To What Extent Is Economics an Ideology and to What Extent Is It a Useful Theory?

By Philip Pilkington, a macroeconomist working in asset management and author of the new book The Reformation in Economics: A Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Economic Theory. The views expressed in this interview are not those of his employer

Ever since the Enlightenment many societies have moved away from justifying their existence and formulating their aims through recourse to religious language. Gone are the days of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ which justified the natural and social orders all the way from the plants and trees through the commoners, via the nobility and the King all the way up to God the creator. What replaced these ideologies were ideas about ‘Progress’ – how the good society was attained through Progress and what such Progress would look like. Progress, it was said, was to be grounded in the scientific method; what had worked so well to uncover natural processes could also be applied to engineer society.

It was in the 19th century, however, when the ideologies of Progress really began to blossom and flower. One was economics, of which we will have more to say about below. Another was phrenology. Phrenology was a science that claimed that a person’s character – including his capacities and his dispositions – were contained within his skull and could be determined by studying his skull carefully. Today few take this seriously – although many still recognise that phrenology was an early progenitor to so-called ‘neuroscience’. But throughout the 19thcentury these ideas were enormously popular – one popular English work sold more than 300,000 copies!

What made phrenology so popular was what also made economics so popular at the time: it gave a rationale for a society based on Progress and also provided a blueprint for how this could be achieved. The phrenological doctrine, being so vague in its pronouncements, was highly malleable and could be used to justify whatever those in power needed justifying. So, for example, in 19th century England phrenology was used to justify laissez faire economic policies by emphasising unequal natural capacities amongst the population while in early 20thcentury Belgian Rwanda it was used to justify the supposed superiority of the Tutsis over the Hutus.

In my book The Reformation in Economics I take the position that modern economics is more similar to phrenology than it is to, say, physics. This is not at all surprising as it grew up in the same era and out of remarkably similar ideas. But what is surprising is that this is not widely noticed today. What is most tragic, however, is that there is much in economics that can and should be salvaged. While these positive aspects of economics probably do not deserve the title of ‘science’ they at least provide us with a rational toolkit that can be used to improve political and economic governance in our societies.

The Ideology at the Heart of Modern Economics

The curious thing about modern economics is its almost complete insularity. Its proponents appear to have very little notion of how it applies to the real world. This is not the case in normal sciences. Take physics, for example. It is extremely clear how, say, the inverse squares law applies to experienced reality. In the case of gravitation, for example, the inverse squares law makes experimentally testable predictions about the force exerted by, say, the gravitational pull between the sun and the earth.

Modern economics – by which I mean neoclassical or marginalist economics which relies on the notion of utility-maximisation as its central pillar – completely lacks this capacity to map itself onto the real world. As philosophers of science like Hans Albert have pointed out, the theory of utility-maximisation rules out such mapping a priori, thus rendering the theory completely untestable. Since the theory is untestable it cannot be falsified and this allows economists to simply assume that it is true.

Once the theory is assumed to be true it can then be applied everywhere and anywhere in an entirely uncritical manner. Anything can then be interpreted in terms of utility-maximisation. This is most obvious in popular publications like Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Such books read in an almost identical way to the fashionable books of 19th century phrenology. The economists address everything from parenting to crime to the Ku Klux Klan by filtering it through the non-experimental theory of utility-maximisation – a theory that has not and cannot be verified and so the author and reader alike take it entirely on trust.

Such systems of ideas are ideological to the core. They are cooked up independently of the evidence and are then imposed upon the material of experienced reality. We are encouraged to ‘read’ the world through the interpretive lens of economics – and when we ask for evidence that this lens uncovers factually accurate information we are confounded with circular arguments from the economists.

Large-scale public policy is also filtered through this lens. This is done by constraining the study of macroeconomics – that is, GDP growth, unemployment, inflation and so on – by tying it to the theories of utility-maximisation. All macroeconomics today must be ‘microfounded’. This means that it must have microeconomic – read: ‘utility-maximising’ – foundations. In reality, as I show in the book, these foundations are anything by ‘micro’. Rather, what is done is that the entire economy is seen to be dominated by a single uber-utility-maximiser and all the conclusions flow from there.

This may seem like odd stuff but it is built into the theory as a sort of foundational delusion. The arbitrary, non-empirical theory of utility-maximisation assumes primacy to all considerations of actual statistical facts, intuitions about human motivations and even basic assumptions about what should constitute a properly moral view of man. What we end up with is not just a crushing, anti-inquiry ideology but also a lumbering failure of a system of ideas that has no hope in extracting relevant information about the real world.

What Is To Be Done?

Is economics then to be thought of as a failure? Must we scrap economics and try to find other ways to describe and address our economic and political problems? In this regard, my book claims to lay out a new path – albeit one that has been intuitively followed by some economists, most notably those in the heterodox camp. This new path is based on two key interrelated premises.

