Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Duncan Foley's Adam's Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology

The authors of a number of blogs have been going on about supposed non-economists' or anti-economists' attacks on "economics". For some reason, Duncan K. Foley's latest book is held up as an example of such an attack. Since I have actually read the book under discussion, I thought I would comment.

This book is very introductory, and is not directed towards somebody like me. It's purpose is to give others something to read as an introduction to economics, something that is more recent than Robert L. Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers. You will not find any detailed examination here of Ricardo's texts to decide if the Sraffian surplus-based approach, the Hollander new interpretation, or some other reading is a more accurate understanding of Classical economics. Even when Foley summarizes my favorite critique of marginalism (e.g., on John Bates Clark on pp. 164-166, on time on pp. 173-174), it is so summary that I would not expect anybody with economic training to understand Foley's point.

The book is organized around discussions on great economists: A. Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, early marginalists (Jevons, Menger, John Bates Clark, Pareto), Veblen, Keynes, Hayek, and Schumpeter. (Neither Mill appears in the index.) I do not find most of Foley's discussion to be negative or an attack on these economists. Foley, in his "great books" approach, often treats these authors as putting forth the ideas that they are associated with in economics textbooks. For example, Walras is said to have invented a fictional auctioneer (p. 170). This is not an approach that finds favor with contemporary historians of ideas, who seem to prefer "thick" histories alive to shifts in discursive formations.

What about "Adam's fallacy"? Foley objects to a tendency to use general principles, supposedly independent of history, to argue for political conclusions. He wants economists to concern themselves with how things work out under the specific institutions prevailing in given times and places. That is, he wants economists to look at the world, instead of reasoning a priori. And although Foley recognizes "Adam's fallacy" in some of the economists he examines, he also recognizes it is accompanied by subtexts with an analysis more like what Foley recommends. I might have been happier with the label of the "Ricardian vice" for "Adam's fallacy".

Reminder to myself: I want to read Solow's review of Foley's book. That review appears in the 16 November 2006 issue of The New York Review of Books.

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