The Limits of Economics

Between Capitalism and Socialism: Essays in Political Economics

by Robert L. Heilbroner
Random House, 294 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Philosophy asks the important questions, but as soon as an answer is in sight a new discipline splits away and sets out on its own pursuit. This possibly explains why now—as two thousand years ago—philosophers are still preoccupied with unsolvable problems: those that can be solved are always snatched out of their hands.

Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, and even Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were still philosophers interested in economic problems among other things. By the turn of the century economics established itself as a separate academic discipline. With the adoption of the mathematical approach it became as little understandable to the layman as chemistry or physics and thus began to be considered the most advanced of the social sciences.

More recently, however, this position of pre-eminence has been undermined by creeping doubts. When translated from mathematical language into English, the answers given by modern economics seem to miss or to beg the questions that were originally raised, and economists find themselves again in the company of philosophers with more important problems on their hands than they know how to solve.

Not that the profession is tormented by internal strife. A reader of leading economic journals would hardly notice that something is amiss. “Monetarists” contend with the “neo-Keynesian fiscalists” in the same tone that bimetalists used a hundred years ago in their controversies with the partisans of an unadulterated gold standard. So far as the great majority of professional economists is concerned, their discipline is now in as satisfactory a shape as it ever was.

Most of the fundamental questioning comes from outside the profession and is echoed by a few inside. Today, as in the past, more often than not, a critic of the prevailing style of economic thought is also a critic of the dominant social and political institutions. This turns the ensuing debate into something more (or less, depending on where one stands) than a purely academic controversy. If not kept carefully apart, value judgments become confused with factual assertions and both are all too often drowned out by arguments originating in and addressed to political emotions.

Robert Heilbroner’s writing is singularly free of such confusion. His skeptical appraisal of contemporary academic economics derives from a discriminating understanding of the capabilities and limitations of modern economic theory. His criticism of capitalist and socialist systems as they exist now in both hemispheres is developed within a broad historical perspective free from the myopic distortion so characteristic of much of the new radical thinking.

Whether he calls for new “political economics” or examines the transition “from capitalism to socialism” or explores “alternatives for the future,” Heilbroner’s argument carries us toward the fundamental dilemma of wishing versus understanding, acting versus explaining, of practical pursuit of human values as against theoretical analysis of unbreakable and endless chains of causes and effects. Any social scientist endeavoring to clarify for himself the significance of his own intellectual position is bound to face these questions. A political activist cannot …

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