why It Matters. It’s an excellent overview of Smith’s life and work. It would make a terrific read for economics students but also has much to interest those who’ve read every book about Adam Smith going. Like many recent books about Adam Smith (such as Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments and Nicholas Phillipson’s biography An Enlightened Life), it reclaims the Theory of Moral Sentiments as having equal importance to The Wealth of Nations.

Part of Jesse Norman’s aim is to dissociate Smith from the ‘free market’, invisible hand caricature of many conservative economists and thinkers. The first part of the book is a pretty standard biography, nicely done. The second part is a history of how neoclassical economics came to hijack Adam Smith, stripping away from his thinking much of its richness and depth, not only in terms of human behaviour (not narrowly self-interested in Smith) but also in terms of institutional context (dynamic, contingent, evolutionary). The book has a nice section on Vernon Smith, whose experimental work in the 1980s was an early critique of the assumptions of neoclassical general equilibrium theory. In effect, it argues, much of modern neoclassical economics as it peaked in the late 20th century was foreign to Smith’s approach. What Smith did do was: “Set out the field of political economy with markets at its centre,” but in a way that makes institutions and historical sensibility equally central.

(There is also a section on Smith’s strong, principled opposition to the slave trade. It can never be said often enough that economics got the label ‘the dismal science’ from Carlyle because economists were prominent campaigners against slavery.)41Rqw3Bgi4L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The book ends with a section on ‘why it matters’ and what a Smithian perspective would be on the economy now. Norman notes the tyranny of the arid mainstream perspective in policy economics right up to the financial crisis (although academic economics had by then already started to move decisively away from free marketism): “What is so striking about that crisis in retrospect is not, even, the egregious self-enrichment of the previous decade, or the specific failures of policy, law and enforcement involved. It is the intellectual grip which the language of free markets held on almost all the parties concerned, regardless of the often very different reality.” Indeed, free marketism still has a strong grip on policy, given that so many policymakers were trained in their economics when it was still at its peak.

What is to be done about this. “We need a new master narrative for our times,” Norman writes (italics his). The book calls for political renewal too. Who could disagree? (Although that makes it disappointing that Jesse Norman declared himself a supporter of Mr Johnson in the current Conservative leadership campaign.) It concludes, of course, that returning to the true Adam Smith can help shape the new narrative with markets still central to economic life but understood in the context of a political economy in which institutions, historical context and human nature play their proper role.

 

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Economics and philosophy

UPDATE 2 – I’ve now done some sorting of the list. OK, the categorisation is inevitably arbitrary but it seemed helpful as the list got so long. More suggestions in the comments. And huge thanks to all who contributed.

 

Econtwitter is wonderful. Yesterday, an undergraduate emailed me to ask for book recommendations about the overlap between economics and philosophy. I recommended:

Agnar Sandmo Economics Evolving 
and
D M Hausman and M S McPherson and D Satz Economic analysis, moral philosophy, and public policy 

Then I asked Twitter, and here is the resulting, much longer, list. I won’t editorialise about them, although some are not good undergraduate intros in my view. One striking thing is how few recent overviews there are, however (as @esamjones also pointed out on Twitter). Huge thanks to all who made suggestions. This is a fantastic collective list.

UPDATE Now even more added – but this goes far beyond the original brief for an introduction for an undergraduate. There’s also a bias in the recommendations toward books critical of economics (or at least its ‘mainstream’) and, again, I think for an economics undergraduate a more neutral intro would be a better starting point. Anyway, I leave this here as a list, not a curriculum.

General

The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner

Jon Elster’s Nuts and bolts for the social sciences

General philosophy

Julian Reiss, Philosophy of Economics

Frank Hahn and Martin Hollis’s Philosophy and Economic Theory

Joan Robinson, Economic Philosophy

Harold Kincaid, Don Ross Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Economics

Cartwright & Montuschi Philosophy of Social Science

Ethics/markets/justice/social choice

Nozick Anarchy State and Utopia

Rawls A Theory of Justice

Contested Commodities – Margaret Reading

The Value of Nothing Raj Patel

Several books by Martha Nussbaum

Ken Binmore’s Playing Fair, Just Playing, or Natural Justice

Tomas Sedlacek’s The Economics of Good and Evil

Hausman & McPherson’s Economic analysis & moral philosophy

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments

Jerry Muller, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought

L’Enfer Des Choses Dupuy & Dumouchel

The Moral Economy Sam Bowles

John Brooms Weighing Goods

Debra Satz Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale

Ben Friedman The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: What He Thought & Why It Matters, chapters 6-10

Will MacAskill Doing Good Better

Anything by Toby Ord

If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich G A Cohen

M White The Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics

Methodology

Deirdre McCloskey The Rhetoric of Economics

Kenneth Boulding Economics as a Science

Francesco Guala’s work, eg Methodology of Experimental Economics, then Understanding Institutions

Explanation and Human Action by A R Louch

Tony Lawson Reorienting Economics

Sheila Dow Foundations for New Economic Thinking

Wade Hands Reflection without Rules

Better ways of doing economics

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice & Loyalty

The Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch

Thomas Schelling Micromotives and Macrobehaviour

Mahbub-al-Haq. The Poverty Curtain

Paul Seabright The Company of Strangers

Robert Sugden The Community of Advantage

Kaushik Basu The Republic of Beliefs

Dani Rodrik Economics Rules

Other classics

Adam Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments

Michel Foucault Birth of Biopolitics

F Hayek The Market and Other Orders

 

 

 

 

 

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The second lesson

John Quiggin has a mission to correct the perception that economics implies markets are always marvellous and government intervention terrible. The title of his new book, Economics in Two Lessons, riffs on a comment by Paul Samuelson about a 1946 bestseller called ‘Economics in One Lesson‘: “When someone preaches ‘Economics in one lesson,’ I advise: Go back for the second lesson.”Apparently, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, a ‘free market’ advocate has sold over a million copies and been continuously in print – who knew? I’ve never read it. Quiggin’s response in Economics in Two Lessons is an attempt to battle the perpetual appeal of simple answers to complex problems.

