The anti-economic rationalist genre

Some years ago, in reviewing Lindy Edwards’ book How to Argue with an Economist, I suggested that it was part of a genre of anti-economic rationalist writing. I think ‘genre’ is a good way of describing critiques of economic rationalism, because it picks up connotations of a common style as well as of shared subject matter and perspective.

There was another example of this in an article by Martin Feil in today’s Age, run under the title ‘We killed manufacturing’. It’s a vigorous polemic against economic rationalism and free-market economics, but as is usual in this genre it does not cite any actual economic rationalist or free market advocate and shows the standard lack of interest in facts.

Admittedly, indifference to evidence does have its liberating effects, allowing creativity closed to those who drearily stick to what can be substantiated. Take this claim, for example:

According to the free-market adherents, productivity improvements occur only when there is no government intrusion in the marketplace. Businesses are left to compete and only the most efficient survive. They then altruistically give their efficiency gains to consumers to grow the market. (emphasis added)

I’ve been reading anti-economic rationalist tracts for 20 years, and have read countless denunciations of free-market theories putting self-interest at their centre, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen the theory criticised for putting too much faith in altruism. Of course many people are altruistic, but it would indeed be a foolish theory that assumed business would give productivity gains away out of generosity. If it happens, it’s because business want to increase the amount they sell by lowering prices – as free market theory would predict.
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