Saturday, January 03, 2009

Is economics a science? Part Two

Part One looked at a structured and meaningful consideration of this question. Here's a much less serious one:

If economics is a science it is a very poor one. Let’s look at some of the assumptions it requires to ensure it works as one:

1) Perfect knowledge of the future

2) Certain knowledge of current preferences which will never change

3) Mindless pursuit of self interest in the face of conflicting goals

4) No externalities i.e. everything of value can be priced, with certainty

That’s not science: that’s mumbo jumbo.
This was a comment written by Richard Murphy at his own blog. As Tim Worstall, in a subsequent comment, pointed out, not one of these points is assumed by anyone at all, outside the writer's imagination, to be the case, let alone necessary for economics to be a science.

Mr Murphy followed this exchange with a post in which he further argued his case. Having read his post, I have to concede that he makes a convincing (if limited) case, albeit inadvertently. Economics is most definitely not, in his hands, a science.

It would be redundant to point out that he appears to know nothing about the serious considerations of this subject that have been around for decades. He knows nothing, from the look of it, of arguments that have been put to him there on his blog and to which he is, ostensibly, replying. He debates with himself, throwing up points he imagines others have made (they have not), then arguing against them.

So why bother to mention this blogging equivalent of the sort of poor soul who walks along the street, shouting at an invisible antagonist? Firstly, because he is influential:
Richard has written widely on taxation and accounting, including for the Observer. He has appeared in BBC radio and television documentaries on taxation issues.

Since 2000 Richard has been increasingly involved in taxation policy issues. He is a founder of the Tax Justice Network and director of Tax Research LLP which undertakes work on taxation policy for a wide range of clients including governments, government agencies, commercial organisations, aid agencies and pressure groups in the UK and abroad.
And that's troubling.

Secondly, because he has, effectively, accused Tim of being some kind of Nazi because he allows offensive comments to remain on his blog. Well, yes he does. I don't think anyone has better cause than I to be aware of this; a very large number of defamatory comments about me have been left, anonymously, on Tim's blog. We've corresponded about them privately*, from time to time, and neither of us is in any doubt who is responsible for them, but I have never asked Tim to remove them, and nor would I.

Murphy decided to prevent Tim from commenting on his blog. He's entitled to do that, the right to free speech does not carry with it a right to be given a platform by others. Here's his reasoning, if that's the word I want:
The object of the aggression [in comments at Tim's site]... is simple. It is to frighten people away from the debate to secure the space for the far right.
It is why I have decided to ignore his comments from now on. It is why the mainstream needs to eliminate this type of attack...
Got that? Murphy is saying that it's wrong to try to exclude people (he agrees with) from debate, and that people (he disagrees with) should be excluded from debate. That's a bit more sinister. And so, as of this episode, is Richard Murphy.

[*Update: I should have stated that I mentioned private correspondence with Tim's prior permission]


Mark Wadsworth said...

Of course economics is not a proper science like physics but there are a lot of rules of thumb that are always borne out in practice, it's all commonsense and observing what happens and finding patterns.

The problem is there are those, like me, who are forever observing that free markets are best left to themselves and that some taxes are worse than others; whereas the likes of RM think that His Kind Of People are far better at running the economy and if we only allowed them to tell us what to do all the time that we'd be a lot happier.

Peter Risdon said...

There's a part one to this post, that does make something of an argument that economics is a science, but an immature one. It isn't my argument, so it's even more interesting than it might otherwise be.

marksany said...

Hari Seldon will be along soon. When he does, Richard is going to feel foolish.