Economics in Two Lessons: why markets work so well and why they can fail so badly is essentially all about the many ways in which markets can fail. The books starts with Lesson One:  the concepts of opportunity cost, gains from exchange and equilibrium, then introduces complexities: time, information (lack of) and uncertainty. Some nice applications follow, such as price controls, ‘free’ goods, spectrum auctions, road pricing. Quiggin uses the concept of opportunity cost as a frame for the remainder of the book, including when market prices diverge from opportunity cost.

“Most of the questions of principle involved in public policy can be illuminated by the careful application of the idea of oportunity cost and its relationship to market prices.” Lesson One is that market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs in production and consumption. Lesson Two is that there are social opportunity costs to be taken into account as well.

Hence the book then moves on to the ‘second lesson’, turning to income distribution, unemployment, natural monopolies, externalities like pollution and financial bubbles. The final section turns to policy prescriptions for a market failure world. For example, a chapter on income distribution looks at unions, minimum wages, and issues relating to income ‘predistribution’ such as intellectual property and limited liability.

There are plenty of examples and the book is very clear, making it an attractive supplement for undergraduate courses – I guess this is the target market as each chapter has further reading. I like the way Quiggin weaves in the history of economic thought on these issues. It’s a shame he feels the need to knock ‘mainstream’ economics so much; there’s little here for a mainstreamer to disagree with, except swipes like these: “The term ‘externality’ is one of those bits of jargon that most economists would be at a loss to explain.” What a bizarre claim. I have other quibbles – for instance, I’d disagree that Mill-ian utilitarianism is inherently more egalitarian than post-Pareto welfare economics.

On the whole, though, this is a highly readable introduction to the intellectual framework of modern policy economics, with plenty of lively examples (although I hope that those teaching public policy economics will also consider my forthcoming – late 2019/early 2020 – Markets, States, People……). It doesn’t dethrone my favourite book to recommend to newcomers to economics, John McMillan’s Reinventing the Bazaar either, but is well worth reading. Just remember – this isn’t anti-mainstream economics, it’s what economics is.

Economics in Two Lessons

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Economists, utilitarians, and individuals

I started reading Elizabeth Anderson’s Value in Ethics and Economics, having read an intriguing profile of her in the New Yorker recently, and am about two chapters in. The book is in Michael Sandel territory. It got off to a bad start by setting up the usual straw man version of economics: “Markets are represented as the generically rational form of human organization,” she writes. “To count as rational, any other domain of human interaction would have to be governed by the same principles as the market.” This is passive voice, but it most economists I know certainly don’t think like that (there’s also clearly an issue about different meanings of the word rational’ but that’s another matter.

However, the book quickly improves by pointing out the limitations of the focus on individual choice with too little attention in economics to social influence. This for me is a problem in terms lack of conformity with reality, never mind ethics. The second chapter then hones in on the inadequacies of utilitarian consequentialism as a foundation for conceptions of economic welfare (although a Very Distinguished economist told me recently that if I wasn’t a utilitarian, I wasn’t an economist). Interestingly, Anderson seems to see a feedback loop between ethical value and social norms – “social norms are constitutive of rational attitudes” – it reminded me of Robert Sugden’s recent book, The Community of Advantage.

It’s slightly heavy going, as so much philosophy is. Oh for an equation or two to clarify the logic! But I shall carry on. I’m reading a second hand copy and amusingly one of the previous readers has heavily marked the book with references to God as the source of ethical value, challenging Anderson with citations to Corinthians I and so on. But luckily only for the intro and chapter 1, giving up on godless ethics at that point.

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Where did economics go wrong

David Colander and Craig Freedman have an answer. ‘Where Economics Went Wrong‘, to give the title of their new book, is answered by the subtitle: ‘Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism’. They have something very specific in mind by this, namely the move from widespread acceptance by economists that economic policy does not follow from economic theory, but rather is “a blend of engineering and judgement”, an art rather than a scientific endeavour. They continue: “Clearly one wants evidence-based, objective analysis of policy. An art and craft methodology uses theory and science whenever it can.” But policy is messy and requires a methodology recognising the unavoidable role of normative judgments.” This is what they mean by classical liberalism.

The Chicago School upended this, the book continues, by “removing the firewall between economic science and policy” from the 1930s on. It did so to further a laissez faire agenda, insisting that economic science justified the conclusion in real life policy that the market should be left to its own devices. It merged economic theory and science with economic policy advice. This agenda held sway for some decades, embedded in policy by politics and the electoral success of Reagan and Thatcher.

I must say I found this argument confusing  at first because of my own perspective that the problem for much of 20th century economics was the ‘separation protocol‘ between positive analysis and normative advice, expressed by Lionel Robbins and later by Milton Friedman. However, I think it’s a similar point in fact: the claim they made was that positive economic analysis was appropriate for policy, and value judgments could be coralled into the domain of political choice, about which economics has nothing to say.

Many economists probably still think this, but my sense is their number is diminishing. Colander and Freedman end the book with an overview of the work of six economists they perceive to be working in the ‘art and craft’ policy tradition: Dani Rodrik, Ed Leamer, Amartya Sen, Ariel Rubinstein (love his book Economic Fables), Alvin Roth, Paul Romer. A shame they’re all men but I for one approve of the selection, with that major caveat.

The book is an inside-the-beltway one, of interest mainly to history of thought folks I would guess. Having said that, it does highlight a key methodological issue of importance to all applied economists.

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