The first is that we have little insight into what actually motivates human beings. For this reason theories that rest on assumptions about human motivation – like utility-maximisation – must be thrown out and the study of the economy must be undertaken by examining large economic aggregates. In short, micro must be tossed off the throne and the crown must be handed to macro. The second premise is that we must not be overly concerned with highly precise ‘models’ of the economy. Instead we must take what I have come to call a ‘schematic’ approach. A schematic approach involves building tools that can be integrated into how we understand the world around us without assuming that these tools provide us with an exact description of this world. This schematic toolkit – which I begin to lay out in the later chapters of the book – can then be used to approach the study of actual economies.

These may seem like rather simple rules. But when applied to economic theory they generate rather radical results. At the same time they greatly constrain the amount of wisdom that we can assume economists to have; given these premises no book like Freakonomics should ever be taken seriously and should probably even be written in the first place. In that sense, they may appear to militate against Enlightenment optimism. This may well be so, but I would argue that they are arrived at through rational Enlightenment-style inquiry and so should be taken seriously even by proponents of Enlightenment Progress. After all, phrenology eventually fell in the face of rationalistic criticism.

In the book some of the issues around uncertainty and free will are also explored. Implicit in some of the book’s central criticisms is that societies are not to be understood in a deterministic manner. Unlike billiard balls, social forces are not subject to deterministic laws. In one sense this is unfortunate as it means that our understandings of social and economic processes must always be of a contingent and not-too-precise nature. But on the other hand it is optimistic in the sense that it attributes an agency to human beings to create the world around them that mainstream marginalist economics stripped away by imposing the limited utility-maximiser framework on everyone from Mother Theresa to Hitler.

This also creates an opening for a proper discussion of ethics and morality. Although this is not dealt with directly in the book – it would surely require another ten volumes – the framework does reopen awkward questions surrounding morality and ethics. Some self-professed social scientists, nervous that these questions have been passed to us from the world religions, would prefer to do away with any moral and ethical questions. But this was always a fantasy – even the most hardened anti-ethicist, unless they are serving life for serial-killing, has a system by which they determine right from wrong.

All that I have said here is rather abstract. But a good portion of the book is not and I do not want to give that impression. It contains chapters that deal with inflation, profits, income distribution, income determination, financial markets, interest rates, investment and employment. It is not simply a book of methodology but rather one that tries to also provide the basic building blocks of a theory that can be applied to understand really-existing economies. In this sense, I hope that it is again more optimistic than many mainstream economics books that leave the reader without any capacity to apply the supposed ideas that they have absorbed by reading them beyond mere chest-puffing at dinner parties and moral condemnations of the social safety net.



About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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8 Responses to To What Extent Is Economics an Ideology and to What Extent Is It a Useful Theory?

  1. Sounds good, but you left out the most important part. The problem with Enlightenment thinking is that it came before Darwin. I hope the book realizes that physics is not the only science.

  2. There is a very interesting work in critic of political economic realized by Henry Charles Carey. I think that he has the merit of expose very confusing and pernicious ideas of David Ricardo. The error of Ricardo are of several classes, but the same grave is his presentation of capitalism as a slavish system. This is connected with the Ricardo value definition. He excludes worker wage from commodity value.
    Additionally, this is assumed by Karl Marx as base of his economy an politic.

  3. skippy says:

    I think abstract methodology is important in the wider purview of this topic e.g. how are we to format our minds as individual and greater society as a whole….

  4. Daniel J Antinora says:

    Hey! Bought the book. Read it. Liked it a lot.

    I think Debunking Economics, Debt (by Graeber), and your book are an ideal introduction to economics (I suppose they should be coupled to Mankiw’s intro text).

    Question: Is Warren Mosler right about the big points he makes? (Are you familiar?)

    Feel free to answer privately by email if you feel like endorsing him might make you seem crankish.

    Thanks for the work you do and for the encouragement to study the subject that it provides me.

    • Hey,

      Thanks for buying the book. I don’t think that an association with Mosler implies crankishness. After all, I co-wrote a paper on tax bonds with him a few years back and I’m pretty sure I referenced him in the money chapter.

      As far as the monetary plumbing and fiscal expenditure goes I think that Warren is entirely correct. Where I differ from him is his saying that imports are unambiguously a net benefit — although his ideas are by no means crazy. I also don’t like the way he frames the natural rate of interest as I find it a bit misleading. But apart from that I think he’s basically correct.

      • Daniel Antinora says:

        Thanks! You’re my sanity check. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going crazy nodding my head in agreement. It felt sorta “esoteric” or Gnostic and that raises alarm bells for me.

        I didn’t realize you had written a paper with me.

        Maybe you could give us a post about why you think framing the interest rate issue that way is misleading in the future?

      • Daniel Antinora says:

        A paper with *him*

      • Yeah, there’s a cult-like quality to MMT which they’d do best moving away from. They’re mostly correct though.

        Here’s my paper with Warren:

        I don’t post on here anymore. But the MMT guys — apart from Randy — don’t seem to understand what the natural rate of interest is. It is a theoretical equilibrium concept that is central to marginalist macroeconomic theory and has been for nearly 100 years. They don’t tend to criticise it directly but rather engage in vague rhetorical appropriation of the term. I think that’s very unproductive.

        I wrote a critical paper on the theory here if you’re interested:

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