No Reality, Please. We’re Economists.

Professor Mark Blaug (1927–2011) was a distinguished Dutch-born British economist and historian of economics. Besides shorter periods in public service in international organisations (such as UNESCO, ILO, World Bank), he has held academic appointments in several prestigious universities worldwide. Apart from valuable contributions to the economics of education and a range of additional topics, Blaug is best known for his important and comprehensive work in history of economic thought and the methodology of economics. His brilliant magnum opus Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962) is one of the most widely cited works in the history of economics. The Methodology of Economics, or How Economists Explain (1980) is another very influential, illuminating and well-written treatise.
In 1997 Blaug wrote an article “Ugly currents in modern economics”, in which he severely, sharply and aptly criticized the mathematical turn and “the disease of formalism in modern economics” (p. 50). Five years later, he elaborated this article into a book chapter with the same title (which is  almost fully accessible through Google Books).

Modern economics is sick. Economics has increasingly become an intellectual game played for its own sake and not for its practical consequences; economists have gradually converted the subject into a sort of Social Mathematics in which analytical rigour as understood in math departments is everything and empirical relevance (as understood in physics departments) is nothing. If a topic cannot be tackled by formal modeling, it is simply consigned to the intellectual underworld… Economics was condemned a century ago as the ‘dismal science’ but the dismal science of yesterday was a lot less dismal than the soporific scholasticism of today. To paraphrase the title of a popular British musical: “No Reality, Please. We’re Economists(p. 36)
Indeed, much of modern microeconomics might be fairly described as a kind of geography that consists entirely of images of cities but providing no maps of how to reach a city either from any other city or from the countryside.” (p. 39)

Blaug, Mark. 2002. “Ugly Currents in Modern Economics,” Pp 35-56 in Fact and Fiction in Economics: Models, Realism and Social Construction, edited by Uskali Mäki. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

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  1. Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect in its many editions is a must-read for anyone interested in political economics. But he became more conservative as he got older under the influence of Popper, it seems, at LSE. He disliked Walras, probably because of his mathematical bent, but in disliking that he was also ignoring Walras’s socialism (Walras thought that the State had a right to all land and should charge rent to fund its activities.)

  2. Trivia: it is funny to see this photo circulate. The picture has been taken at my Master’s graduation party in Rotterdam where I had the honor having been taught history of economic thought by the late Prof. Blaug. I find the picture really brings out his personality in a nice way. Engaged and lively, even in his late seventies, and always willing to discuss the ideas his students have been coming up with. More on Prof. Blaug’s views on economics can be found in the volume “Mark Blaug: rebel with many causes”, edited by Boumans and Klaes (2013) or this special issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

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