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Gene Callahan Gets it (but Bob Murphy and Joe Salerno Don't)

Posted By George Selgin On February 13, 2014 @ 3:29 pm In Free Banking | 42 Comments

It seems that, even when I'm not trying to do so, I manage to raise the hackles of some of the 100-percent crowd. Most recently I did so by trying to explain, a couple posts ago, my preference for remaining independent of the Austrian School, or any other economic school of thought. The particular passages at which my critics took aim were this one:

And what sort of economics [do I want to do]? I can't tell you–I've never thought much about it. But perhaps that's just it: I don't "think" about writing any "sort" of economics. I don't want to have to think about whether what I'm up to qualifies as "praxeology" or not, or whether Mises would mind my using terms like "money" and "inflation" the way most contemporary economists use them, instead of the way Mises himself used them a century ago. Nor am I any more inclined to trouble myself over whether my work fits neatly into any other economic school's pigeonhole.

and this:

But if there's one thing I truly believe concerning the "methodology" of economics, it's that thinking about it is as helpful to actually doing economics as contemplating one's steps is to dancing the rumba. In short, having to look over my shoulder while I think or write, at any methodological strictures at all, cramps my style.

According to Joe Salerno, the implication of the first of these passages is "that those of us who pursue a research program within the praxeological paradigm continually sweat and fret about using terms or formulating concepts in exactly the same way as Mises did 'a century ago.'" Joe then goes on to point out, with what (I can't help observing) seems like a fair amount of fretting and sweating, that plenty of Austrian economists, including Mises himself, have in fact not hesitated to depart from Mises' 1912 definitions. To this I can only say, Bully for them! But why is Joe pointing this out to me? He should be telling the legions of self-styled Austrian economists, most of whom presumably formed their opinions by reading various Mises Institute publications, who burst a blood vessel every time someone uses the term "inflation" to mean a general rise in prices, or the term "money" to refer to a fractionally-backed bank deposit or note.

As for me, I wasn't pretending to characterize the preoccupations of each and every Austrian economist, by means of "equivocations, omissions, and errors" (as Joe reckons) or otherwise. Nor did my remarks have much to do with my desire (however fervent it may be) "to prevent 'the 100 percent crowd' from 'hijacking the ‘Austrian’ brand name'." I was just tossing out an example of the sort of ruminating I'd just assume not bother with when setting out to do some economics. (Next time I should be more careful and add a disclaimer like the ones you find in novels, you know, "This illustration is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between my economist worrying about Mises' old definitions and any particular member of the current Austrian school is entirely coincidental.")

As I might have predicted, some of my critics (who never seem to come up short when it comes to putting an uncharitable spin on things) went still further, by understanding me to say that I don't find thinking of any sort especially helpful to doing economics! Bob Murphy, for instance, has fun with what he took to be my suggestion that the best way to dance the rumba is to never have learned it in the first place. In a comment to Gene Callahan's favorable notice of my post, Bob went so far as to characterize me as someone who "rips on the philosophy of science, saying he don't need no stinkin' thinkin' about *what* he's doing."

Ah well, that's the risk one takes in employing a metaphor. The gain, of course, is that the metaphor helps readers who aren't merely interested in playing "gotchya!" Such readers won't bother to put the poor little thing on a rack to see what it will confess to when stretched to the breaking point. Gene Callahan himself, for instance, was quick to come to my defense, both in his own post and in the comments to mine, where he (quite properly) ridiculed the suggestion that, in saying (as he nicely put it) that I didn't want to look over my shoulder "at some 'methodological' scold," I meant to declare, among other things, that I "didn't care about logic or consistency."

Of course I do care about logic and consistency; indeed, I insist upon them both for myself and for others who wish to engage me in a discussion. And of course (news flash!) I believe that good economics takes some thinking! Besides requiring one to think about whether one is being logical and consistent, it takes thinking about whether one's reasoning is consistent with available evidence, and thinking about whether one is expressing his ideas clearly, and (ahem) thinking about whether one is characterizing rivals' views accurately. Indeed, the only sort of thinking that I insist is unhelpful to doing good economics is thinking about, so as to better obey, the methodological credos of some particular school of thought.

What's more, I have what I consider to be the best possible reason for having this opinion–an opinion that, remember, is intended only to justify my personal decision not to belong to any school, and not to browbeat others into joining me in my heterodoxy. The reason is simply this: that I have found that, when I set out to address some economic issue, I do not find it at all helpful to concern myself with "methodology" except of the "very small-m" sort that supplies such rules as ought to command the assent of economists of all schools. In particular, though I sympathize with the arguments that underlay what Joe calls "the praxeological paradigm," and what's more believe that I understand them, I don't give that paradigm any thought in pursuing my research; if someone claims that despite this I've been doing praxeology all along, I can only say, like Molière's* Monsieur Jourdain when informed that he's been speaking prose, that I have been quite unaware of it.

Addendum: Joe Salerno's rejoinder. I never accused Joe personally, by the way, of insisting on Mises' 1912 definitions of "money" and "inflation." Much less did I ever mean to hold him responsible for the many "Austrians" (for they present themselves as such) who insist on those old definitions. That such Austrians exist, and in large numbers, cannot reasonably be denied by anyone familiar with the economics blogosphere. As for where their understanding comes from, I should be glad to hear Joe or anyone else offer an alternative to my own conjecture.
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*I had previously (and foolishly) written "Proust's." I thank Andras Toth for correcting me.


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