Interests and ideas, a follow up on Ruccio’s comments

Short commentary by David Ruccio on the role of Self Interest and ideas that overlaps with my earlier post on economics as ideology. There are several layers to this set of relationships. First, its not just that neoclassical economics uses self-interest as an operating hypothesis about human behavior, its that self-interest is presumed to be the only motivation.  Second, neoclassical economics promotes self-interested behavior, despite it’s peans to being a “positive” science, as the proper, i.e. rational, form of behavior. Third, the emergence of a discipline that works on the presumed universality of self-interested behavior cannot be understood in the absence of the culture from which it emerged, i.e. capitalism.

When seen from this perspective, one can think of economics as doing more than simply giving voice to a hegemonic belief of bourgeois culture, it elevates this belief to a principle of human conduct, a norm to be promoted and eulogized. The “science” of economics legitimizes self-interest by generating theories whose purpose is to “prove” that a collectivity of such self-interested individuals generate outcomes that are surprisingly in the interest of society as whole.

Of course, the only “proofs” of such a proposition (existence proofs of GE) are so vacuous, lacking in verisimilitude, that not even the theorists who proved these propositions are willing to claim they say anything substantive about the real world. But that doesn’t stop the discipline from invoking these “proofs” as reasons for believing in invisible hands, continuous market clearing, harmony of interests, etc. Indeed, the discipline had no problem accepting the “truth” of these proposition even before formal “proofs” were developed.

This kind of behavior has a less to do with science than it does with ceremonialism. It’s hard to not see this kind of economics as a form of ritualized behavior whose purpose is to justify the existing order of things.

About Mayo Toruño

Professor of Economics, Emeritus California State University San Bernardino
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