Sneering at the Other Guy

Too many economists, including myself on many occasions, talk down about economists they have not yet attempted to understand. All camps are guilty: Keynesian, Monetarist, Austrian, Post-Keynesian, or whatever. This habit may help develop an "us vs them" feeling, but it does not advance thinking or the science.

Again, Deirdre McCloskey inspires me to correct my ways. She is a key reason I am working through Theory of Price and Mas-Colell with a better attitude most who discover economics through Mises and Hayek. Deirdre writes

Let me put down the following challenge to the people who think they hate, just hate, neoclassical price theory. Go work through a serious book about it—not the “theoretical” micro that Guerrien and I both think is silly---and do the applied problems. If you can’t get inside the hundreds of empirical exercises in, say, my book, or in the applications of price theory as they occur (obscured by nonsensical existence theorems) in the neoclassical literature then you don’t really know what the tradition of Marshall-Wicksell-Friedman-Coase-Alchian is about, and you are not qualified to sneer at it, right? Doesn’t that sound fair? I think so, and I would apply it to my own understanding of Marxian or institutional economics. (emphasis added)

I don't mean, nor take Deirdre to mean, that you cannot criticize a theory until you are an "expert" on it. Read everything with a critical eye, even if it is your first exposure. Instead, she challenges the post-autistic crowd to not "sneer" until they understand the literature. It is a small request.

Understanding Alchian does not require a serious neoclassical economist. Alchian's textbook is accessible to the new reader; I speak from experience. Unfortunately, people often dismiss a theory before even trying to understand it. This is dangerous, especially towards a tradition as influential as neoclassical economics. To encourage ignorance through "sneering", without even attempting an understanding, is the mistake. I would say the same about Marx. Clearly people thought he had something important to say, so there is likely something of value in Das Kapital. Remain open to the possibility that it could be valuable, until you understand why it is not. I can criticize the labor theory of value or exploitation theory at the same time.

As someone relatively new to the economics, this means not sneering at basically everyone. Instead, I must try to understand their theory. Contrary to her intentions, she also challenged me to give the "theoretical" she deplores a chance. I urge others to try the same with whomever they have sneered at.

P.S. I love the word sneer. It is a wonder of the English language.

(Update: Jonathan Catalan was influential in opening me up to new ideas. He does not have a single post on his intellectual growth, but has clearly developed throughout the life of his blog)

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