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Journal of Economic Psychology 8 (1987) 109-I 33



Donald N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics. Wheatsheaf, Brigh-

ton, 1986. pp. xx + 209.
Economists are notoriously unreflective about the way their subject
is going. They are encouraged in this by what passes for phiilosophising
among them. In contrast to the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of practi-
tioners such as Robbins and Friedman, recent discussion has made
constant reference to post-Popperite debate in the philosophy of sci-
ence. Without the comforts of legislating methodology, philosophi&
economists fear for the fate of economics at the hands of Feyer-
abendian anarchists, sociological relativists and other undesirables.
Most economists are mildly irritated by what they see as methodologi-
cal arrogance, dismissing it with McCloskey’s ‘American question’: ‘If
you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?
McCloskey wants to encourage economists to be both reflective and
not beholden to methodological legislators. He takes the line that
successful economics is economics that successfully persuades, not
economics that follows some rules that legitimate it as scientific. It may
be that some economists have been excessively persuaded by some such
rules a.nd rhetorically deploy them in their efforts to persuade, but that
is another issue. McCloskey therefore wants economists to reflect on
their rhetoric, so as to improve the quality of the conversation with
which they try to persuade themselves and others.
The article in which McCloskey first put this forward, and from
which his book takes off, caused the biggest methodological flutter@
among economists since Friedman - not least because of the ease with
which he assumed that the whole positivist programme could be
dismissed. In piecemeal form McCloskey’s arguments have been around
a long time. He sees them as part of a broader post-modern reckoning
with the modernism of which positivism was a part. The piecemeal
arguments are cogent, yet they have never
Maybe they will, once the
something more is at issue.

0167-4870/87/$3.50 @ 198‘7,Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland)

114) Book reviews

rather successful piece of persuasion so, oddly, perhaps he undervalues

the role 0,;‘positivist rhetoric in its success. Positivism and the sort of
physics on which neo-classical economics was modelled grew up to-
gether. The method and the message may not be tidily separable; the
faults of the one may serve to conceal the faults of the other in such a
way that we are never too sure which to blame.
The more constructive part of McCloskey’s argument draws on
literary criticism to show how a repertoire of standard rhetorical
devices is deployed by the most austerely quantitative economists.
Indeed their linguistic poverty is designed to achieve the distancing
necessary to persuade us of scientific objectivity. This is where the book
adds up to more than the sum of the articles from which it is mostly
recycled. McCloskey’s ability to dissect Samuelson’s Foundations, Muth
on rational expeciations, or Fogers cliometric railroading reinforces his
general argument. But it points up the doubts as well. When Mc-
Closkey argues that the strength of rational expectations is that it
prevents market participants throwing the ‘American question’ back at
omniscient economists, we are left wondering why anyone finds the
economists’ modernist commentary at all persuasive. The problem is to
explain why McCloskey’s successful economists, who thrive on mod-
ernist rhetoric, would be well advised not to be trammelled by mod-
ernist dogmas. McCloskey’s explanation is that they are rotten positi-
vists in spite of themselves. The counterargument is that if they jettison
positivism who knows where the rot will stop?
Though a liberating perspective in some ways, McCloskey’s reliance
on the methods of literary criticism is, in others, narrowing. As he says,
his concern is with the ‘how’ and, implicitly, not the ‘why’ of
economists’ persuasion. In a sense this is a positivist residue: if knowl-
edge comes with guarantees it can more easily be taken as self-justify-
ing. Instead, McCloskey has a kind of meta-methodological commit-
ment to openness of communication, citing Habermas approvingly.
Hence his wish to improve the quality of economists’ conversations. so
that their utterances can find their righu!fulplace in the enlightened and
democratic community of speech acts. But this will only work as long
as the conversation is worth listening to. McCloskey is too ready to slip
into thinking of successful persuasion as worthwhile conversation. A
less charitable view is that modernist incantations are meant to induce
feelings of prestigious seriousness. ‘Ihc in-jokes told by economists may
not show ironic doubt about the norms of scientific modernity, as
Book reviews 111

McCloskey believes, but a deeper insecurity about the seriousness with

which economists take themselves and, more damagingly, have per-
suaded others to take them.
All this is to say that McCloskey needs to be more wholehearted
about his post-modernism. Fittingly for someone who earns his keep by
studying ends and means he seems to hold, ultimately, an instrumental
view of language. But economics is not talk something given ‘out there’.
It is talk defining of what is ‘out there’; this not in McCloskey’s sense
of the relativity of standards for appraising, say, degree of market
integration, at which no positivist need blush. There is, rather, the far
more subversive sense of Foucault, also on McCloskey’s post-modernist
roll call, who pointed to the discourses, of which political economy was
one, that emerged around 1800. These, Foucaultargued, were constitu-
tive of the modem notion of the human subject which would eventu-
ally, through an astute piece of self-referencing, enable economics to
define itself as the very science of rational behaviour. And it is hard to
know what economics would look like if that definition was seriously
brought into question.
McCloskey has written a clever, witty and - shall we say? -
persuasive book which brings us to the threshold of such radical
debunking, but he then backs off with an injunction to write better
prose as well as do clever sums. I hope that McCloskey stirs up more
doubts than perhaps he intends.
Adrian Winnett
School of Humanities and
Social Sciences
University of Bath
Claverton Down
Bath BA2 7A Y, U.K.

Werner Kroeber-Riel, Konsumentenverhake;: , 3. (Revised and extended

edition.) Yerlag Franz Vahlen, Munchen, 1984. pp. 756.

The new edition of professor Kroeber-Riel’s book on consumer

behavior is the most complete review of consumer behavior research
that I know of. It offers something that is different from most Ameri-
can textbooks in the field. The latter are generally ai largest
possible audiences at the un uate level or poss A. stu-