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The Vices of Economists; The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie Hardcover – June 1, 1997

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 135 pages
  • Publisher: Amsterdam University Press (June 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9053562443
  • ISBN-13: 978-9053562444
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6.8 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,951,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Deirdre McCloskey's little volume, The Vices of Economists-The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie, is a gem. Nothing less. Although it is short, it bulges with deep and important insights; although it is aimed principally at an audience of professional economists, it is relevant for anyone interested in the scientific method as well as policy; and although it is written by a professional economist, its prose is splendid.
The chapter of the book that strikes me as most important is Chapter 4, "The Arrogance of Social Engineering." The material here isn't simply another sermon on the complexity of the economy and society. It is, instead, a compelling explanation of why economists who make specific predictions about the future ("The price of tech stocks will rise over the next month" or "Megacorp's price-cutting will result in monopoly power") truly should be ignored.
And her conclusion! That is not to be missed. I especially like, and appreciate, her wise words of advice: "Know above all that you do not know."
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Format: Hardcover
This book was published in 1996. The only other review is from 2002. Yet the author raises a profound question which the intervening years have done little to address. To paraphrase, the three vices Prof. McCloskey identifies are:
(1) The tendency of economists to confuse ‘statistical significance’ with ‘real-world importance’. The discussion is mostly technical, but the case for the damage done by this narrow but intellectually corrupting vice is compelling.
(2) The penchant among economists to focus on abstractions and treat economic issues as a species of mathematical brain teaser, instead of grounding their work in empirical reality. (McCloskey presents examples that resonate with my own experience as a fallen-away economics major.)
(3) The danger presented to real-life economies by ‘social engineering’. This point is not as empirically argued as the others (little evidence is offered beyond logic and economic axioms – which is the vice she’s just criticized), and indeed she presents no clear working definition of ‘social engineering’. That’s not a reason to dismiss the argument out of hand, but there’s thin factual support for it, and the bottom-line effect is to telegraph the author’s libertarian preferences.

Still, the main points of this critique remain relevant, though the impact of her argument is undermined by two of McCloskey’s personal tendencies.

The first is her condescending tone. She repeatedly refers to herself as “Aunt Deirdre,” and compares mainstream economists to little boys playing in a sandbox. Whatever her motives, this style is unlikely to win friends or influence people. Indeed, I couldn’t get past Chapter 2 the first time I tried to read the book.
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