Economics and its Discontents: Twentieth Century Dissenting Economists, edited by Richard P. F. Holt and Steven Pressman. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK and Northampton MA USA 1998. Pp. xii, 289. $90.00. ISBN 1-85898-272-3.

The seventeen contributors to this volume profile prominent economists, one each, who can reasonably be considered dissidents from the dominant vision of economics. The essays' subjects range from the well-known--e.g., Keynes and Friedman--whose successful dissents became orthodoxy, to less familiar writers like John R. Commons and Adolph Lowe.

Each of them is somebody's hero. It is hard to become expert enough to contribute essays like these unless one admires one's subject, but the resulting hagiography often makes this book infuriating. How many times must one tolerate being told that, unlike everyone else (including, very likely, the reader), this economist cares about human well-being, this economist has removed the ideological blinders that could be the only possible defense of human freedom, or this economist perceives that each of us learns things from others? There is at least something interesting in every essay, but some of the authors are clearly frustrated and angry that their subjects have been "marginalized," so a reader must be prepared to be insulted and slapped around quite a bit.

A complete list of examples is not feasible here, but here are a few. Recounting Gardiner Means' embracing of the hierarchy-of-needs concept (food, shelter, etc.), Frederic Lee tells us that "He realized that this lexicographic ranking of wants violated the notion of substitution underpinning neoclassical consumer demand theory" (204), without mentioning margins. Explaining Joan Robinson's dissent, Zohreh Emami informs us that "'she viewed human beings as both creators and beneficiaries of those improvements in human welfare that economic activities are supposed to foster'" (211, quoting Jensen), as if even a single "orthodox" economist might disagree. John A. Hobson, J. E. King tells us, "exposed the liberal myth that unregulated markets protected individual freedom... Consumer sovereignty means virtual slavery for the worker" (99), as if the voluntary-exchange obligation to offer greater value were equivalent to a gun. Mathew Forstater's Adolph Lowe, the extreme of the volume's dissidents whose "wholesale rejection of conventional economics" (183) leaves no apparent way to reason about human behavior, asserts that because scarcity is a relationship between output and culturally determined wants it "'cannot be made the criterion for economic activity'" (186, quoting Lowe), a non sequitur from a commonplace premise.

Why put up with this kind of stuff? Life is short. But, just when another reincarnation of an easily refutable mischaracterization or overinflating of simple empirical dispute or assertion of ideological evil has approached the limits of one's tolerance, a challenge appears that lacks any obvious error yet probes at the foundation of the reader's conception of economics. It is largely this potential for supremely exciting discovery that makes the book worth reading.

Its contributions, arranged alphabetically by dissident, range in length from ten pages (Ross Emmett's fine and too-short piece on Frank Knight, and Lee on Means) to twenty-two pages (Heinz Kurz and Neri Salvadori's far too long essay on Piero Sraffa), averaging fourteen and a half. Endnotes and references are conveniently placed at the end of each. To judge the quality of every essay would require thorough knowledge of each critic and of the "orthodoxy" (generally neoclassical microeconomic theory) he targets, and this reviewer is not embarrassed to admit lacking such breadth. Most of the book's readers will be in the same boat, so contributors have an obligation to survey and address the dissident nature of their subjects' whole careers. Most of them do. Less satisfactory are the few essays that skim as common knowledge their subject's principal work to explore a subset interesting to the contributor (e.g., King on Hobson) or to advance a novel interpretation (e.g., Laurence Moss on Hayek). The book's scope also explains why this review must focus on general issues, and leave specific evaluation of, say, the essay on Thomas Schelling (by David Latzko) to those who really know something about his work.

The fundamental question this volume provokes is: Dissenting from what? Nearly every author, commendably, introduces his or her piece by addressing it thoughtfully. Collectively the essays identify about twenty attributes characterizing "orthodoxy" importantly enough that disagreement with at least some of them makes one a dissident. Most of them are interesting and significant methodological and microeconomic issues, in part because of the disarray of twentieth-century macroeconomics and in part because macro positions follow from micro and/or method. Nonetheless, the two essays whose subjects are best known for their macroeconomics are among the book's best: Victoria Chick on Keynes and David Colander on Friedman. Both explain that their subjects' different macroeconomic theories and policy conclusions follow primarily from different methodological positions.

Among the less interesting on this list of dissident-determining attributes are non-essential empirical assumptions that economists often inject into their work. Different empirical judgments, however important their policy implications, can usually be accommodated by the "orthodox" theoretical framework. The rejection of capitalism is another uninteresting attribute of a dissenter. After all, the general support of modern "liberal" economists for capitalism follows from certain empirical and methodological positions. It isn't just an ideological assertion. Unless its rejection is similarly explained by empirical and/or methodological differences, it is just an inconsequential statement of belief. In this same camp is Elizabeth Paulin's description of Barbara Bergmann as feminist, eager to use economics whenever possible to promote the well-being of women. This position is interesting only to the extent that it challenges methodological foundations; Paulin's Bergmann's advocacy of "knowledge gained from direct contact with the physical world" rather than from "musing," introspection, and deductive logic qualifies.

A final non-fundamental dissent is simply that economists have been too narrow in the application of their tools. No dissident is included solely for this reason. One finds it when an economist is in most respects a strong advocate of neoclassical microeconomic reasoning, but applies it in non-traditional ways. Latzko's Schelling analyzes war, for example, and Peter Boettke's Buchanan public choice.

Holt and Pressman have achieved fair political balance in assembling these contributions. The self-assured reader can sharpen his logic by framing careful rejections of most of the described positions, but may find his own ideas expanded, corrected, and reshaped.

Towson University

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