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Against Parsimony: Three Easy Ways of Complicating some Categories of Economic Discourse

  • Albert O. Hirschman (a1)
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0266267100001863
  • Published online: 01 December 2008
Abstract

Economics as a science of human behavior has been grounded in a remarkably parsimonious postulate: that of the self-interested, isolated individual who chooses freely and rationally between alternative courses of action after computing their prospective costs and benefits. In recent decades, a group of economists has shown considerable industry and ingenuity in applying this way of interpreting the social world to a series of ostensibly noneconomic phenomena, from crime to the family, and from collective action to democracy. The “economic” or “rational-actor” approach has yielded some important insights, but its onward sweep has also revealed some of its intrinsic weaknesses. As a result, it has become possible to mount a critique which, ironically, can be carried all the way back to the heartland of the would-be conquering discipline. That the economic approach presents us with too simpleminded an account of even such fundamental economic processes as consumption and production is the basic thesis of the present paper.

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Kenneth J. Arrow 1962. “The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing.” Review of Economic Studies 29:155173.

Kenneth J. Arrow 1978. “The Future and the Present in Economic Life.” Economic Inquiry 16:160.

Harry G. Frankfurt 1971. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” Journal of Philosophy 68:520.

Fred Hirsch . 1976. Social Limits to Growth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Harry G. Johnson 1965. “A Theoretical Model of Economic Nationalism in New and Developing States.” Political Science Quarterly 80:169–85.

Talcott Parsons . 1960. “Pattern Variables Revisited.” American Sociological Review 25:467483.

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