Liberals Compete for the Soul of Economics


Noah Smith in Bloomberg:

The New Heterodox Explosion rose in large part out of strongly left-leaning intellectual circles, particularly sociology, the humanities and other disciplines outside economics. It has also found a home in some economics departments in other countries (most notably the U.K.). Recently, it has started to permeate blogs and the media.

The new website Evonomics, for example, is heavily devoted to strongly worded critiques of the entire edifice of modern economics and it’s where the work of many of the most outspoken champions of the New Heterodox Explosion appears. These include evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, activist and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, speechwriter Eric Liu and Eric Beinhocker of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. In a spate of recent blog posts and editorials, these thinkers have advocated replacing mainstream economic theory with thinking based on evolution, and/or on complexity theory.

Though it’s difficult to boil down these critiques to a few sentences, one basic theme of Wilson, Hanauer, et al.’s thinking is that modern economics is based on selfishness. Mainstream theories model human beings as atomistic individuals pursuing their own wants. But, say these Evonomics writers, people are social beings who care a lot about their fellow humans, and are also deeply embedded in larger social structures and organizations like communities, nations and cultures.

I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I’m not at all sure that economies can be completely understood by looking at individual decisions, any more than I’m certain the growth of a tree can be understood simply by looking at the motions of the particles in the leaves and roots. And I do wish that economists dedicated a lot more thought and attention to the phenomena they call “externalities” and “social preferences.”

But I’m also very wary of applying the Evonomics ideas to policy-making without a lot more work. First, the connection to evolution and complexity theory often seems less than solid. Nobody really knows if economies evolve the way organisms do. And efforts to connect complexity theory to economics, led by the Santa Fe Institute, have been going on for quite some time without any dramatic breakthroughs.