Commenter Dan thinks economics has not yet found its watershed moment:
Think about Biology before DNA was discovered or Geology before plate tectonics was understood, both disciplines had learned a lot but they still lacked a comprehensive model that made everything fit into place.
I am sympathetic with this viewpoint. Heterodox criticisms come at economists thick and fast – personally, I think most of these criticisms are valid and very little of neoclassical economics should be left. Yet neoclassical economics persists.
However, in my opinion this isn’t because economics lacks a unifying theory; it’s the exact opposite. Economists already think they have found a unifying concept: namely, the optimising agent. Consumers maximise utility; producers maximise profits; politicians maximise their own interests/their ability to get reelected. Sure, there are a few constraints on this behaviour, but overall it is the best starting point. It all blends together into a coherent theory that can tell a plausible story about the economy. I find economists are resistant to any theory that doesn’t follow this methodology.
The typical definition of economics is the study of how resources are allocated. Hence, a unifying theory should empirically and logically do a satisfactory job of explaining prices, production and distribution. Such a theory would be able to underlie virtually any economic model in some form, whether being the wider context of a microeconomic phenomenon, or the basis of macroeconomic phenomenon. No easy task, then, but luckily many approaches of this nature already exist.
Alternative Theories of Behaviour
If we want to stick with agent-based explanations of the economy, there are any number of alternatives to the ‘optimising’ agent. Among these are:
I consider all of these approaches useful, but none of them sufficient for the task at hand.
In the case of the first two, replacing ‘optimising’ agents with ‘satisficing’ agents isn’t exactly revolutionary. Maslow’s hierarchy can, in fact, work as a utility function. In both cases, we still run into similar problems of aggregation and of reductionism. And we end up trying to shoehorn every decision into a particular approach. The simple truth is that agents have a lot of different motivations for their actions and sometimes these aren’t always clear, even to them.
My main issue with these, and any agent based approach, is that they aren’t necessarily relevant for the wider question of resource allocation in society. Individualist-based neoclassical economics has to reduce things down to a few agents with only a few goods in order to have any conclusions whatsoever; I can’t help but feel similar problems would emerge here. Class struggle may determine distribution but it doesn’t tell us much about what is produced and at what price it is sold. In order to understand how production takes place and prices are determined, we will have to look elsewhere.
A Theory of Value
The value approach has a lot of pluses. A theory of value underpins the explanation of relative prices, and also has normative implications that recognize the inevitable value judgments in economics. The only problem I have here is that I’ve yet to find a convincing theory of value – the two most widely known are the neoclassical/Austrian subjective theory of value and the Labour Theory of Value (LTV).
I object to the idea that prices merely reflect subjective valuations for the basic reason of circularity: prices must be calculated before subjective valuation takes place, so they cannot purely reflect subjective values.
I have more sympathy with the LTV (mostly because its proponents seem to have coherent responses to every criticism thrown at it), but I remain unconvinced. The defences of the labour theory of value tend to rest on appeals to ‘the long run’ and ‘averages” of socially necessary labour time. These may be useful, but, like the neoclassical ‘long run’ approach they seem to leave open the immediate question of what’s going on in the economy and what we can do about it.
In my opinion, these approaches both contain some validity, and are not mutually exclusive. I tend to agree with Richard Wolff, who asserts that suggesting one has refuted the other is like saying knives & forks have refuted chopsticks. Both are useful; neither are all-encompassing theories. I also believe both are compatible, to some degree, with my favoured approach:
The ‘Reproduction and Surplus’ Theory
This approach is the one emphasised by Sraffians and Classical Economists. It starts from the basic observation that society must reproduce itself to survive, and that generally society manages this, plus a surplus. The reproductive approach emphasises what I believe to be an important aspect of capitalism, and perhaps all systems: the collective nature of production. Industries are interdependent; people work in teams; various institutions, often state-backed or provided, underlie all of this. Hence, no special moral status is accorded to prices or the allocation of surplus, except that prices must be appropriate for the continued existence of industries and society as a whole.
On first inspection the ‘insight’ that society must reproduce itself might be considered trivial, but following through its implications can yield interesting and useful conclusions. The framework can be used to determine prices technically, independently of either preferences or values. It emphasises the interdependent nature of the economy: if one industry or input fails, it has severe knock on effects. For this reason, it would do a great job of explaining both the oil shocks and resultant stagflation of the 1970s and the 2008 financial crisis, something modern macroeconomics cannot manage.
On top of this, the model is versatile: it can interact with its institutional environment, which determines key variables exogenously (e.g. the monetary system determines interest rates, political power determines distribution). The classical approach is, for example, compatible with class theories of income distribution, post-Keynesian theories of endogenous money and mark-up pricing, and even neoclassical utility maximising individuals! Probably the most promising and complete framework out of them all – I look forward to further developments of this approach.
It is feasible that the task of finding a watershed moment is not possible in the fuzzy world of social sciences. Psychology and sociology are both characterised by competing approaches; psychology in particular has improved since the
neoclassicals Freudians were dethroned. If neoclassical economics has taught us nothing else, it’s the importance of not being trapped by particular theories for want of elegance, which is why there is a lot to commend in the institutional school of economics.
Nevertheless, I think there is scope for exploring unifying principles. Progress in neurology may provide such a foundation for psychology; similarly, ideas such as societal reproduction could equally be applied to sociological concepts such as the role of beliefs, class, sports or what have you. As far as economics goes, such a substantial step forward could be what’s required to displace neoclassical economics, whose staying power, in my opinion, cannot be accorded to either its empirical relevance or its internal consistency. Perhaps neoclassical economics persists simply because its building blocks are so well defined that other approaches seem too incomplete to offer their opponents sure footing.