The Murky Economists

The Rhetoric of Economics

by Donald N. McCloskey
University of Wisconsin Press, 209 pp., $21.50

Men always endeavour to persuade others to be of their opinion even when the matter is of no consequence to them. If one advances any thing concerning China or the more distant moon which contradicts what you imagine to be true, you immediately try to persuade him to alter his opinion. And in this manner every one is practising oratory on others thro the whole of his life.

This is Adam Smith speaking—literally speaking, because the words come from the transcript of his Lectures on Jurisprudence. Smith is discussing the “principle in the human mind” on which is based the famous disposition to “truck, barter, and exchange,” the cornerstone on which the equally famous division of labor is based. For the division of labor could not take place unless people wanted to exchange their wares. Evidently to Smith this exchange did not take place because of the direct appeal of self-interest. It required an exercise of persuasion to convince the buyer that he would be better off exchanging whatever he had for what the seller offered. “The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning,” says Smith, “is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so for it is in his interest.”

Thus in the opinion of the first, and to many still the greatest, economist, the basis for economic relationships lies not in a disinterested calculation of advantages, but in the “faculties of reason and speech” that underlie the capacity for persuasion. Rhetoric—the art of speaking—is the rock on which the mighty edifice of economics stands.

This is certainly not what most economists would today describe as the foundation of their discipline. As Donald McCloskey makes all too clear in The Rhetoric of Economics, economics prides itself on its sciencelike character, and economists on their ability to speak like scientists, without color, passion, or values, preferably in the language of mathematics. Of 159 full-length papers published between 1981 and 1983 in the American Economic Review, McCloskey tells us, only six used words alone. As I can testify from my own reading, most articles are “written” in matrix algebra, complex econometrics, formal lemmas, and four-quadrant diagrammatics. They would be incomprehensible to anyone not trained in the vocabulary and techniques of advanced economics, and are in fact incomprehensible, I venture to say, to a large proportion of the members of the American Economic Association, myself very often included.

McCloskey himself would not be daunted by the pages of the American Economic Review. He was for a long time a member of the economics department at the University of Chicago, a bastion of formalistic economics, and was one of the early proponents of the “new economic history,” a once much touted, now somewhat subdued, effort to fortify the frail judgments of historians with the sturdier stuff of quantitative research. Therefore he launches his attack on economics with the confidence of an insider, not the …

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