Factpinion Quote #2: The Ricardian Vice

James K. Galbraith, American economist, came out with guns a-blazin’ in a series of email exchanges with Paul Krugman from 1996. Early on, he writes the following:

“Paul [Krugman]’s worldview rests on the belief that useful implications for important questions of public policy can be derived, essentially from first principles, with the help of a well-structured logic. [..] I don’t accept that much of use can be learned about policy in this way. When the world deviates from the principles, as it usually does, the simple lessons go astray. This is not a complaint against math. It is a complaint against indiscriminate application of the deductive method, sometimes called the Ricardian vice, to problems of human action. [..] To combat it, I spend my research time wrestling with real-world data, and I spend much of my writing time warring against the policy ideas of aggressive, ahistorical deductivists.”

(It’s worth noting that the originator of the term “Ricardian vice” was the decidedly right-leaning economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950).)

ul’s worldview rests on the belief that useful implications for important questions of public policy can be derived, essentially from first principles, with the help of a well-structured logic. Well-structured deduction from metaphysical first principles is the Krugman forte.

I don’t accept that much of use can be learned about policy in this way. When the world deviates from the principles, as it usually does, the simple lessons go astray. This is not a complaint against math. It is a complaint against indiscriminate application of the deductive method, sometimes called the Ricardian vice, to problems of human action. Mine is an old gripe against much of what professional economists do; not against science but against scientism, against the pretense of science. To combat it, I spend my research time wrestling with real-world data, and I spend much of my writing time warring against the policy ideas of aggressive, ahistorical deductivists.

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