Saturday, September 13, 2008

Blaug Versus Sraffians

Apparently, Gavin Kennedy delivered a paper, "Adam Smith's Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth", at the 40th Anniversary Conference of the History of Economic Thought (HET). Kennedy reports the conference was held in Edinburgh on 3-5 September. And he uses a report on Marg Blaug's keynote address to express irritation at Sraffians:
"Professor Tony Brewer, University of Bristol, took over the chair, for Professor Mark Blaug's keynote address, which did not stir up the opposition I had expected, but then I did not know the economics of most of the participants, and I was relieved to find out that there were no vocal 'Sraffians' among the audience (the obscurity of the Sraffian economics monologue defies summary and any explanation for why it excites, or once excited, the in-group enthusiasm of a small cell in Cambridge).

Mark Blaug's paper was on 'The Trade-off Between Rigor and Relevance: Straffian economics as a case in point', and what a demolition job it was too, summed up neatly in the title." -- Gavin Kennedy
I was unable to find any other references to Blaug's address on the web. I am aware, however, that Blaug has been, for a number of years, griping about the formalist revolution that occurred in economics after World War II (e.g., Blaug 2003). And that he groups Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory with Debreu's Theory of Value: An Axiomatic Analysis of Economic Equilibrium as exemplars of formalism in economics.

Blaug has had something to say about Sraffians in the past. For example, he has written at least two pamphlets for the Institute of Economic Affairs. As I understand it, IEA is a right-wing think tank in Britain. Blaug (1975) is an attack on the Cambridge school, as it stood after the successes of the Cambridge Capital Controversies. In this attack, Blaug misunderstands Sraffa's mathematics in ways that he carries forward into his textbook. He also adopts the curious position that a demonstration, based on reswitching and capital-reversing, of the logical invalidity of neoclassical economics does not hold without the identification of empirical occurrences of the phenomena. Blaug (1988) is a review of The New Palgrave. Blaug claims that John Eatwell, Murray Milgate, and Peter Newman ("A Sraffian Trio") edited a "tendentious work":
"To have invited three Sraffians to edit a new Palgrave dictionary of economics is roughly equivalent to asking three atheists to edit an encyclopedia of Christianity" -- Mark Blaug (1988)
Since the incorrectness of most doctrines of orthodox economics are not recognized by many practitioners, editors of reference works have a problem. I welcome the recognition that belief in these doctrines are a matter of faith, although I am not sure Blaug is being fair to Christianity.

Sraffa had a revolutionary impact on how historians read Ricardo, in particular, and the Classical economists more generally. Recently, Blaug (1999) disputed the Sraffian interpretation of Classical economics. Kurz and Salvadori (2002), Blaug (2002), and Garegnani (2002) is a selection from the literature of responses and counter-responses to Blaug's article. The Sraffians seem to agree that Blaug disputes a straw person. In the Sraffian interpretation, the theory of value can be set out with rigorous mathematics. But the givens of the Classical theory of value are themselves explained within economics (in contrast to neoclassical General Equilibrium theory). Thus, the theory of value is only an element in an approach to a larger economics which investigates such issues as growth, development, population demographics, etc. Blaug failed to understand the instrumental role of the theory of value in the Sraffian interpretation. His criticism of the Sraffians for setting out the theory of value, in their understanding, without encompassing, for example, growth is simply misdirected.

Some Sraffians are competing with Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect (nth edition) in the market for textbooks on the history of economic thought. I gather that this market is shrinking, as mainstream economists purge the history of their field from the curriculum. Alessandro Roncaglia (2005) and Ernesto Screpanti & Stefano Zamagni (2005) are two textbooks from Sraffians.
  • Mark Blaug (1975) The Cambridge Revolution: Success or Failure?, Institute of Economic Affairs
  • Mark Blaug (1988) Economics Through the Looking Glass: The Distorted Perspective of The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs
  • Mark Blaug (1999) "Misunderstanding Classical Economics: The Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach", History of Political Economy, V. 31, N. 2: 213-236
  • Mark Blaug (2002) "Kurz and Salvadori on the Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach", History of Political Economy, V. 34, N. 1: 237-240
  • Mark Blaug (2003) "The Formalist Revolution of the 1950s", Journal of the History of Economic Thought, V. 25, N. 2: 145-156
  • Pierangelo Garegnani (2002) "Misunderstanding Classical Economics? A Reply to Blaug", History of Political Economy, V. 34, N. 1: 241-254
  • Heinz D. Kurz and Neri Salvadori (2002) "Mark Blaug on the 'Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach'", History of Political Economy, V. 34, N. 1: 225-236
  • Alessandro Roncaglia (2005) The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press
  • Ernesto Screpanti and Stefano Zamagni (2005) An Outline of the History of Economic Thought (Second edition)


Anonymous said...

But at least one aspect of the criticism is sort of deserved: Sraffian models are sort of rigorous consequences of neoclassical approaches, in order to show just how flawed the non rigorous versions are.

Other than that they are indeed not very useful as they still are based on a static general equilibrium approach.

But surely they do illuminate that approach a lot better than the dissembling in neoclassical models.

As to me I prefer the JKGalbraith/Landes approach to political economy, the more discursive one too.

Robert Vienneau said...

I certainly emphasize that internal critique of neoclassical economics. I might take issue with describing Sraffa's economics as a "static general equilibrium approach".

Some Sraffians claim that Sraffa provides both an internal critique of neoclassical economics and a reconstruction of the logic of classical economics, while simultaneous maintaining that neoclassical and classical economics are distinct and different paradigms.