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More than Economists

While systematic thinkers close a subject, leaving their followers with “normal” science to fill up the learned journals, fertile ones open their disciplines to critical scrutiny, for which they rarely get credit. Three recent biographies show how this has been the fate of three great economists who were marginalized by their profession.

LONDON – There are two types of extraordinary economist. The first type includes pioneers of the field such as David Ricardo, William Stanley Jevons, and, in our own time, Robert Lucas. They all aimed to economize knowledge in order to explain the largest possible amount of behavior with the smallest possible number of variables.

The second category, which includes Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes, and Albert O. Hirschman, sought to broaden economic knowledge in order to understand motives and norms of behavior excluded by mainstream analysis but important in real life. The first type of economist is fiercely exclusive; the second has tried, largely in vain, to make economics more inclusive.

The first type of economist rather than the second has come to define the field, owing partly to the successful drive to professionalize the production of knowledge. Economics and other social sciences are heirs of the medieval guilds, each jealously preserving its chosen method of creating intellectual products. It also reflects the increasing difficulty in a secular age of developing moral content for the social sciences in general. We lack an agreed standpoint from outside “the science” by which to judge the value of human activity.

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