Economic Thought and Language: A Critique of Some Fundamental Economic Concepts

Economic Thought and Language: A Critique of Some Fundamental Economic Concepts

Economic Thought and Language: A Critique of Some Fundamental Economic Concepts

Economic Thought and Language: A Critique of Some Fundamental Economic Concepts

Excerpt

This book is an attempt to assist students of economics to think clearly and logically about the fundamentals of their science, by exposing some of the main sources of error and confusion with which economics is surrounded. Economists have always suffered, as compared with natural scientists, from the inaccuracy of their linguistic equipment. Many of the disagreements which them are terminological, rather than genuinely economic, in character; and if these can be overcome they will have more time for examining, and more hope of solving, the problems of theory and policy with which economics is concerned.

The verbal difficulty will not be solved, however, by elaborating a scientific system of unisignificant terms. We may sympathise with Mr Robertson when he demands for economists the right, accorded to researchers in other fields of study, to "speak to one another in their own jargon". But we cannot afford to allow our language to cut us completely off from ordinary life. For economics, unlike physics or biology, is a study of human behaviour. It investigates the actions and experiences of men in the market-place and the factory, and it will in the end be judged by its success in explaining these. Now as the phenomena of economic life change, so too do the meanings of the words which are used to describe them. To take one obvious instance, the growth of joint-stock enterprise in the latter half of the nineteenth century had extensive repercussions on such terms as "profit" and "capital". The former came to stand for the income of the entrepreneur as such rather than for the total gains of the old-fashioned "captain of industry"; the latter took on several new and strange meanings, though without losing its older ones. These verbal changes were not accidental or arbitrary--they reflected changes in the facts. And as they have been accepted, consciously or unconsciously, in ordinary speech, so they must be recognised and allowed for by all those economists who believe that it is at least a part of their duty to enlighten the general public as to the actual economic problems of the day. If economists as a whole were to adopt a corpus of technical terms, each one with an unalterable meaning and content, there would be a real danger of their . . .

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