Detribalising Economics (World Economics Association)

By Rob Garnett []
World Economics Association Newsletter 2(2), April.2012, page 4

In “Why Pluralism?” (2011), Stuart Birks calls for “greater discussion, deliberation, and cross-fertilization of ideas” among schools of economic thought as an antidote to each school’s autarkic tendency to “see itself as owning the ‘truth’ for its area.” As a philosophical postscript, I want to underscore the catholic reach of Birks’s remarks — his genial reminder, properly addressed to all economists, of the minimal requirements for academic inquiry.

The case for academic pluralism in economics is motivated by the ubiquity of “myside bias” (Klein 2011). Whether methodological, ideological, paradigmatic, or all of the above, such groupthink fuels intellectual segregation and bigotry. It turns schools into echo chambers, sealed off from the critical feedback loops that check hubris and propel scholarly progress.

Pluralists know that “The causes of faction cannot be removed . . . Relief is only to be sought in the means of containing its effects” (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay [1788] 2001, 45). So even as they celebrate paradigmatic diversity, they insist that scholars observe two liberal precepts:

1. academic discourse is a commons, no ‘area’ of which can be owned by any school; and

2. within these spaces of inquiry, scholars bear certain ethical duties as academic citizens.

Academic pluralism is the duty to practice “methodological awareness and toleration” (Backhouse 2001, 163) and “to constantly [seek] to learn from those who [do] not share [one’s] ideological or methodological perspective” (Boettke 2004, 379). It is “academic” because it coincides with the epistemological and ethical norms of modern academic freedom (American Association of University Professors 1940). It is “pluralist” because it entails a commitment to conduct one’s scholarly business in a non-sectarian manner.

Could a critical mass of economists ever be persuaded to enact these scholarly virtues? Yes! But admirers of these virtues must be prepared to teach by example. When Warren Samuels passed away in last August, he was eulogized as a first-rate scholar who advanced pluralism by enacting it consistently over his long career. As the Austrian economist Peter Boettke recalls:

Prior to meeting Warren, I think it would be accurate to say that I divided the world neatly into those who are stupid, those who are evil, and those who are smart and good enough to agree with me. . . . Warren destroyed that simple intellectual picture of the world. . . . He didn’t overturn my intellectual commitments . . . but he made [me] more selfcritical and less self-satisfied, and hopefully a better scholar [and] teacher (Boettke 2011).

The pluralism Warren Samuels personified can be achieved by most economic scholars, teachers, and students to a reasonable degree. If we want economics to regain its standing as a serious and humane social science, we must find more ways to activate these dormant capabilities.


American Association of University Professors (1940) Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Washington, DC.

Backhouse, R. E. (2001) On the Credentials of Methodological Pluralism. In J. E. Biddle, J. B. Davis, and S. G. Medema (Eds.), Economics Broadly Considered: Essays in Honor of Warren J. Samuels, 161-181. London: Routledge.

Boettke, P. J. (2011) “Warren Samuels (1933-2011)”, Accessed August 18, 2011.

Boettke, P. J. (2004) Obituary: Don Lavoie (1950-2001). Journal of Economic Methodology 11 (3): 377-379.

Birks, S. (2011) “Why Pluralism?” World Economics Association Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 1.

Hamilton, A., Madison, J., and Jay, J. (2001) [1788] The Federalist. Gideon edition. G. W. Carey and J. McClellan (eds.) Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Klein, D. B. (2011) “I Was Wrong, and So Are You.” The Atlantic, December.

[Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in Garnett, R. F. (Ed.). (1999). What do economists know? London: Routledge]