Coase on Friedman's Methodology
My post this morning will be briefer than usual because I’m busy writing a piece for the Wall Street Journal, due this morning, on the late Ronald Coase. But I can’t resist quoting from a review of his book of essays, a review I wrote for Reason in 1994. The book was titled, Essays on Economics and Economists and my review was titled “Coase Encounters.”
Here’s the excerpt:
A gentle man, Coase is also quite willing to take on some of the giants of economics when he disagrees with them. In one essay, “How Should Economists Choose?,” Coase criticizes a famous 1953 article on methodology by Milton Friedman. Friedman had argued that the correctness of one’s assumptions is unimportant and that all that matters for an economic theory is that it be capable of accurate predictions. Coase responds with a devastating counterexample.
“We could have predicted,” writes Coase, “over the last few years what the American government’s policies on oil and natural gas would be if we had assumed that the aim of the American government was to increase the power and income of the OPEC countries and to reduce the standard of living in the United States. But I am sure that we would prefer a theory that explains why the American government, which presumably did not want to bring about these results, was led to adopt policies which harmed American interests. Testable predictions are not all that matters. And realism in our assumptions is needed if our theories are ever to help us understand why the system works the way it does. Realism in assumptions forces us to analyze the world that exists, not some imaginary world that does not.”