Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Becker and Marx

On Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Justin Wolfers is quoted comparing Becker to Marx :

"no economist since Marx has had such a profound impact across the social sciences, transforming not just economics, but also sociology, political science, criminology, demography and legal scholarship"

I want to compare them in another respect. Both  championed different forms of Rabid Economism. Marx's economism was holist,  Becker's individualist, but both forms are equally reductionist and equally  imbecilic. Marx's materialism reduces the cultural, the political, the ethical to super-structural epiphenomena: all were just distorted reflections of the underlying reality of class struggle. Becker thinks all human agency simply consists of maximizing utility. For neither thinker do human beings have the ability to think and act  "for the sake of the world," as Hannah Arendt would say. For each, we are deluding ourselves if we think that acting can ever be a matter of  trying to get things right - to do what is called for, to believe what is warranted -independent of what our interests dictate. For both, in other words, the concept of disinterested action - including the disinterested pursuit of truth - is a snare and a delusion.  Finally, in this latter respect, both systems of thought are self-undermining:   neither can make sense of  itself as a disinterested attempt to understand the human condition.

(I owe my appreciation of this parallel to Deirdre's McCloskey hilarious charcterization of Stigler as "the last vulgar Marxist.")


rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


I have just posted something that to some extent disagrees with this post, but I must agree with you and McCloskey on Stigler, whom I somewhat poke at. It seems that while Becker and Milton Friedman were open-minded and treated others with respect, the same could not be said of Stigler, and while there are many who push Stigler forward as some great and worthy intellect, he was not only seriously wrong about a lot of things, but arrogantly so in a very disagreeable way, even to the point of being almost despicable.

kevin quinn said...

Barkley: I have just read your post with great interest. I don't think we necessarily disagree: Becker's "altruist" is maximizing his or her utility. Neither Marx nor Becker can account for what Sen called "commitment" (in his "Rational Fools"), i.e. counter-preferential choice.

JW Mason said...

I'm curious what calling Marx "imbecilic" is accomplishing, in your mind.

There are a large number of people -- including a disproportionate number of EconoSpeak readers and not a few contributors -- who either work within the Marxist tradition, or are engaged in dialogue with it. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of your post here is to indicate that you do not want to have a conversation with these people -- that you do not want to learn anything from us, and you do not want us to learn anything from you.

What do you think dismissing and insulting your fellow critics of the mainstream will accomplish for economics? What do you think it will accomplish for you personally?

kevin quinn said...

I called Marx's economism "imbecilic," not Marx. There's lots more to Marx than his economism, and indeed, there are places in his work - the 18th Brumaire,e.g.-- that are patently non-economistic. I've learned volumes reading Marx (and Becker, for that matter): he was an extraordinary thinker. I have posted here before on the importance of his notion of commodity fetishism, for example. My students read the young Marx on alienation and the Manifesto, as well as selections from Capital.

Still, the economism is there, and I think it's a mistake. And it's a mistake he shares - despite the great differences between them in most other respects - with the Chicago School and Becker most prominently.

What do I hope to accomplish? I don't hope to accomplish anything - I don't understand your question. I am not dismissing nor insulting you or anyone else.

john c. halasz said...

The interpretation of Marx as an economic reductionist is just that: an interpretation. It can't be dismissed out of hand, as, indeed, Marx does accord a certain primacy to the economy, "the mode of production", in "determining", i.e. specifying, the institutional orders of broader society and culture. But economistic-deterministic reductionism is likely far more the vulgar Marxism of his followers, than an adequate account of the basic intent of his own thinking.