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Robert Heilbroner Economics as Universal Science ECONOMICS HAS BECOME THE IMPERIAL SOCIAL SCIENCE. IT IS THE ONLY branch of social inquiry that enjoys a Nobel prize. It has been celebrated in a massive four-volume, 4-million word “dictionary,” through which there runs, like an Ariadne’s thread, the assumption that economics has finally escaped the parochial boundaries of its former kingdom of production and distribution, and can now lay claim to a realm that extends from family affairs to sports, from anthropology to politi­ cal science (The New Palgrave, 1988; Heilbroner, 1988: 23). More to the point, economics has earned the flattery of imitation by its sister social sciences. Its formal mode of argument, mathematical apparatus, spare language, and rigorous logic have made it the model for the “softer” social sciences. Thus it is with the shock of recognition, not of surprise, that we read Jack Hirshleifer’s tribute to the “expanding domain” of economics: [I]t is ultimately impossible to carve off a distinct territory for economics, bordering on, but separated from other social disciplines. Economics interpenetrates them all, and is reciprocally penetrated by them. There is onlyone social science. What gives economics its imperialist invasive power is that our analytical categories—scarcity, cost, preferences, oppor­ tunities, etc.—are truly universal in application. Even more important is our structured organization of these concepts into the distinct yet intertwined processes of optimization ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 5 8 , NO. 2 (SUM M ER 1 9 9 l) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 2 004 615 on the individual decision level and equilibrium on the social level. Thus economics really does constitute the universal grammar of social science (Hirshleifer, 1985: 53). Economics, according to Hirshleifer’s argument, enjoys its impe­ rial status because it supplies part of the “master pattern” of social theory. Sociobiology supplies the other part. Together the two yield a unified social science in which “certain ultimate principles like scar­ city and opportunity cost, and the universal bioeconomic processes of competition and selection, will always remain valid for analyzing and predicting the course of human behavior and social organization” (Hirshleifer, 1985: 66; emphasis added). I do not know how many economists would go along with Hirshleifer’s bold generalization, but it is beyond question that an impe­ rial thrust—or its less aggressive, but no less commanding presump­ tion of a universalistic character—can be widely discerned in modern neoclassical economics.1 The question I wish to investigate is whether this thrust or presumption is justified—that is, whether economics demonstrably wields capabilities of analysis or prediction, or manifests attributes of a fundamental nature, that set it above its fellow disciplines. My answer is that it does not. As I have written elsewhere, economics may be consid­ ered the queen of the social sciences, but I wonder if it should not be demoted one rank, to that of knave (Heilbroner, 1980). PRIMITIVE AND COMMAND SOCIETIES I propose that we begin to examine the imperialist claim by studying the place and role of economics in the social formations that have orga­ nized the affairs of humankind for the overwhelmingly greatest part of its history—namely, primitive and command societies. The upshot of that examination can be succinctly stated: there is no distinct economy in these societies. Over most o f its history, humankind has gotten along without one. 616 social research For example, let us look for an economy in the society of the !Kung peoples of the Kalahari. There we will certainly find productive tasks and distributive arrangements. There is a small amount of exchange within and between various communities. There are communal deci­ sions with respect to the day’s labor, or on occasion about more impor­ tant matters, such as whether or not to move the hunting ground.2 But having examined the practices of hunters and gatherers, the interactions of daily life, or the deliberations around camp fires, have we located the “economy” of the !Kung people? That is a disconcerting question. If the answer is no, where else shall we look? But if it is yes, where is it? What aspect of the routines and practices we have exam...


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