Economic Pluralism and Science

To be useful, constructive criticism should be given to the person expressing the erroneous ideas.  However, the blog editor of Real-World Economic Review (RWER), who is a leader and protagonist in the movement for economic pluralism, has refused to publish my criticism of that movement.  Criticism of the movement is important because the movement asserts that more resources should be allocated to promote economic pluralism; supposedly the lack of economic pluralism explains “Why a global disaster that could easily have been prevented took place” (Fullbrook, 2017).

On the contrary, it was too much economic pluralism which allowed mainstream economics to maintain its dominant position of influence, allowing the global financial crisis (GFC) to proceed unhindered.  Fullbrook (2017) asserted that “But in those years a number of economists, including Steve Keen, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, Ann Pettifor, Michael Hudson and Wynne Godley, warned that there would be a GFC if corrective measures were not taken.”   This was only a self-serving, biased selection as there were also many others, including Peter Schiff (2013), whose analysis was the most accurate in many of the details before and during the GFC.

Irrelevant

There was no lack of pluralism of theories and opinions, including different corrective measures, whether explicitly stated or merely implied.  What did governments or policy makers do with this pluralism of suggestions?  They did nothing, because nothing could be done with a mess of contradictory, unproven and untested ideas.  Pluralism has led to a paralysis from too many choices, and ignoring them was the most practical action.  Pluralism had no impact on the prevailing economic paradigm.

It is not pluralism which economics needs. What it needs is a single, viable, alternative paradigm which is demonstrably better than the current economic paradigm.   Pluralism inherently prevents the creation of an alternative economic paradigm based on scientific consensus, because pluralism is unscientific as will be discussed below.  The economics profession has failed to deliver and is unlikely to deliver without a revolution in thinking and methodology.

Exactly how the “global disaster… could easily have been prevented” was not explained by Fullbrook (2017).  Nearly ten years after the onset of the GFC, the prophet anointed with the Revere Prize by RWER (Bezemer, 2009) is still grappling with solutions to the problem of too much private debt (Keen, 2017).   The suggestion (Fullbrook, 2017) that there is a lack of pluralism is self-contradicted by the long list of economists he cited.  The suggestion that the GFC could have been easily prevented is also not supported by any specific policy action which can be shown to be capable of preventing it.

Ignorant

Not only is there no practical or empirical justification for economic pluralism, the theoretical or philosophical justification is based on a fallacy originating from “physics envy” (Mirowski, 1989, Chapter 7).  Philosophers and economists frequently borrow metaphors and methods from physics without understanding properly whether they are appropriate.  As Wiener (1964) observed:

The success of mathematical physics led the social scientist to be jealous of its power without quite understanding the intellectual attitudes that had contributed to this power.

Philosophers, and orthodox and heterodox economists, all suffer from this ignorance.  In the present case of economic pluralism, Fullbrook (2017) wrongly claims that modern physics is pluralist, without clearly defining pluralism and confusing the methodological differences in economics and physics.

In a broad sense, every branch of knowledge which is not dead, but evolves and expands, must constantly develop new ideas and concepts which are beyond what is commonly known or accepted at a given time.  Pluralism defined as being open to new ideas and concepts is a trivial definition, not useful for subject matters which are alive, just as useless as when science is often defined trivially as knowledge.

The claim by Fullbrook (2017) that modern physics is pluralist is based on the existence of different conceptual frameworks for quantum mechanics and general relativity.  This is true under the trivial definition of pluralism, but it is not very useful.  The fact that economics is not science (Sy, 2016) suggests that economics is pluralist in senses beyond the trivial definition.  Economic pluralism goes well “beyond being open to new ideas and concepts”:

Economic pluralism is defined as a pluralism which accepts multiple, alternative answers to the same economic questions.

In the aftermath of the GFC, the suggested remedies were either greater stimulus through more government deficit spending, favoured by most academics and Keynesians, or austerity (less stimulus) through less government deficit spending, favoured by others depending on what economic theory is chosen to advance their arguments.  This type of pluralism, giving multiple answers in economics, is anti-science; modern physics is not pluralist in this sense.   In fact, modern physics is against economic pluralism.

Unscientific

Physicists do not tolerate different answers in any given situation.  Much of their work consists of resolving multiple answers by finding the correct answer or the most accurate answer through collecting and analyzing facts.  Fullbrook (2017) wrongly cites general relativity and quantum mechanics as evidence of pluralism in modern physics.  In very large domains of space and time (e.g. cosmology), general relativity is the only accepted theory.  In very small domains (e.g. atomic physics), quantum mechanics is the only accepted theory.  In each of those domains there are no conflicting answers.  There is no pluralism at all in modern physics in the sense of economic pluralism.

Even conflicting conceptual frameworks are not tolerated in physics.  In the past, the absolute framework of Newtonian physics was in conflict with the relative framework of special and general relativity of Einstein.   The conflict was resolved with general relativity being the only correct theory of gravitation, but in small domains of space-time, general relativity is locally Euclidean giving same answers in agreement with Newtonian physics.

At present, while not considered fatal in a practical sense, the situation of having conflicting conceptual frameworks for general relativity and quantum mechanics is considered unsatisfactory by many physicists who are trying to resolve the conflict with theories and experiments with quantum gravity and unified field theories.  Such intolerance of pluralism of multiple conceptual frameworks is characteristic of science, particularly physics.

Resolution of conflicts caused by pluralism or eliminating pluralism is how modern physics advances.   In contrast, economic pluralism ignores conflicts among different heterodox approaches and has made no real progress in economic knowledge to achieve greater certainty, understanding or unity.  Even illogical and unscientific approaches are defended as legitimate and allowed to propagate in economic pluralism.  At least mainstream orthodox economics pretends to be scientific (Hayek, 1974), though failing against the facts.  This failure is taken by pluralists to mean that formal methods of science are an unnecessary “reductionist straightjacket” (Syll, 2017).

Harmful

All economic pluralism has done is to create flawed and harmful ideas to be used for political expediency.  Economic theories are merely the instruments of politics and, as such, pluralism maintains a full spectrum of defunct ideas as policy and propaganda tools for politicians.  As Keynes (1936, p.383) concluded in his famous book:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. ... Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Under economic pluralism, there is little possibility of an authoritative opinion on any subject of economic substance coming from a united economic profession – this would be far too inconvenient for its political masters.  The economic profession is a disgrace without any genuine intellectual authority.  Politicians can advocate any self-serving and harmful economic policies of choice without having to take responsibility for their actions.  The resulting economic failures are blamed privately by different economic schools on each other ending in a Mexican standoff and no progress in economics.

In a previous post, it was shown from facts and statistical data that US economic policies have been driven by decades of pluralism, in a cognitive dissonance that the policies were based on inconsistent, incoherent and unscientific economic theories.  This has been responsible for the secular decline in the US economy, approaching a Keynesian singularity.  Economic pluralism has allowed great harm to economics and public policy.  The muddle created by economic pluralism must cease.  A scientific economic paradigm is needed to displace the existing economic paradigm.

References and citations

 

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