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What even is economic pluralism?

Words by Rafe Martyn

Pluralism is a beautiful concept. It is inclusive and appeals to our values of democracy, open-mindedness and critical-thinking. It does not reject modern economics, it rather suggests that this is but part of the story. It frees us from both scepticism (nothing goes) and relativism (anything goes). Instead, with pluralism there are many right approaches, but not infinitely many.

But pluralism is an inherently vague term. It suggests variety, but exactly what kind of variety is it that we want? This lack of precision may be the reason it has been able to rally such a wide range of support (including pillars of the establishment such as the FT, the Economics and the Bank of England), but it has also weakened the campaign for change. Some mainstream economists suspect that its vagueness is symptomatic of a poorly thought through critique, or one that is being used purely strategically.

The three Ps of pluralism

The most noble attempt at a concrete definition is perhaps the ISIPE open letter, which laid down the famous three Ps of pluralism: pluralism of theory, pluralism of method and interdisciplinary pluralism.

But economics already has variety of these kinds. It uses multiple methods (RCTs, behavioural experiments, theoretical modeling, econometrics), incorporates insights from other schools of thought (Schumpterian economic growth, New Keynesian theories of the business cycle), and has widened its scope to include psychology and neuroscience.

Is pluralism then just calling for the right kind of variety? Do we campaigners for pluralism secretly just want our favourite school of thought, our favourite method or our favourite discipline included in the mainstream, and pluralism is nothing more than the acceptable face of this call for change?

A language barrier

No, for the meaning of pluralism goes beyond mere variety. The famous philosopher Thomas Kuhn characterised science as proponents of competing paradigms failing to make complete contact with each others’ views. Pluralism for him has this idea of people talking past each other.

This psychological element to pluralism does resonate. We certainly all must have witnessed conversations between heterodox and mainstream economists which felt like they were speaking different languages entirely. Economists and sociologists can also often be witnessed talking at cross-purposes. In the aftermath of these conversations, the participants no doubt conclude that if they cannot understand the other side’s position, it is because it is mistaken, and so, their conversation partner’s views are rejected.

It follows that the variety that does exist within economics is in a language that modern economists can understand. The variety that doesn’t exist, the pluralism we are calling for, is of a kind that can’t readily be expressed in the language of economists, or at least hasn’t been so far. The vision of pluralism is of an economics that accepts these approaches that seem incompatible with its way of thinking. Methods from sociology and anthropology that involve talking to people alongside abstract mathematical research. Ecological and feminist views of the economic system alongside materialistic, ungendered models of the world.

Where does this leave us?

So, like so often in society, the real challenge is one of communication between those who simply cannot comprehend one another’s conceptions of the world. To change economics, we must express valid forms of variety in a language that can be understood by modern economists. Kuhn himself was not optimistic in this respect. He viewed science as proceeding by revolution from one dominant monist paradigm to the next. But there is more of a history of pluralism in economics so perhaps we have reason to hope.

Some questions remain unanswered. Are all the alternatives being pushed by the pluralism movement valid? Are some more easily rendered in a language modern economists can understand than others? Will some perhaps even very naturally be integrated into economics in the same way that behavioural economics and game theory have over the years? The answers to these will surely be uncovered by the pluralist campaign as it continues to push at the door of the economic establishment over the years to come.

What even is economic pluralism?

Words by Rafe Martyn

Pluralism is a beautiful concept. It is inclusive and appeals to our values of democracy, open-mindedness and critical-thinking. It does not reject modern economics, it rather suggests that this is but part of the story. It frees us from both scepticism (nothing goes) and relativism (anything goes). Instead, with pluralism there are many right approaches, but not infinitely many.

But pluralism is an inherently vague term. It suggests variety, but exactly what kind of variety is it that we want? This lack of precision may be the reason it has been able to rally such a wide range of support (including pillars of the establishment such as the FT, the Economics and the Bank of England), but it has also weakened the campaign for change. Some mainstream economists suspect that its vagueness is symptomatic of a poorly thought through critique, or one that is being used purely strategically.

The three Ps of pluralism

The most noble attempt at a concrete definition is perhaps the ISIPE open letter, which laid down the famous three Ps of pluralism: pluralism of theory, pluralism of method and interdisciplinary pluralism.

But economics already has variety of these kinds. It uses multiple methods (RCTs, behavioural experiments, theoretical modeling, econometrics), incorporates insights from other schools of thought (Schumpterian economic growth, New Keynesian theories of the business cycle), and has widened its scope to include psychology and neuroscience.

Is pluralism then just calling for the right kind of variety? Do we campaigners for pluralism secretly just want our favourite school of thought, our favourite method or our favourite discipline included in the mainstream, and pluralism is nothing more than the acceptable face of this call for change?

A language barrier

No, for the meaning of pluralism goes beyond mere variety. The famous philosopher Thomas Kuhn characterised science as proponents of competing paradigms failing to make complete contact with each others’ views. Pluralism for him has this idea of people talking past each other.

This psychological element to pluralism does resonate. We certainly all must have witnessed conversations between heterodox and mainstream economists which felt like they were speaking different languages entirely. Economists and sociologists can also often be witnessed talking at cross-purposes. In the aftermath of these conversations, the participants no doubt conclude that if they cannot understand the other side’s position, it is because it is mistaken, and so, their conversation partner’s views are rejected.

It follows that the variety that does exist within economics is in a language that modern economists can understand. The variety that doesn’t exist, the pluralism we are calling for, is of a kind that can’t readily be expressed in the language of economists, or at least hasn’t been so far. The vision of pluralism is of an economics that accepts these approaches that seem incompatible with its way of thinking. Methods from sociology and anthropology that involve talking to people alongside abstract mathematical research. Ecological and feminist views of the economic system alongside materialistic, ungendered models of the world.

Where does this leave us?

So, like so often in society, the real challenge is one of communication between those who simply cannot comprehend one another’s conceptions of the world. To change economics, we must express valid forms of variety in a language that can be understood by modern economists. Kuhn himself was not optimistic in this respect. He viewed science as proceeding by revolution from one dominant monist paradigm to the next. But there is more of a history of pluralism in economics so perhaps we have reason to hope.

Some questions remain unanswered. Are all the alternatives being pushed by the pluralism movement valid? Are some more easily rendered in a language modern economists can understand than others? Will some perhaps even very naturally be integrated into economics in the same way that behavioural economics and game theory have over the years? The answers to these will surely be uncovered by the pluralist campaign as it continues to push at the door of the economic establishment over the years to come.

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