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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Technically competent barbarians: the role to planetary hell is paved with economically rational decisions

More out of laziness than anything else, I thought I'd get double benefit as it were from cutting and pasting below, an excerpt from a chapter (on Green Political Economy) of one of the books I'm currently working on.

Renowned holocaust scholar and former director of the International Research Institute at Yad Vashem, Yehud Bauer in an address to the German Bundestag, mused on the reasons how the evils of the Nazi regime gained intellectual and cultural acceptance within Germany. For him, “The major role in this was played by the universities, the academics. I keep returning to the question of whether we have indeed learnt anything, whether we do not still keep producing technically competent barbarians in our universities” (Bauer, 1998; emphasis added).

When it comes to the teaching of economics at universities – and sadly many other forms of knowledge which have been influenced (or corrupted might be closer to the truth) by modern economics, such as large swathes of so-called 'political science', sociology, agriculture or planning for example – a provocative thought would be to ask whether Bauer is correct in his analysis. Rather than serving to weed out, transform or blunt the rougher edges off such ‘barbaric’ - but perfectly rational forms of thinking and action- universities are in fact complicit in maintaining and increasing the reach of this barbaric thinking.

Rothstein, picking up on Bauer, points to the dominance of empirical/quantitative focus in modern political science (the term itself of course immediately gives it away) which has increasingly drawn inspiration and methodological techniques from neo-classical economics. Like Bauer he wonders if the profession is producing ‘technically competent barbarians’ (Rothstein, 2005: 5). That is, highly trained and skilled professionals devoid of ethical reflexivity or trained and schooled in thinking that ethical, normative thinking and argumentation are ‘outside’ and are not integral to of the proper remit of their activity as political scientists or economists. It is important to note that the criticism being developed here is not simply that the ‘barbaric’ logic of modern neo-classical economics is destroying people and planet but that a large part of this reason for this barbaric and life-destroying logic is the failure and refusal for this way of thinking about the economy to integrate ethical and political-normative considerations as core features. In other words, it is possible to ‘rescue’ neo-classical economics from itself as it were and to recover and establish its ‘proper place’ at the table amongst other forms of knowledge and normative positions in discussing the economics, what the economy is and how best it ought to be thought about and organised. An account of economics devoid or actively resistance to the integration of normative and ethical thinking paves the way to planetary destruction.

Economics does not describe and explain or predict the world, it actively creates and recreates it in its own image, according to its own (hidden or occluded) value system and logic.

Part of the issue – indeed a benefit – in including ethical judgement in economic decision-making is that it debunks another element of the myth of modern economics – namely that of expertise based on knowledge giving those who possess it (and have the credentials etc to prove it) superiority over ‘non-experts’. However, this levelling of economic analysis – i.e. permitting non-economists and non-experts a role undermines both the claim of modern economics to be able to produce and know the ‘truth’ about the economy, and also the desire for non-economists/non-experts for the latter to be the case. As Aldred puts it, “Often the truth is that economists don’t know…This kind of modesty is not what many of us want to hear. We yearn for the comfort and security of definite answers. But an honest economic analysis can typically hope to do much less than this” (2008: 8; emphasis added). Typically any comprehensive, honest approach to addressing economic issues requires recourse to democratic political and ethical debate, seeing the issue from a variety of positions – scientific, political, cultural, social, and ecological as well as ‘economic’

Tetlock’s study of people who make prediction their business, i.e. people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses is instructive here. It turns out that they are no better than the rest of us (Tetlock, 2003). When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. This is abundantly the case when it comes to modern economics – how many economists predicated the current economic recession? How many of these so-called economic experts have come out publicly to say they got it wrong? The dogmatism and arrogance that modern economics exudes – its refusal to be more modest in its claims, own up to its limits and admit its mistakes – is of course a major problem when one thinks of the multiple negative consequences for people and planet of following its prescriptions. Having an impressive looking mathematical formula for one’s views does not either make those views ‘the truth’ and therefore superior or better than the views of others, nor does this algorithmic underpinning make those views attractive or desirable – it just means you have an impressive mathematical formula for your views.


Aldred, J. (2008), The Skeptical Economist, London: Earthscan.
Bauer, Y. (1998), ‘Address to the Bundestag, January 1998), available at: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/1990_1999/1998/1/Address+to+the+Bundestag-+by+Professor+Yehuda+Baue.htm (accessed 27/09/09)

Tetlock, P. (2003) Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press),

Rothstein, B. (2005), ‘Is political science producing technically competent barbarians?’, European Political Science, 4, 3-13.

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