The Call of the Wild Economist
By Jayme Lemke
In The Struggle for a Better World, Peter Boettke shares a quote from Kenneth Boulding on what economics might become if it continues down the path of encouraging economists to imagine themselves saving the world through analytical perfection: “Conventions of generality and mathematical elegance may be just as much barriers to the attainment and diffusion of knowledge as may contentment with particularity and literary vagueness… It may be that the slovenly and literary borderland between economics and sociology will be the most fruitful building ground during the years to come and that mathematical economics will remain too flawless in its perfection to be very fruitful” (Boulding 1948, p. 199; quoted in Boettke 2021).
I just love that phrase, “slovenly and literary borderland.” The border between economics and sociology is one few dare to visit. That may be because many economists imagine themselves to be exceptional within the social sciences—exceptionally logical, smarter than the rest, natural intellectual leaders. Even those who do tour the domains of their neighbors in the social sciences don’t always take seriously the possibility that they might actually encounter something that would present a serious challenge to their way of life.
The bigger problem may be, however, that most simply don’t find it worthwhile to visit. The “slovenly and literary borderland” is wild country. The payoffs are uncertain. It takes time to develop the skills that are necessary to even just survive there, and the powers that be won’t always appreciate the time it takes to build those skills. It’s easier to live in one world or the other than in the shadowy land between the two.
BUT, for people like Pete Boettke, there simply is no alternative. I truly believe he has what some might consider ‘a calling’ to live in that “slovenly and literary borderland” as a student of society. To see what can be seen there without regard for its consistency with any pre-established vision of what a perfect world should look like. It’s an idea that fits in with timeless mantras to eschew perfectionism, to let go of those things that are outside of our control and focus on being in the world and learning to appreciate the forces of nature that run under and through it.
Earlier in the essay, Boettke shares a well-known quote from Adam Smith: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest form of barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” There are two ways to read this quote. A savior of society can read this quote and come up with a recipe for instant success. Peace? Low taxes? Reasonable courts? Put them all in the pot and stir, instant flourishing society. The rest will take care of itself.
Instead of viewing Smith as a master chef, the student of society who reads this quote might instead appreciate the combination of peace, low taxes, and reasonable courts, but then immediately get stuck on the incredible puzzle at the end: “all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” The what?? The natural course of things? How does that work exactly? What about it is so natural? (Particularly given that much of the world remains mired in conflict and poverty, and that was even more true in Smith’s time.)
And this “natural course of things” is literally doing all the rest of the work. The prescription of peace, low taxes, and reasonable courts offered by Smith is akin to the Washington Consensus. A series of policies that most economists can agree have been good when and where they existed, but that does absolutely nothing to answer the question of how those policies could be brought about or what effects might result from introducing them into entirely new environments. Interference to create something that looks familiar is still inference in “the natural course of things.” It’s that natural course—the invisible hand, the spontaneous order, the possibility for regularity and expectation without a central plan—that we must seek to understand.
Towards the end of the same essay (p. 34), Boettke offers a vision that limits the economist to three roles: (1) to communicate economic principles to interested students of all types and ages, whether or not they are enrolled at a university; (2) to be “a student of society” who seeks to understand economic and social processes as they are and have been; and (3) to be a social critic, analyzing ideas and policies “for their logical coherence and their vulnerability to opportunistic behavior.”
In other words, it is not for the economist to control, but to UNDERSTAND and to SHARE. To step far enough back from what we study to be able to see it clearly, without stepping so far back that we imagine all we see to be within our command. If Boettke and Boulding are on the right track, the proper viewing distance is somewhere in that “slovenly and literary borderland between economics and sociology.”
Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.