The “Vanity of the Philosopher”

"What does the price of tea in eighteenth century China have to do with Bishop Berkeley’s theory of vision?"  If you have to ask such a question, you haven’t spent enough time around my colleague David M. Levy.  David combines expertise in Adam Smith, ancient Greek democracy, non-normal distributions, Victorian literature, and advanced Monte Carlo techniques. 

Twenty years ago, David was viewing economics in Quinean rather than Mengerian (Austrian) terms.  An economic model can be matched to the real world in more than one way.  This makes models invulnerable to "realist" criticisms but leaves open the question of what we are doing as economists.   

David promotes "analytic egalitarianism," the view that agents or entities "outside" a model should be treated no differently than agents or entities "inside" a model.  Again, we are left with no unique vantage point for interpreting results.  The "public choice" revolution was only the first step; we must now put researchers into the model as well.  Empirically, scientific integrity is elevated to a major issue.  Theoretically, an economic model becomes a mirror of Borgesian self-references which may or may not converge through a fixed point theorem.

Lately David has rediscovered the Austrians, albeit against his conscious will.  I read his recent work as essentialist and focused on social justice.  Connecting Mises and J.S. Mill, David now views neoclassical economics as realistic in nature.  Its implicit egalitarianism — all people behave according to the same principles — should be taken seriously and for David it provides ontological foundations for a free society.  Economists are the natural liberals, as our science is a mathematical version of Schiller’s "Ode to Joy." 

Smithian sympathy comes first and is prior to the idea of trade, thereby solving das Adam Smith Problem.  Man stands above the animals as the talking being and also as the sympathizing being.  Trade, speech, and symbols are part of a broader picture of how an ultimately monistic reality gives rise to diverse and plural epiphenomena.  Eugenics is the evil on the other side.  It has a pluralistic foundation — people are different in their cores — and empowers one untrustworthy group of elitists to reduce mankind to a monistic outcome.  Don’t trust it.

If citizens deal with symbols, theorists should also.  Why not offer a picture with an economic theory?  Is not a picture, like a poem or a novel, just another form of a model?  The analytical egalitarianism ensures that theorists offer pictures and poems for the same reasons that citizens do.  Man as an imagining being, and not just a simple maximizer, is primary.  Kant joins Smith and Hume in the pantheon, and the differences between aesthetics and economics are blurred.  Proverbs are models too.

Analytical egalitarianism helps us vanquish the Socratic claim to find impartial or trustworthy planners.  All these themes are played out in literary and philosophic works over the ages, and David helps you trace the connections.  The Greek poet Homer offers a precursor of the Tiebout model.  Will the next step be a treatise on Hogarth?  Or a picture of one of Hogarth’s pictures?

David covers the big issues, and he has almost always seen further and more deeply than have others.  Reading David can be a puzzle, but he is on my list of thinkers I would not do without.  Might he be the most consistent monist yet, and the one most willing to confront where monism must lead you?  At the same time, the pluralism of his writings would dazzle Gilles DeLeuze.

His latest book, The "Vanity of the Philosopher" co-authored with AdamSmithLives blogger Sandra Peart, is out, buy it here.  Btw, the above is my account of David, don’t trust it!


Comments for this post are closed