My esteemed colleague Adam Ozanne has written a very interesting, short book on the strange absence of the concept of power from mainstream modern economics. The book, Power and Neoclassical Economics, argues that the fact that economics ignores power in social relations has also affected other social sciences, especially political science, as they have adopted techniques and approaches used in economics.
What explains the lacuna? Adam dates it to, first, the marginalist turn in economics in the 1870s, which started the process of abstracting from the particulars of reality into formalism; and then to the ordinalism of the 1930s and Lionel Robbins’ insistence that ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ economics could be separated. The new welfare economics of the 1950s finished the job. Indeed, Arrow’s famous impossibility theorem seemed to conclude that we can’t say anything practical about social choice. As the book puts it: “It must seem strange to non-economists that economic and social choice theorists have dug themselves into such a deep hole (though a very tidy, immaculately constructed hole) that they cannot even distinguish between rich and poor, but that appears to be the case.”….From class structure flows power, from power flows economic, and from economic rent flows concentrated incomes and wealth. Ignoring power is to ignore economics as a social science and get lost in empty formalism. Worse, politic economy without considering power is ideology that establishes privilege.
The Enlightened Economist
Power and economics
Diane Coyle | freelance economist and a former advisor to the UK Treasury. She is a member of the UK Competition Commission and is acting Chairman of the BBC Trust, the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation
Mainstream economics almost completely ignores the role power plays in determining economic outcomes, which means it can only provide partial explanations of the distribution of wealth and income, and of the problems associated with inequality and poverty. For many, this is a fundamental failing that severely limits its relevance to the real world and is the source of much dissatisfaction with, and cynicism about, economics and economists. Ozanne explains how this neglect of power has come about over the past 150 years and why it is important. He reviews various definitions and theories of power from across the social sciences and proposes a new approach that could bring considerations of power back into standard economic theory and economics teaching. The approach is simple and intuitive, involving little more than re-envisioning the social welfare function as a 'political economy function'. However, if adopted in economics teaching, it could radically change the way young economists are taught to think about economic problems and lead to a 'return to political economy'.
Adam Ozanne has degrees in physics and astronomy, rural development, and agricultural economics. He also began a DPhil in nuclear astrophysics but abandoned it and went instead to teach maths and physics in Pakistan and work for a Third World development agency. He is now a Senior Lecturer teaching economics at the University of Manchester, UK.