Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Is a Worldly Philosophy Still Possible?: Adolph Lowe as Analyst and Visionary

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Is a Worldly Philosophy Still Possible?: Adolph Lowe as Analyst and Visionary

Article excerpt


This is not an age of economic scenarios. The social dramas of Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Mill, and Schumpeter already have an antiquated air. One reason for this is surely the increasing formalization of economics, an approach that does not so much rule out the consideration of large-scale configurational change as avoid it because it lends itself poorly to the procedures of formal analysis. A second reason is perhaps more fundamental. It is that the path of the economy is no longer established solely by the spontaneous actions of its players. Government is now inextricably entwined in the outcome of the economic process, introducing a crucial element of political determination into the course of economic life. Thus, autonomous processes by themselves are not sufficient to explain the economic, not to mention the social and political, outcomes to which the famous scenarios led. The result, perhaps not much lamented in an age of formalism, is the end of what I believe to be the most remarkable and enduring contribution of economics to intellectual history (Heilbroner, 1990).

Can that tradition be revived? The current preoccupation with formalism may fade, but I doubt that the centrality of political decision-making will follow suit. Are scenarios then to be permanently relegated to the museum of antiquities? That is the subject of this essay on the work of Adolph Lowe. Lowe's name is better known among the older generation of economists than among its current practitioners, but I believe his contribution is directly relevant to the difficulties that today stand in the way of making imaginative economic projections into the future. My intention is, therefore, not to present Lowe's work in detail, but to interpret it freely with respect to this question, a liberty I take on the basis of a relationship of mutual criticism and consultation that has gone on since I became his student almost fifty years ago.(1)

Accordingly, I will concentrate here on his two most enduring contributions to this subject, On Economic Knowledge and Has Freedom a Future? What makes these books of such immediate relevance is that the first is a systematic exposition of the reasons why scenarios of the classical kind are no longer possible, while the second gives us an example of the kind of projective analysis that might be put in its place.

Lowe himself describes the first proposition in the Preface of On Economic Knowledge:

I started out as a convinced partisan of the traditional approach as formulated in neo-classical equilibrium theory. At the same time, some work in business cycle theory, in which I was then engaged, made me realize the serious gap that separated all equilibrium models from an economic reality which was subject to wide fluctuations in employment and output. However, I thought it possible to bridge this gap by extending the stationary framework of prevailing models into a "dynamic" model that would account for the periodic deviations of the economic process from a steady path. Above all, I shared the orthodox opinion that economic theory had to be a self-contained body of generalizations, independent of socio-political considerations of economic systems.

A second stage was reached when I abandoned this latter dogma. In other words, I began to recognize that classical, neo-classical, and Marxian theories of the market ... depicted different forms of social and technical organization. But I still believed that industrial market systems, now understood as inclusive socio-economic phenomena, exhibited regularities of motion sufficiently strict to be formulated in laws of coexistence and succession.

It is this belief which subsequent experience and reflection have shattered for good, exposing me once again to the fundamental question whether Economics is a proper subject for a theoretical science (Lowe, 1966, p. xvii).

Why does economics no longer qualify as a science? Lowe's arguments trace the changing historical matrix within which economic theory emerges and to which it turns its explanatory, predictive power. …

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