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The Fall of the Economists’ Empire

The goal of economics is to replace the particular languages that obstruct the discovery of general laws with the universal language of mathematics. This is the apotheosis of a Western conceit that can no longer be sustained by Western power.

LONDON – The historian Norman Stone, who died in June, always insisted that history students learn foreign languages. Language gives access to a people’s culture, and culture to its history. Its history tells us how it sees itself and others. Knowledge of languages should thus be an essential component of a historian’s technical equipment. It is the key to understanding the past and future of international relations.

But this belief in the fundamental importance of knowing particular languages has faded, even among historians. All social sciences, to a greater or lesser degree, start with a yearning for a universal language, into which they can fit such particulars as suit their view of things. Their model of knowledge thus aspires to the precision and generality of the natural sciences. Once we understand human behavior in terms of some universal and – crucially – ahistorical principle, we can aspire to control (and of course improve) it.

No social science has succumbed to this temptation more than economics. Its favored universal language is mathematics. Its models of human behavior are built not on close observation, but on hypotheses that, if not quite plucked from the air, are unconsciously plucked from economists’ intellectual and political environments. These then form the premises of logical reasoning of the type, “All sheep are white, therefore the next sheep I meet will be white.” In economics: “All humans are rational utility maximizers. Therefore, in any situation, they will act in such a way as to maximize their utility.” This method gives economics a unique predictive power, especially as the utilities can all be expressed and manipulated quantitatively. It makes economics, in Paul Samuelson’s words, the “queen of the social sciences.”

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