John Kay recently wrote an article titled “Economists: there is no such thing as the ‘economic approach’“. If Kay is right, and there is no ‘economic approach’, then to what extent is there a discipline of economics? To what extent is there economics at all? Here are my thoughts on the issue*.
In my field, a distinction has been made between economics as a ‘topic’ and economics as a ‘discipline’ (e.g. here and here). While the latter is (if it ever existed) doomed, the former might be salvageable.
Most of us will agree that although there are overlaps between economics and other disciplines, the lines of analytical demarkation are sufficiently clear for us not to be in much doubt about the differences between the disciplines.
While this may have just about held true 30 years ago, I do not believe it to be true today. For me, the economics of suicide (to which Kay refers) represents the suicide of economics. Gary Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior was an important milestone. One can look at Becker’s 1992 Nobel Memorial Prize as something of a watershed; though he is preceded largely by ‘proper’ economists studying explicitly market-based phenomena, he is succeeded by individuals who have achieved breakthroughs in mathematics, statistics, psychology, moral philosophy and history.
Do not get me wrong, this is a very good thing. It represents the success of interdisciplinary research and in particular the application of the scientific method to all aspects of life, and we are all the better for it. Outside economics, this conflation of science and social science is leading to painful lessons about the impossibility of quantification in certain aspects of human nature and social interaction (here is one recent example), but economics is the most vulnerable.
The discipline of economics is in a strange state of simultaneous ascendency and yielding. It is ascendant in its influence over any policy analysis and its application to all aspects of life. The reason for this occurring is clear; every action – human, animal, governmental, societal – relates in some way to the allocation of scarce resources. The Wiktionary definition of economics reads: “(social sciences) The study of resource allocation, distribution and consumption; of capital and investment; and of management of the factors of production.” And herein lies the problem; as we approach the lowest common denominators of knowledge, these issues are increasingly explained by other better-defined and time-tested disciplines. I am left wondering, over what does the discipline of economics have a monopoly?
Economics could survive in our lexicon as a topic. This topic is macro. The topic of microeconomics, it seems to me, can be entirely subsumed by other topics. Microeconomics is largely about agents. Humans are agents. The behaviour of these agents is primarily studied by psychologists, sociologists, ethicists, anthropologists, geographers and others, depending on scale. Firms are also agents. Firm-specific topics can reside in the realm of business studies – a far more modest subject than economics. Though an economist’s toolkit is undoubtedly of value to each of these disciplines, it is unclear which tools are exclusively those of the economist.
Inflation, unemployment, trade, growth. Economics may be saved by these topics – they will at least remain under the economics banner until its final day. But they are not safe. Each can be explained by their microfoundations in some combination with political science, philosophy and meteorology. Furthermore, marketisation and the spread of free markets means that society and the economy are now one in the same. One cannot be a quantitative social scientist without straying into the topic of economics. As such, it becomes unclear which topics are exclusively those of economics.
In my opinion, the primary value of economics today is its multidisciplinarity. But we already have a word for that. The inability of economics to restrain and contain itself is what will lead to its demise. Through its application to everything it will come to mean nothing. To my mind, economics has a choice. Either it can continue to expand itself into obscurity, or it can choose to restrict itself to the study of the economy and engage in the difficult task of differentiating (pun intended) the economy from society more generally.
No matter what, I suspect that economics has much the same destiny as natural philosophy. How long will it be before Economics degrees evaporate and we instead read Social Science? To be what was once termed an economist, one need simply sign-up for the BSc stream.
* This blog post is intentionally provocative, in the hope that people might engage with its content!