Method or Madness?

My article about the Battle of Methodologies, published in March 2018 issue of NewsLine Magazine:

Because of the universal spread and impact of Western educational systems, necessary for survival in the modern world, we have all learned to view the world through glasses manufactured in Europe. Just as a fish is unaware of the waters in which it swims, so we are unaware of the currents of history which have shaped European thought. Yet to understand the world we live in, and how our perceptions have been shaped by the dominance of West, it is essential to acquire an understanding of how the Western worldview has been radically transformed over the past few centuries. In this brief essay, we will discuss the “Methodenstreit”, the battle of methodologies, which took place in the late nineteenth century. While this is only one piece of the complex and multi-dimensional historical experiences of Europeans, the methodenstreit had a decisive impact on modern social science, which shapes our current understanding of human beings and their social, political and economic lives. The title of the book “How Economics Forgot History” about the methodenstreit by Geoffrey Hodgson accurately describes the impact of this battle on the discipline of Economics. In this battle, the German Historical School, championed by Schmoller and his colleagues, lost to the Austrian School of Menger, who favored a scientific and quantitative approach to economics.

But what is wrong with taking a scientific approach to the formulation and solution of economic problems, the reader might ask. This essay provides an answer to this question. The idea that economics is a “science” is firmly embedded in the foundations of modern economics. This means that economics provides us with a set of laws which have universal applicability across time and space, independent of social, political, geographic, and historic context. In fact, there are no such economic laws. How we organize our economic affairs differs in different societies, and also varies across time. The attempt to create a “scientific” economics resulted in forcing mathematical laws upon human behavior. Over the past few decades, psychologists who study actual human behavior have established that humans do not behave according to these laws. This has resulted in the creation of field of “Behavioral Economics,” and many researchers working in this area have been awarded Nobel Prizes (most recently, Richard Thaler) for discoveries which contradict the laws of behavior still being taught across the globe to students of economic theory. Despite discoveries that human beings are temperamental, driven by diverse and conflicting emotions, and free to make sudden changes in behavior, the scientific methodology of modern economics currently being taught to students across the globe continues to describe human beings as predictable robots subject to mathematical laws. The insights from behavioral economics are so radically in conflict with economic theory, that economists have not been able to assimilate them into the mainstream curriculum.

Similarly, the scientific method leads economists to ignore specific historical events in their vain quest for universal laws which describe economic systems. Essential insights about economics are lost due to this disregard of history.  For example, the two world wars, The Great Depression, The Bretton-Woods agreement, and Nixon’s revocation of gold backing for the dollar are events of central importance for understanding the economics of the twentieth century. However, economists do not study these events since they are particular and specific historical events, which cannot be described using universal scientific laws. On a larger scale, the birth of modern market society can be traced to the industrial revolution, which created possibilities of massive overproduction of goods in 18th century England. This overproduction concentrated a massive amount of wealth and power in the hands of a small group of people, who were able to use favorable historical circumstances to increase their wealth and power by expanding the role and influence of markets to the point that they came to dominate and destroy traditional societies all over the world. The deep insights which emerge upon connecting the historical context with economic theory have been brought out by Karl Polanyi in his magnum opus: “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times.” One of the central themes of Polanyi is the dramatic contrast and opposition between values of traditional societies and the emerging modern market society. Traditional societies organize their economies on principles of redistribution and reciprocity, cooperatively taking care of all members. Furthermore, traditional societies value many characteristics like heroism, generosity, knowledge, spirituality, literature, arts, sports, etc. over and above the possession of wealth. In contrast, wealth becomes the primary marker of status in market societies, and becomes the main object of personal and collective endeavor. Studying the evolution of economic system and the co-evolution of economic theories adapted to the study of these systems in historical context yield deep insights not available using the currently dominant ‘scientific’ methodology.

An important consequence of the opposition between market values and social values is that traditional societies do not and cannot evolve into becoming market societies – this change is always brought about by a revolution, which destroys traditional values and replaces them by anti-thetical values of a market society. This revolution occurs on both the physical and material dimension, and, more importantly for our present essay, it also occurs on the ideological dimension. As Marx realized, capitalism produces laborers conditioned by education, tradition, and habits into thinking of the economy as subject to natural laws, and accepting their own exploitation as a necessary, fair, and just part of the system. Similarly, even though the market society provides enormous amounts of wealth and power for a few select members, expansion of the market into all human affairs requires this minority to create and popularize market ideologies. At the core of market ideologies is the idea that markets are governed by natural laws which provide equitable outcomes to all participants and create maximum wealth for all. This ideology runs counter to traditional ideas about social responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged, and suggests that interfering with market mechanisms will cause harm to everyone.

To understand the “origins of our times,” it is necessary to understand the parallel growth of market institutions which expand the scope and power of the marketplace, and the accompanying market ideologies which counter and negate traditional ideas about social norms. For example, exploiting the possibilities of massive overproduction created by the industrial revolution required the creation of consumers for these products. The globe was occupied by traditional societies which prized self-sufficiency as a virtue, and did not have markets for British goods. The productive capacities of the industrial society created the power to physically take over and colonize weaker societies all over the world. The destruction of local institutions for provision of social welfare, and the harnessing of all factors – labor, land, natural resources – to the global production of capitalist wealth was also accompanied by ideologies promoting the idea that this was the best path for all concerned. In particular, the economic theory of “comparative advantage” was invented to justify the absurd idea that it was in best interest of the colonies to remain engaged in the production of raw materials, leaving England to specialize in the production of industrial manufactures. Since it is easily refuted by empirical evidence, comparative advantage cannot be understood as a “scientific theory”. It can only be understood as a product of historical circumstances, as a part of a collection of theories required to justify the brutal processes of colonization and the accompanying destruction of local economies.

