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Traditional economics or imperialism?

india Updated: Dec 04, 2007 15:49 IST
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Economists have been behaving like academic imperialists for long. Using their sophisticated tools of trade, they have barged into territories no one would associate with the dismal science. And they have been doing so for ages.

In 1911, Cambridge giant John Maynard Keynes published a paper on parental alcoholism; in the 1970s, Nobel laureate Gary Becker prophesised on marriage; and, more recently, Columbia’s Lena Edlund ha formulated a theory on prostitution.

One wonders whether, 250 years back, when philosopher David Hume exhorted hi friend Adam Smith to establish a ‘science of human nature’, he meant anything like this.

Undeterred, economists of all feathers have continued in this glorious expansionary tradition. We have fresh economic treatises on terrorism, beauty and the benefits of television. Some say this trend will save economics from its all-pervading gloom and make it more ‘soulful’; others say these are unnecessary diversions for a sombre science.

Kaushik Basu, C Marks professor of international studies at Cornell and director of the university’s programme on comparative economic development, approves of the way the diversions have been taken in recent times.

“Traditional economics was a form of imperialism of the discipline,” says Basu. “It
used to get into other disciplines and say: look, here is the way to understand extra-marital affairs and things like that.”

SMITH’S MYTH:

Kaushik Basu is working on the use of economic theorems in popular culture for a forthcoming book

(Jasjeet Plaha)



Basu himself has recently used the touchy topic of sexual harassment at workplace to raise uncomfortable questions on some of the foundational ideas of liberal economics.

“A lot of the early Chicago School was taking optimisation, utility maximisation to everything … That was more in the Sixties and Seventies. (Milton) Friedman was a great thinker, but there was an element of ‘we know how to analyse society’,” says the professor from Cornell. To Basu, what has essentially changed from those times is the attitude.

“Today, thanks to a whole lot of very deep thinkers —I am thinking of Amartya Sen, George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz — we have economic spanning a lot of disciplines, but not with an imperialistic attitude. Very often, it is the attitude of learning—from anthropology, from politics… We are writing in a much more enlightened way.

Not saying that these are ‘soft sciences’ and ‘we have the core of theory’, Basu probably had some similar thoughts of ‘inclusive expansion’ when commissioning and editing his latest book, the 198-author, 205-topic, 600-page tome titled Oxford Companion to Economics in India.

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