Publication details [#7765]

McCloskey, Donald N. 1986. The Rhetoric of Economics. Brighton, U.K.: Wheatsheaf. 248 pp.
Publication type
Book – monograph
Publication language


Economic modernism dominates contemporary economics. Its practitioners radically differentiate what they do from literary studies or from softer social sciences. It is behaviourist in the sense that what matters in the final analysis is what people do rather than what they think (p.28). It highly values mathematical formalization, quantification, and statistical tests - particularly tests involving one or another regression procedure. It is positivist in the sense that it treats falsifiability - and the failure to falsify in a test - as the most important gauge of scientific value. It is also, thoroughly unsatisfactory - a form of "voluntary imbecility", in fact (p.99).To make her case McCloskey shows that the effectiveness of the leading figures in the discipline is enhanced when they stray from the modernist canon. It is not experimental or statistical tests that determine the acceptance of their arguments, it is the rhetoric deployed in making them. In his classic 'Foundations of Economic Analysis' Samuelson sometimes used mathematics not because it is necessary to the argument but to impress. He legitimates his claims through appeals to authority. He uses analogy or metaphor. So does "the Kipling of the economic empire" (p.42), Gary Becker, when he treats children as consumer durables (like refrigerators). Muth's pioneering paper on rational expectations, though badly written, persuaded (after a lag) not because of the evidence it contained - there was little of that - but because of a number of theoretical arguments, including the general case that if reason is assumed in most domains of economics one should not readily abandon it in, in this particular case, agricultural price determination. In identifying and analyzing the rhetorical content in the writings of a number of distinguished economists she is not trying to debunk them. She simply wants to make the case that economic knowledge advances through procedures that diverge wildly from those incorporated in the modernist canon. (Michael R. Smith)