Review of ‘Humanism Challenges Materialism in Economics and Economic History’

Date:maandag 20 november 2017





Humanism Challenges Materialism in Economics and Economic History.  By Roderick Floud, Santhi Hejeebu, and David Mitch (eds.) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017) 312 pp. $65.00

This book casts its net wide, covering topics from economic history to rhetoric, religion, neoliberalism, gender, capitalism, and justice. The theme that all of the contributions have in common is the exploration of humanomics–that is, an economics humanistic in approach that looks beyond the materialist side of economic life.  Yet above all, the book is a tribute to the scholarly life and work of Deirdre McCloskey, an economic historian; a rhetorician; a critic of “blackboard,” instrumentalist, and uncritically statistical economics; and a lover of poetry, who was once a man but became a woman. No wonder that the book is so wide in scope.

Even though the book is a collection of essays, it makes for fascinating reading to those interested in critiques of formalistic neoclassical economics and instrumental governmental logic. It gives insights into the so-called old Chicago way of doing economics. Witness, for example, Steven Landsburg and Jack Goldstone’s recollections of the course about price theory that McCloskey taught at Chicago, apparently a mind-boggling experience of counter-intuitive economics. Stanley Engerman and Richard Sturch practice economic history in the spirit of McCloskey’s contributions to that field; Jon Nelson, Goldstone, and Paul Turpin apply in intriguing ways her rhetorical perspective to the political realm. Turpin shows which rhetorical moves serve to evoke the emotions that come with particular political values such as liberty, equality, community, and hierarchy. Peter Boettke and Virgil Storr use the occasion to declare McCloskey one of them for the striking reason that she, in contrast with neoclassical economists, takes markets seriously. They side with McCloskey’s critique of modernist economics–that is, an overdone formalism and mindless empiricism–embracing instead her metaphor of markets as conversations.

For those slightly familiar with McCloskey’s writings, these essays will affirm them in their appreciation or disapproval of McCloskey’s work. An exception may be the essay by Stephen Engelmann, the only author in the volume who dares to challenge McCloskey. His target is her work on “bourgeois virtues,” which appears in the form of a voluminous trilogy. Engelmann sees a blind spot in Deirdre’s work regarding governmental logic. He brings up the neoliberal doctrine, defined by Michel Foucault as the application of market logic in governmental situations. The discussion is confusing, however, because of a lack of clarity in the application of the terms. Why, for example, would Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek fit the label? Anyhow, Engelmann notices an ambivalent position of McCloskey toward neoliberalism. On the one hand, she strengthens the neoliberal case with her advocacy of market logic and, on the other hand, she is critical of neoliberalism for its instrumentalist and therefore demoralizing approach. The critique is not convincing if we consider McCloskey’s persistent critique of instrumentalist or engineering use of economic principles. Although she would applaud the spontaneous emergence of markets, she would vehemently object to the engineering of market situations that neoliberals in governments embrace.

Boettke, Storr, Engerman, and Engelmann highlight the recent contributions of McCloskey, tracing a radical change in her cultural orientation from aristocratic (honor and valor) to bourgeois (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) in her account of the rise of modern economies. That position is a reversal from McCloskey’s earlier orientation in economic history. The move makes sense in light of McCloskey’s admiration for Adam Smith. She follows the intellectual trajectory of Smith but in reverse order. Whereas Smith ended with the Wealth of Nations, McCloskey started with the economics of that book, eventually arriving at the moral sentiments, where Smith began. The move will undoubtedly cause future interpreters to identify the McCloskey problem.

This book of collected essays is personal in several ways. Robin Bartlett alludes to McCloskey’s gender changes and discusses her place among feminist approaches. Almost all of the contributors tell anecdotes about McCloskey’s generosity and intellectual reach. Floud, Hejeebu, and Mitch display their affection in their lucid and solid introduction. The book is a worthy tribute to a remarkable scholar and woman.


Arjo Klamer

Erasmus University, Rotterdam

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