Monday, October 26, 2009

Vromen on Freakonomics

TC at MR points us to Jack J. Vromen's essay in the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, titled "The Booming Economics-Made-Fun Book Genre: More Than Having Fun, But Less Than Economic Imperialism."

It was the second part of the title that caught my interest, and indeed the essay is not so much a recent review of the way in which economics has expanded in popularity as it is a discussion of what constitutes economics and its place in social science. In particular, Vromen offers a response to the genre's critics that view this as "economics imperialism."

These critics are found in the other social sciences and parley their overall critique of economics (or at least what they perceive economics to be) and its expansion into "their" subject matter. By "their" subject matter, it is taken to mean the general non-econ aspects of life that tend to be discussed in this genre (more sex is safer sex, tipping your dentist, identifying the cheating sumo wrestlers, etc). They apparently view this as economists stealing their subject matter to apply our own (distasteful) methodology towards understanding it. In short, the criticism is that they do not want people "thinking like economists" in their subject area.

My favorite passage comes on page 79, in which he dismisses this critisim on the grounds that ideas are public, not private goods (whether he catches the irony or not, I cannot tell):
This presupposes that subjects (and issues and phenomena in general) can be appropriated by some discipline in a similar way as natural resources in some territory, such as oil and gas, can be appropriated by some foreign country or company. But are the subjects tackled or addressed by some discipline like that? If economists start tackling “outlandish” phenomena, are other disciplines that traditionally tackled these phenomena thereby denied access to them? It seems not. Unlike natural resources, which are private goods, subjects are more like public goods. Their “use” by the one discipline does not diminish the opportunities for other disciplines to “use” them. Disciplines cannot be dispossessed of their subjects in the same way that countries can be dispossessed of their natural resources.
That is thinking like an economist to determine the subject domain of economics, and the critics will not like it. I loved the essay, and highly recommend it.

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