Is Dani Rodrik really a pluralist?

20 November, 2016 at 10:59 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Unlearning economics has a well-written and interesting review of Dani Rodrik’s book Economics Rules up on Pieria. Although the reviewer thinks there is much in the book to like and appreciate, there are also things he strongly objects to. Such as Rodrik’s stance on the issue of pluralism:

If Rodrik is at his strongest when discussing particular neoclassical models and their applications, he’s at his weakest when discussing non-neoclassical and non-economic approaches. Just as his discussion of the former benefits from a broad array of concrete examples, his discussion of the latter suffers from a failure to discuss any examples, coupled with a series of sweeping, unsubstantiated assertions about what is wrong with them. Thus, despite the fact that Rodrik considers himself “well exposed to…different traditions within the social sciences”, one is forced to conclude that he is almost completely ignorant of what they – as well as non-neoclassical economics – have to offer.

comic1For example, Rodrik dismisses calls for methodological pluralism in economics with the bizarre claim that “no academic discipline is permissive of approaches that diverge too much from prevailing practices”. This is patently untrue: pluralism is simply par for the course in every other social science and almost every other discipline. As Alan Freeman once commented, economics is actually “more committed to the unity of its doctrines than theology, whose benchmark simply states that ‘Much of the excitement of the discipline lies in its contested nature.’” There is even a case that hard sciences like physics are more pluralist than economics. The insistence on a particular, rigid, deductive mathematical framework for approaching issues is a characteristic of economics and economics alone.

Most strangely, the case for economic pluralism follows directly from the defining theme of Rodrik’s book: that economics is about choosing the best model for the best situation. If this is so, how can he dismiss non-mainstream models outright? This would entail either a convincing methodological demonstration of why these models can’t be used in general, else a series of case studies of why popular non-neoclassical models are inferior to neoclassical ones. Without engaging with pluralist literature – model-based or otherwise – Rodrik has no clear reasons as to why he can reject such approaches. Personally, I would love to see some engagement from mainstream economists with ideas like Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis; capacity utilisation models; agent based models; cost-plus pricing; endogenous money. Note here that ‘engagement’ does not mean building one model which superficially claims to incorporate these ideas, then carrying on as normal.

Similar weakness is evident in Rodrik’s discussion of other social sciences and his (largely unfavourable) comparison of them to economics. He makes another bizarre claim: that it would be “truly rare” for junior researchers to challenge more senior researchers in other disciplines, with his only citation as the Sokal affair, where a nonsense paper was accepted into a sociology journal. It is not clear how this is directly relevant, but presumably Rodrik’s argument is that the editors simply accepted the paper because it referenced and agreed with them. But similar controversies have happened in many areas such as physics and electrical engineering. Are these just woolly, “interpretative” disciplines too? This really says more about the modern peer-review process than it does about any particular discipline. Besides, research suggests that economics is one of the most hierarchical disciplines in the social sciences.

Yours truly can’t but agree. For my own take on Rodrik’s book, see my review in Real-World Economics Review.

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