March 3, 2006

High Priests and Lowly Philosophers

The Battle for the Soul of Economics
  • Christopher Coyne

    Associate Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Peter J. Boettke

    Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Peter Leeson

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
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Read this article at Peter Leeson's Website. 

In writing about the role of economists in government, Nelson argued that economists do not limit their advice to technical expertise. Instead, they use their position as economic advisor to strongly advocate particular programs. Nelson reasoned that since the economic way of thinking provides a way for us to understand and legitimate our modern world, perhaps economics has become the modern theology that has come to replace traditional theology as the set of doctrines that give meaning to our social reality and hope to our endeavors for improvement in our lives. In fact, Nelson demonstrates how Samuelson’s claims to scientific value-freedom are merely rhetorical flourish. Samuelson’s ideas are the logical outgrowth of the intellectual movement of American progressivism where government, in seeking to create the Kingdom of God on Earth, must act as a corrective to social ills such as unemployment and plan the social order. Building on Nelson’s analysis, we contend that the transformation of economics from a discipline that studies the economy to one that is entrusted with its control has threatened the very "soul" of economics. The false pretense of scientific management led economists to promise to accomplish tasks that they cannot legitimately achieve. False theory combined with bad philosophy generated scientific claims that must now be rejected. In this paper, Boettke, Coyne, and Leeson provide three cases where the scientistic pretensions of economists got the better of them in the 20th century: Keynesian demand management, the practice of cost/benefit analysis by regulators and lawyers, and the debate over market socialism.