This post is part of a symposium on the Methods of Political Economy.
The introductory essay to this symposium repeats several standard views about neoclassical economics that I think are some combination of dated, inaccurate, or irrelevant. I think what legal scholars (including those who do “economic analysis of the law”) perceive as economics is a tragic caricature of what currently happens inside economics departments, and the list of people to blame for that is long. But I’ve written about that elsewhere, and so I’ll take advantage of this space to defend one thing I think current economics shares with its neoliberal doppelganger. The most salient reason neoclassical economics became dominant in policy circles is that it was allied with a general revanchist business interest squeezed by late-60s/early 70s crisis. But we should not forget that it also presented the policymakers dealing that crisis something that more heterodox approaches did not: parsimony.
A recurring theme in the criticism of neoclassical economics is its constraining precision and abstraction. Even when freed from laissez-faire dogma, economic models maim reality, and the narrow style of quantitative empirical work in economics does a great deal of epistemic violence to details, compressing qualitative differences into quantitative measures. The result is a discipline that is insensitive to a lot of the cultural, psychological, and institutional details that sibling social sciences take seriously. The criticisms from heterodox economists and other more qualitative social sciences perpetually remind us of this. We use math that doesn’t actually capture reality; we quantitatively measure entities that are immeasurably different; and we insist on a crude logical positivism even as economics is deeply constitutive of institutional realities. But the virtue of all these vices is simplicity, well worth the cost of the notorious blindspots.
My claim here is not just the usual one that every discipline requires blindspots—that to model reality is to miss some of it—but also that a discipline can only be useful in guiding governance if it has such blindspots. Any social science that aims to inform (and perform) the function of a complex social organization, like a state or corporation, that enforces even somewhat impartial rules needs to ruthlessly abstract from particularities. In particular, it must use mathematics, for making incommensurable claims commensurable, for representing the workings of fantastically complex adaptive systems, and for complementarity with technologies of organizational administration, like spreadsheets.
Relatedly but distinctly, a social science that is useful for the legal needs of a large administrative state operating in a complex heterogeneous society must also be parsimonious. This social science ought to be cognitively lightweight and context-independent so that citizens and experts and bureaucrats and judges and lawyers can easily communicate new situations across a large population in a common idiom. Late 20th century neoclassical economics provided a primitive, ideology-laden language for doing this, for example by making market prices inviolable adjudicators of value inside the regulatory state (e.g. via cost-benefit analysis). But its successor will not be found in pendulous, wordy treatises penned by ethnographers and humanists; it will be instantiated in formal organizational protocols and algorithms that are the logic of some mathematical social science. It will remedy some of the blindspots of modern economics but will have its own. The question is what form that mathematical social science will take, what normative principles will it encode, and how will it be fit into an administrative apparatus that is as transparent and legitimate as possible. I suspect an updated economics will be a part, but only a part, of whatever post-neoliberal administrative epistemology we wind up inhabiting.