Mike the Mad Biologist

Some Other Minor Non-Economists

By now, there’s little to add to the criticism of Donald Kennedy’s absurd statement regarding Princeton economist Paul Krugman that:

And yet maybe Krugman is not really an economist — at least not according to the definition offered more than a century ago by Francis Amasa Walker, the first president of the American Economic Association, who wrote that laissez-faire “was not made the test of economic orthodoxy, merely. It was used to decide whether a man were an economist at all.”

Most modern economists continue to celebrate Walker’s orthodoxy, and behind it, the classical doctrines of Adam Smith, whose fabled “invisible hand” regularly works wonders of production, distribution, innovation and efficiency, provided it is kept free of the meddlesome “nanny state.” Against the constant threat of encroachment from that benighted quarter the free-market faithful are ever vigilant.

Except one thing does occur to me: by that criterion, neither John Maynard Keynes nor John Kenneth Galbraith were ‘real’ economists, even though no honest economic history of the twentieth century could possibly avoid discussing their influence on theory and policy. I’ll make the point again: when we dumb down our discourse, arguments like Kennedy’s are actually taken seriously. And Kennedy is supposedly a historian…


  1. #1 Coin
    October 22, 2007

    Linked from one of your links, probably worth noting upfront: Holy crap, Kennedy’s quotation of Francis Amasa Walker is an honest to goodness quote-mine!

    Walker was actually saying the dead opposite of what Kennedy depicts him as saying:

    Yet, while Laissez-Faire was asserted, in great breadth, in England, the writers for the reviews exaggerating the utterances of the professors in the universities, that doctrine was carefully qualified by some economists, and was by none held with such strictness as was given to it in the United States. Here it was not made the test ofeconomic orthodoxy, merely. It was used to decide whether a man were an economist at all. I don’t think that I exaggerate when I say that, among those who deemed themselves the guardians of the true faith, it was considered far better that a man should know nothing about economic literature, and have no interest whatever in the subject, than that, with any amount of learning and any degree of holiest purpose, he should have adopted views varying from the standard that was set up….

    The abandonment of Laissaz-Faire, as a principle of universal application, however strongly individuals may still maintain it as a general rule of conduct, at once makes communion and cooperation, not merely possible. but desirable among economists. When it is confessed that exceptions, not few or small, are to be admitted, every thinking man has a part to take in the discussion; every interested and intelligent person becomes a possible contributor; every class of men, whether divided from others by social or by industrial lines, have something to say on this subject, which no other class can say for them, and which no other class can afford not to hear from them. The characteristic institutions of every nation, the experiences of eyery distinct coinmunity not only become pertinent to the subject, but constitute a proper part of the evidence which is to be gathered, sifted and weighed….

    And Kennedy seems to be basically engaging in the exact behavior Walker is denouncing here– when Kennedy uses Walker to attack Krugman. Wow.

  2. #2 Erp
    October 22, 2007

    David Kennedy, a historian, not Donald Kennedy, a biologist; both are at Stanford. I was wondering why Donald Kennedy would be making this sort of comment.

  3. #3 Michael Schmidt
    October 23, 2007

    Thanks, erp, for the clarification; I was likewise confused. Donald has always seemed to be a mostly reasonable person, whereas David’s nonsense is not.