Saturday, March 15, 2014

Why PoMo is Self-Defeating (ii)

It was a mouse! [A]
A mountain was in travail pang;
The country with her clamour rang.
Out ran the people all, to see,
Supposing that the birth would be
A city, or at least a house.
It was a mouse! (Jean de La Fontaine, "The Mountain in Labour")

There was a time when the work of Deirdre N. McCloskey (Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, link) received extremely hostile reviews from prominent Austrian economists.

Take Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Professor Emeritus with the College of Business at the University of Nevada, link) reviewing McCloskey's "The Rethoric of Economics" in 1989, as an example.

Supposing, contra McCloskey, that I understood Hoppe's argument (:D sorry, couldn't help it!): Hoppe denies that McCloskey inquiries about what is true, because PoMo/hermeneuticians like McCloskey believe truth is unattainable:
"It [i.e. McCloskey's argument] exists not for the sake of inquiring about what is true, but for its own sake; not in order to convince anyone of anything based on objective standards, but in the absence of any such standards, simply in order to be persuasive and persuade for persuasion's sake".
For Hoppe, the argument hermeneuticians (and McCloskey) make "can merely be understood as contributions to their and my entertainment".

McCloskey's efforts, however, did not entertain Hoppe:
"McCloskey's talk clearly would not fall into any different category from that of a novelist or poet. But as compared with their prose, and in direct competition with any novel or poem written for our entertainment, I submit that McCloskey's book is merely boring and fails miserably in its objective". (link, my emphasis)

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As a second example, Murray N. Rothbard, like Hoppe, also lambasts the "hermeneutical invasion" of "discipline after discipline, from literature to political theory to philosophy to history" and singles out McCloskey, as "hermeneutical economist", for special treatment from among the "arrogant band of hermeneuticians". (link)

For brevity's sake, I will not go into Rothbard's critique, except to say that to the list of baddies Hoppe provided (Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty, Hans G. Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, G.L.S. Shackle and "at the fringes of the Austrian school of economics are Ludwig Lachmann and the George Mason University hermeneuticians"), Rothbard adds Thorstein Veblen (!?), Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Martin Heidegger, Juergen Habermas, apparently Milton Friedman (believe it or not!!??) and "a cluster of renegade Austrians and ex-Misesians gathered in the Center for Market Processes at George Mason University", headed by Don Lavoie.

To make it clear how sinister this apostasy was, Rothbard added to his list "one of the grandfathers of the movement" (!?), the really Big Bad incarnate, the chief "Collectivist" himself: the Boogeyman… err… sorry… Karl Marx. :D

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Fast forward to December 2011. No longer one hears Austrian economists shooting point blank "banal or idiotic", "unintelligible", "empty, vapid, dreamy, woolly, rhetorical" (duh!), "less than pellucid", "high-flown gibberish" and "imbecile fancies" at the work of McCloskey. (I don't think the courtesy extends to all PoMo/hermeneutical authors, though).

Instead, nowadays leading Austrian economist Peter Boettke (University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University) recommends McCloskey's work, regardless of whether it's hermeneutics:
"In my opinion, McCloskey's paper is required reading for all who want to understand why some nations grow rich while others languish in poverty".
And reminisces:
"Back in the mid 1990s… McCloskey stood before a packed room of 500, dressed in a stylish dress and wig, and proudly announced 'I am an economist in transition'. [pause] 'I am transitioning from a Chicago economist to an Austrian economist'." (link)
McCloskey, l'enfant terrible of economics, the PoMo heretic who in Rothbard's nightmare was next to Marx in wickedness, became an Austrian economist, while remaining a PoMo.

I'll submit that McCloskey's (who describes herself thus "postmodern, quantitative, literary, ex-Marxist, economist, historian, progressive Episcopalian, coastie-bred Chicagoan woman who was once not", link) reputation as maverick was rather overblown. It was, it seems to me, largely built on her personal circumstances and her necessarily wishy-washy PoMo criticism of neoclassical economics.

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Yanis Varoufakis writing about PoMo:
"Despite its considerable oeuvre, postmodern criticisms of economics are doomed to shrivel and be absorbed by mainstream economics; the predator turning into unsuspecting prey." (link, my emphasis)
I cannot imagine a better illustration to Varoufakis' warning about PoMo than McCloskey's "transitioning". Talk about self-defeating.

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McCloskey's otherwise high-profile promotion from Chicago-girl to honorary Austrian and PoMo was, however, utterly ignored by some popular bloggers. One finds that those bloggers also demoted all other PoMo free-marketeer economists to lefties; almost as if they were trying to hide them under the rug. Or as if they were, consciously or not, channeling Rothbard on that:
"The left – particularly the academic left – really went down a wrong path when Postmodernism and Poststructuralism started poisoning its intellectual life". (link)
I can't say I disagree in what regards the left, unfortunately; but I do wonder if the author ever heard of McCloskey or other PoMo free-marketeer economists, including a PoKe one.

Definitely, not flattering for McCloskey.


Image Credits:
[A] Mus musculum, house mouse. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. Author: George Shuklin. Source: Wikipedia. My usage of the file does not imply its author's agreement or disagreement on the subject of this post.

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