Economics is an Imperial Science

George Stigler, a founding member of Mont Pelerin Society and a key preacher of neoliberal economics,  on what he proudly calls “economist-missionaries” (1984: 304) :

So economics is an imperial science: it has been aggressive in addressing central problems in a considerable number of neighboring social disciplines, and without any invitations
Why did economics begin its imperialistic age so recently as the last two or three decades? My answer… is that the extended application of economic theory was invited by its growing abstractness and generality The abstraction increased the distance between economic theory and empirical economic phenomena – not without some cost to economics – and made the extensions to other bodies of phenomena easy and natural. If that explanation is correct, there will be no reversal of the imperialism.
Heinrich Gossen, a high priest of the theory of utility-maximizing behavior, compared the scope of that theory to Copernicus’ theory of the movements of the heavenly bodies. Heavenly bodies are better behaved than human bodies, but it is conceivable that his fantasy will be approached through the spread of the economists’ theory of behavior to the entire domain of the social sciences.” (Stigler 1984: 311 – 313)

Stigler, George. 1984. “Economics—The Imperial Science?” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 86: 301-13. (open access)


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  1. Imperial but not imperialist. It’s scientifically legitimate to expand the scope of one’s paradigm even at the expense of sister disciplines. Pierre Bourdieu understood the economists’ challenge to social science and responded effectively to it.

  2. The claim that economics is the imperial social science raises smiles among anthropologists and sociologists. There are clear grounds for rejection of the claim.

    First economics is predicated on rational utility-maximising agents whose cumulative effect should be equilibrium. Yet equilibrium is observed nowhere. Keynes acknowledged the problem (1935) invoking irrational, emotional, diverse and impulsive ‘animal spirits’ to explain market disruption. Predicated on rationality, economics cannot explain such ‘spirits’, treating them as both ‘exogenous’ and defiant of economics. This teleological adjunct to economics is absurd. It reads much like Aquinas’ ‘uncaused cause’. Why animal spirits are as found, why they are aroused and act as they do is beyond the reach of economics.

    Second Cultural Theory, more especially Grid-Group Cultural Theory (after Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson and others) has no difficulty accounting for disequilibrium wholly endogenously. Just two social dimensions are needed: strong and weak social regulation and strong and weak solidarity. From these four equally rational but conflicting and provocative thought-styles can be derived: Hierarchy-Rank, Egalitarian-Enclave, Competitive-Individualist and Fatalist-Isolate. These demonstrate different preoccupations, feelings, thoughts and actions (ie different ‘preferences’ as economists might call them). Thus Hierarchy ‘We need rules and we can trust each other if we all stick to them’… the problem is deviance. Egalitarian: ‘Nobody should benefit unless everybody benefits. The problem is the system that needs changing.’ Individual ‘I don’t care about you. My way works for me and competition will settle which of us is right. The problem is stupidity. Fatalism ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Look after yourself first and last. Trust nobody.’ The problem is Fate and caprice. Each of these ways of thinking and acting antagonises the other and is confounded by surprises of their own making.

    As well as being utterly hopeless when it comes to explaining evident change economics fails to explain why ‘agents’ have the specific and changing preferences which they have and why ‘rationality’ is plural. Economists manage to account for about 25% of what is happening, but without understanding how even this small percentage is as found. In other words economics occupies just the Individual-Competitive thought-style. Economics is of course a cultural phenomena (it does not exist in nature) but it is very limited in its range and is extremely lacking in self-awareness.

    Ask an economist why markets are disrupted and they will say it is caused by ‘exogenous factors’ meaning, it originates from some other realm beyond our reach and we can’t explain.

    Imperial social science? I think not!

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