Joan Robinson: Solutions offered by economists are no less delusory than those of the theologians

The brilliant Joan Robinson concludes her insightful book Economic Philosophy:

The neo-classical heritage still has a great influence, not only on the teaching of economics but in forming public opinion generally, or at least in providing public opinion with its slogans. But when it comes to an actual issue, it has nothing concrete to say. Its latter-day practitioners take refuge in building up more and more elaborate mathematical manipulations and get more and more annoyed at anyone asking them what it is that they are supposed to be manipulating.
In so far as economic doctrines have an influence on the choice of objectives for national policy, on the whole it is obscurantist rather than helpful. (p. 122)
Social life will always present mankind with a choice of evils. No metaphysical solution that can ever be formulated will seem satisfactory for long. The solutions offered by economists were no less delusory than those of the theologians they displaced.

All the same we must not abandon the hope that economics can make an advance towards science, or the faith that enlightenment is not useless. It is necessary  to clear the decaying remnants of obsolete metaphysics out of the way before we can go forward.
The first essential for economists, arguing among themselves, is to ‘try very seriously’, as Professor Popper says that natural scientists do, ‘to avoid talking at cross purposes’ and, addressing the world, reading their own doctrines aright, to combat, not foster, the ideology which pretends that values which can be measured in terms of money are the only ones that ought to count.                                                                                                                          (Robinson 1962: 122, 137)

Joan Robinson (1903 – 1983) was a British post-Keynesian eminent economist well-known for her work on monetary economics and wide-ranging influential contributions to economic theory. Robinson’s gender and her expertise in Marxism prevented her from winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and have slowed her advance in academia. She taught at Cambridge University from 1928 until retiring in 1971, but in spite of a very prolific career and intellectual impact, she received a full professor only in 1965. In 1979, though, she was the first woman to become an honorary fellow at King’s College.
The quotes above taken from her book Economic Philosophy which you may free download here: Robinson, Joan. 1962. Economic Philosophy. London: C. A. Watts.

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  1. I generally agree with Robinson’s assessment: that Economics has blurred the line between ideology and dogma. However, there are two points of contention that I have in Robinson: false equivalency, and the use of invalid Popper.

    First, Robinson equates metaphysics with theology. They are not the same. Metaphysics asks about the existence of subjectivity and objectivity, regardless of religious beliefs. We would not have the research methods both in natural and social sciences today were it not for metaphysics. Metaphysics allowed Einstein to invent quantum mechanics, re-theorize gravity, and discover atoms. Metaphysics allowed us to understand colonization, reflexivity, and economy in anthropological terms. Imagine our ignorance as a species without Metaphysics.

    The concept of the “invisible hand” was not about metaphysics, but about theology. It was specifically metaphysics that told us that there was no such thing as an “invisible hand.” Metaphysics also gave us ethics – where the means were more important than the ends, and engaging in HOW we did things was important.

    So Robinson’s call for (as an extension of Popper) the end of Metaphysics means an end to research methods, and ethics. Not surprising considering my second point of contention.

    Second, Karl Popper, it could be argued, is the Josef Mengele of Philosophy. Popper was one of the founders of Neoliberalism, and one of the founders of a social movement to promote neoliberalism. He was very good friends with Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises. If Hayek and Friedman were the public face of neoliberalism, then Popper and von Mises were the brains behind them. I have recently joined a number of scholars in agreeing that there has been no system more responsible for more suffering in the world than neoliberalism; suffering that Popper certainly did not have a problem with. The ends always justified the means for Popper.

    Popper’s idea of falsifiability is not just an assault on metaphysics, but on knowledge itself. By eliminating metaphysics through falsifiability he also eliminated the need (in his mind) to study ANYTHING. Under his claim of falsifiability, not only can climate change not exist, but neither does the sun. Under Popper, there is no such thing as objects that exist outside of ourselves. That sets up axioms that never have to be proven, taken as truth. And we all know how much economists love their axioms. Popper is partially responsible for the “post-truth” world we live in – where truth never has to be proven (because of axioms) and you can make it up as you go along.

    So of course one of the Founding Fathers of Neoliberalism would want metaphysics dead. The end of ethics and methods is fundamental to the neoliberal worldview. This way, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that neoliberalism tortures and kills people, there is no one to care if it does, or even question the evidence.

    Robinson’s assessment is valid – economics is indeed a dogma. However, she proposes replacing one dogma with another – free of ethics.

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