Since ‘comparative advantage’ was a manifestation of political power, effective counters also required political power. In Germany,  Friedrich List created the ‘infant industry argument” to support protectionist policies in Germany and Europe, which allowed European industries to catch up to England. Similarly, the American Revolution allowed the USA to implement protectionist policies which developed strong industries in North America. Colonies which did not have the political power to resist the ideology of comparative advantage remain agricultural economies providing raw materials to advanced economies to this day.  Like all major modern economic theories, comparative advantage can only be understood within its historical context, by seeing how the interests of the powerful imperialists were protected and advanced by the spread of this theory. The theory of free trade, which remains popular and widely believed by economists, is very similar. Wars by European powers against China and Japan were concluding by signing treaties which opened these countries to European goods, creating a market for industrialized European economies. Not only was free trade forced upon them by war, but the ‘theory of free trade’, which says that this was in their best interest, was forced upon them by the corresponding ideological war. It was the ability of China and Japan to resist this ideological war that has led to their economic success today. Similarly, it has been our failure to resist the invasion of ideologies and theories of the economic hit-men that has led to our poor economic performance for several decades.

The most important insight which emerges from studying history, politics, geography, and society in conjunction with economics is the deep inter-connections between all these spheres of human lives, and the impossibility of studying them in isolation. Like all of social science, modern economic theory derives directly from the analysis of economic systems of Western capitalist societies. The victory of the scientific and quantitative school over the German historical school in the battle of the methodologies created the misconception that this analysis is a “science” which is universally valid across time and space, for all societies. This has led to the current situation, where we teach and study capitalist economics relevant to modern European and USA economies but largely irrelevant to our economy, which is structured along different lines. At the same time, we do not study the success stories in patterns of the miraculous growth achieved by China and East Asian economies, which followed radically different policies. Discarding the blinders created by “scientific” pretensions of Western economics would create much-needed skepticism about the applicability of Western economic  theories to our radically different historical and cultural context, and also open our eyes to non-European models for prosperity which offer us substantially greater chances of success.

PostScript: For a more detailed discussion, see Origins of Western Social Sciences

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8 comments
  1. RB said:

    Sir Your article has well described the current discrepancies in present economic system,but it seems impossible to get out of this modern economic system even in Islamic countries policy makers apathetic to incorporate traditional economic values. As a individual what sort of changes one can initiate to make an iota of change?

  2. David Harold Chester said:

    The way to study economics is to provide scientific techniques for its analysis. When the modeling of it is sufficiently general there will be no need to separate “Capitalist Economics Science” from any other kind and so a better picture will emerge without the problem of separation mentioned above. I have achieved this in my recent book. write to me for a free e-copy chesterdh@hotmail.com

  3. Excellent piece. I concur with it in almost all aspects. I suggest one correction, however. You say, “An important consequence of the opposition between market values and social values is that traditional societies do not and cannot evolve into becoming market societies – this change is always brought about by a revolution, which destroys traditional values and replaces them by anti-thetical values of a market society.” I believe you slightly misstate the situation, here. First, market values are social values. Just not those of “traditional” societies. Recognizing this, we can study the varying impacts of the different values, as Polanyi did. Second, we can ask this important question, is the destruction of “traditional” values always a bad thing? When might it be a good thing?

  4. Edward Ross said:

    I am the uneducated 82 year old who is running out of steam, I find Assad Zaman’s post and the 3 following comments a particularly good explanation of how the :

    German Historical School’ championed by Schmuller and his colleagues’ lost to the Austrian school of Menger, who favoured a scientific and qualitive approach to economics. …”scientific” economics resulted in forcing mathematical laws on human behaviour”.

    As you note those who study human behaviour agree that humans do not act or react according to so called economic laws. I support this argument not from an academic or economic aspect, but from a broad experience in the real world of real people in the real world . On this basis I think it is essential to listen to Tony Lawson’s call for a new ontology, as a starting point for economic conversations to begin with understanding real people before making formulating theory on what may amount to false assumptions.

    This morning while contemplating on this post and Economics for the 21st Centuary January 25 and particularly Dave Taylor’s post i tend to think understanding these historical events coupled with a better understanding of humans and their actions and reactions to events and circumstances, far more important than bleating like a mob of sheep about what in the long run may prove to be irrelevant theory. Consequently I think both Asad Zman and Geoffrey Hodgson deserve some serious consideration by all. Ted

  5. Bhaskara II said:

    No mention of what was learned from India or China. Each produced 25% of the worlds GDP.

  6. Bhaskara II said:

    Great statement:

    “Discarding the blinders created by “scientific” pretensions of Western economics would create much-needed skepticism about the applicability of Western economic theories to our radically different historical and cultural context, and also open our eyes to non-European models for prosperity which offer us substantially greater chances of success.”

  7. Reblogged this on An Islamic WorldView and commented:

    Due to the battle between science and religion, in Europe (explained in greater detail in and earlier post), European philosophers came to believe that Science was the only source of reliable knowledge. This rejection of heart and soul has cost them dearly in terms of understanding the nature of human beings, which is required for sound social science. This post explains why Western approaches to the study of human beings and societies are fundamentally flawed.

  8. Thank you for your thoughts Dr. Zaman Sahib. Enjoyed thoroughly reading your article through. A dominant stream of economics researchers (David Bloom and others) believes that East Asian nations economic miracle was due to the demographic dividend they seized (as a result of their favorable population age structure). You may not agree with this school of thought though. Could you kindly tell us in brief the factors that you consider relevant to East Asian nations’ miracle economic performance lately.

    Thank you again for your valuable thoughts, and you in advance for your time

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