Response to Hodgson
Bell, Stephaine A., Henry, John F., Journal of Economic Issues
Geoff Hodgson charges us with misrepresenting the arguments advanced in his recent Economics and Utopia. There are two general grounds on which this charge is made: (1) we are accused of treating him as a technological determinist, and (2) we are accused of misrepresenting his position on the importance of tacit knowledge as a threat to the employment relations that define capitalism.
Before addressing Hodgson's claims, we wish to provide some background as to why our essay was conceived at all. Our original intent was to organize a panel, most likely in the context of the annual Association for Evolutionary Economics meetings, to discuss what one of us previously called an "important," "provocative," "suggestive" work, which, it was hoped, would promote an ongoing critical discussion" (Henry 2000, 764, 766-7). We even hoped that Hodgson would serve as the panel's principal discussant.
The purpose of this proposed session was not to criticize Hodgson but to take up the major themes of Economics and Utopia in an organized, collective manner in order to advance our understanding of these very important issues and questions. This plan did not reach fruition. Rather, we found ourselves in a different setting in which the various presentations, while all worthy, were not directed toward a single, Hodgson-inspired theme. Hence, the appearance of our paper could have implied a singular (unintended) attack on Hodgson. Finally, as is fairly obvious, our paper took up only one of the many themes Hodgson developed in his more general argument. At no point did we intend to take a position on the analysis as a whole. Let us now turn, in a temperate fashion, to Hodgson's criticisms.
The charge of technological determinism we accept in part. As our footnote 1 made clear, we could not do justice to Hodgson's "considerably richer and more conditional" argument in a short paper that was further reduced from a 20-minute presentation (Bell and Henry 2001, 342). Thus, we focused on what we believed to be the most important variable driving his analysis.
While we do not consider Hodgson to be a technological determinist, it remains that he does make technology an important factor in his explanation of the "increasing complexity and skill specialization" that constitutes the "central argument in part three" of his Economics and Utopia. To be sure, technological change is not the only factor influencing the course of events, but it is surely an important one, as Hodgson himself argued:
[I]f there is a place for utopians in the modern, complex and uncertain world, it is not as the drafters of fixed blueprints, but as the seers of various socio-economic scenarios for the future. The greater impetus, and indeed necessity, for such speculations are due to the rapid pace of technological and institutional change in modern society. (1999, 160)
And, while Hodgson insists that he is focusing on "growing complexity and specialist skills" as distinct from technological change as a possible threat to the employment relationship, he frequently appears to entangle them, maintaining that:
the increasing use of information is partly a result of growing complexity within an integrated system, and advances in information and communication technology (1999, 183).
Then, in one of Hodgson's future scenarios, he maintained that
technical changes involving machines, computers and robots lead to a replacement of mental and manual labour in some areas. There is an overall stagnation in the level of learning in the economy....(1999, 235)
Here, complexity and skill specialization appear to be directly impacted by technical change. Thus, if they are not mutually affected, it is not at all clear if and how complexity and specialist skills may affect the employment relation independent of technical change.
As to Hodgson's second charge--that we misrepresented his position on the importance of tacit knowledge--we continue to hold that our remarks were directed at the real Geoff Hodgson. …