The Tale of Two Disciplines

Economics, as it is taught today, is split into two different disciplines. The first being economic theory, which is real science in that it attempts to explain the world as we know it. According to Einstein, theory should be a systematic description of the essential interrelations of reality. While the second being decision theory, uses mathematical or logical modes of operation to explain the end actions of individuals. In this mode of operation, the thing being studied can be via the usage of consistent axioms.

My Austrian friends have told me that the difference I am attempting to explain is that of praxeology and catallactics. The former being that study of purposeful human action and the latter being a study at how the market orders itself, how exchange happens. Robert Whately defined catallactics as the science of exchanges, which is something I am partial to. However, while these larger themes fit my prior complaints, much of the profession, including the material taught to students, does not use the heterodox methodology or terminology of Austrian economics. While I think heterodoxy is important, this leads to a different set of questions and not ones I will try to answer in this essay.

The broader point that I want to make is that the profession is split into two camps, and has been for a long time. The economic theorists have been left behind by the choice theorists. The science has lost its way in assuming that the logical nature of decision theory, which always ends in a binary variable of the choice is taken (1) or not taken (0). This is neither truly descriptive nor informative, minus what is the supposed outcome. Mind you, the outcome is only fictional until it happens in actuality. At that point, the supposed outcome and the actual may be different since each person, though they are subject to the law of demand, has a different set of constraints.

Our need for preference negation following the landmark paper, De gustibus non est disputandum, removes the source of variations via preferences from the field.  Stigler and Becker “show” that preferences do not matter. This has been a source of contention for many since, because surely any two given people will not act similarly in similar situations. If you remove what makes humanity, well, human, then what are we studying? Even more so, the current replication crisis in many fields shows that many studies are woefully underpowered or cannot be replicated. Why? What actions undertaken by a few people at a given time and place may not be the same actions undertaken by others in a similar experiment, albeit a different time and place. Economics is more complicated than choice theory.

Even when choice theory scales up into the macroeconomy, it cannot capture the complexity and vast amount of information necessary to be processed. The greatest tragedy of choice theory is that aggregates all of the actions taken by the individuals within the model. If you’ve ever seen the summation of utility curves, then you’re well aware of what I am talking about. Choice theorists don’t know how these utility measures came into being, they’ve assumed them into the model, nor can choice theorists tell you the magnitude of the utility. Not only that, but they assume that the summation works simply because preferences will cancel out. In a zero-sum world, there may be truth to that statement, but the world isn’t zero-sum, especially with the advent of zero-marginal cost technologies.

Janos Kornai said, “The ‘transplantation’ of the models of decision theory cannot, however, serve as a substitute for a scientific theory describing reality.” Choice theory won’t save the field, but it may keep us above water for a time. There is so much more to be explored, both the whys and the hows, but especially the patterns of entanglement.

Thus we are left with a void in economics, one that if filled would describe the reality of our world without reducing its inhabitants to a homo economicus.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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