Nick Schulz interviews Ronald Coase and Ning Wang about issues to so with their new book, “How China Became Capitalist.”
The last question is interesting:
NS: You are critical of much modern economics, saying it has been transformed “from a moral science of man creating wealth to a cold logic of choice and resource allocation.” How did this happen? Where did economics go wrong?
RC & NW: Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, took economics as a study of “the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.” As late as 1920, Alfred Marshall in the eighth edition of Principles of Economics kept economics as “both a study of wealth and a branch of the study of man.” Barely a dozen years later, Lionel Robbins in his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1932) reoriented economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Unfortunately, the viewpoint of Robbins has won the day.
The fundamental shift from Smith and Marshall to Robbins is to rid economics of its substance — the working of the social institutions that bind together the economic system. Afterward, economics has turned into a discipline without a subject matter, advocating itself as a study of human choices. This shift has been assisted by what Hayek (1952) criticized as the growing trend of scientism in the study of society, which took mathematical formalism as the only secure route to truth in the pursuit of knowledge. As economists become more and more interested in formalism and related technical sophistication, it becomes secondary whether the substantive questions that they choose to perfect their methods or to illustrate their theoretical models bear any resemblance to the real world economy. By and large, most of our colleagues are not bothered by the fact that what they profess is mainly “blackboard economics.”
We are now working with the University of Chicago Press to launch a new journal, Man and the Economy. We chose our title carefully to signal the mission of the new journal, which is to restore economics to a study of man as he is and of the economy as it actually exists. We hope this new journal will provide a platform to encourage scholars all over the world to study how the economy works in their countries. We believe this is the only way to make progress in economics.
We are very much aware that many of our colleagues whose work we admire do not share our criticism of modern economics. But our goal is not to replace one view of economics that we don’t like with another one of our choice, but to bring diversity and competition to the marketplace for economics ideas, which we hope most, if not all, economists will endorse.
Coase has always been somewhat out of step with the rest of the profession when it comes to his view of what is economics is and how it should be done.