Defending Economic Rationalism ... and Boosting the Image of "Free Market Economists"?

Article excerpt

In his 1962 Ely Memorial Lecture to the American Economic Association, Jacob Viner ventured to address the place of the economist in history. His lecture, he explained, was not designed to deal with the influence of economists for good or evil; its subject matter was better described by the tide which he had initially thought of but eventually rejected, "Why has economics always had a bad press?" (Viner, 1963,1991, pp. 226-7). The contributors to the two volumes under review (King and Lloyd, 1993; James et al., 1993), would have done well to have read this informative piece before jumping to the defence of economics or, to be more precise, a particular branch of economic thinking. However, given its age, thirty years at the time of writing, it is probably beyond the kin of most of the contributors even though it was published in the prestigious American Economic Review and its author for over twenty years was editor of the Journal of Political Economy

Part of the value of Viner's piece for the economist-contributors in these two volumes is its consolatory nature. Few contemporary critics of economic rationalism have gone as far as Carlyle by asserting "of all the quacks that ever quacked, political economists are the loudest", going on to describe their output as "pig philosophy" and their subject matter as "the dismal science". Nor as yet have economic rationalists been described in public as "more to be dreaded than the plagues of Egypt" inflicted by Moses, though some critics of economic rationalism approach the views of a nineteenth century reformer who described economists as "the pests of society and the persecutors of the poor". Literature has not been more kind to economists. Dickens, Kingsley, Shelley and Wordsworth and at least one of the Bronte sisters regarded practitioners of political economy with a jaundiced eye. Even Walter Bagehot, that famous second editor of the Economist, and more than a dabbler in the science himself, proclaimed "no real Englishman in his secret soul was ever sorry for the death of a political economist; he is much more likely to be sorry for his life". Fortunately, newspapers and weeklies, including the Economist, do print obituaries of deceased economists, and even offer some occasional praise for their lives, despite the difficult nature of their labour.

Viner's concluding paragraph was a little more optimistic. Confining himself at this stage, appropriately, to the American economist, he stated:

"On the whole" however--or, with reliance rather on promiscuous averaging than on promiscuous aggregating, I should perhaps say "on the average"--the American economist has been dealt with fairly by the American public. It has laughed at us at times, because we do not always speak with a single voice and because despite many years of sad experience to the contrary some of us persist in operating as if we can forecast But these are appropriate objects for moderate laughter. (Viner, 1963,1991, p. 246)

For Australia, Bruce McFarlane and I reported a proclivity to write on economics which far outstripped that of Canada (Groenewegen and McFarlane, 1990, p. 3 and n.1), a sign of either incipient masochism or foolhardy heroism. Our history also showed that many of these antipodean economic writers were critical of conventional economics in the variant of imported British textbooks or, eventually, in the ex-cathedra statements of economic professors when these were appointed to the early universities. Australia is no exception to a history of bad press for economists and wide criticism of economic policy pronouncements. In particular, people have to be blind or totally isolated from society if they fail to realise that from the late 1980s especially, economists have hardly been the flavour of the month in the Australian media and have been widely condemned as either the bearers of bad tiding, or as midwives through wrong policy advice in inducing the hardships and sacrifices arising from Australia's continuing economic decline and its associated gradually rising unemployment levels. …