The Bizarro World of Professor Sen



Here is another of those head-scratchers, this one from Amartya Sen, about how neoclassical economics is partly responsible for the financial crisis because neoclassical economists hold that markets work “perfectly”:

Since the crisis broke out the economics profession in general and mainstream economics in particular have been severely criticised. Do you think this is justified?

The criticism of mainstream economics is justified to a limited extent. It is certainly true that the focus of attention in mainstream economics has tended to be on assuming the market to be working perfectly and there being no need for regulation. However, while this view has been a very dominant part of mainstream economics, you have to bear in mind that mainstream economics is not all centered around one unified theme. I don’t think all of mainstream economics should be held responsible.

Do you think that neoclassical macro economists should bear the brunt of the blame?

This would be an oversimplification. Neoclassical economics has many different paths. There are mainstream neoclassical economists who have been very critical of the complete reliance on the markets.

I’ve been around neoclassical economists since my undergraduate days and I can’t think of a single neoclassical economist who says that markets work “perfectly” and favoring “complete reliance on the markets.” David Friedman comes to mind, but even his arguments for anarchism are not based on the belief that markets are somehow “perfect,” but that they are less imperfect than regulation. The truth, of course, is that virtually all neoclassical economists favor a substantial amount of economic regulation—government production of law and order, government control of the monetary system, competition policy, and other government actions to combat purported market failures.

Statements like Sen’s make sense only as a rhetorical ploy to fool the reader. If the mainstream thinks, say, that government should control 25% of the economy, and you think government should control 75%, you describe the mainstream as “extremists” who believe in “no government,” thus making your position seem like a reasonable middle ground. Krugman of course employs the same rhetorical strategy. Sen is obviously too intelligent to mean what he says literally, so I can only assume mendacity. Am I missing something?

[Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets]

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