Economists’ interest in collective decision after World War II: a history

This paper tracks economists’ rising, yet elusive and unstable interest in collective decision mechanism after World War II. We replace their examination of voting procedures and social welfare functions in the 1940s and 1950s in the context of their growing involvement with policy-making. Confronted with natural scientists’ and McCathythes’ accusations of ideological bias, positive studies emphasizing that collective decisions mechanisms were unstable and inefficient, and normative impossibilities, economists largely relied on the idea the policy ends they worked with reflected a “social consensus.” As the latter crumbled in the 1960s, growing disagreement erupted on how to identify and aggregate those individual values which economists believed should guide applied work, in particular in cost-benefit analysis. The 1970s and 1980s brought new approaches to collective decision: Arrow’s impossibility was solved by expanding the informational basis, it was showed that true preferences could be revealed by making decision costly, and experimentalists and market designers enabled these mechanisms to be tested in the lab before being sold to those public bodies looking for decision procedures that emulated markets. In this new regime, the focus paradoxically shifted to coordination, revelation and efficiency, and those economists studying collective decision processes were marginalized.

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Massive Influence with Scarce Contributions: the rationalizing economist Gary S. Becker

‘‘In Memoriam: Gary S. Becker, 1930–2014’’.20141025_BeckerBoard_sh It is through this lapidary ‘‘Farewell Post’’, announcing that the ‘‘the Becker–Posner blog is terminated’’, that a number of Richard Posner’s followers might have learned the death of his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago, Gary S. Becker. Becker was a major influence in economics, and was awarded in 1992 the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for ‘‘having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behaviour and interaction, including non-market behaviour’’. Posner never missed an opportunity to remind the reader that Becker had exerted the strongest influence on the development law and economics (e.g. Posner 1993). Yet, it is noteworthy to mention that Becker’s direct contributions to the field were scarce: one can (only) think of two papers: the 1968 ‘‘crime and punishment: an economic approach’’ and the 1974 ‘‘law enforcement, malfeasance, and compensation of enforcers’’ (co-authored with George Stigler). This is somewhat illustrative of Becker’s scholarly work throughout his life. Becker’s influence on economics was both direct and indirect. He published numerous seminal contributions on topics that had not really been analyzed with microeconomic tools before him (the economics of the household, human capital, etc.). Yet he was primarily interested in broadening the scope of economics, that is, in invading new and virgin territories to the economist, rather than in focusing exclusively on a particular subfield. Becker’s indirect influence, though, was massive, and was channeled mostly through the work of his students and colleagues, who made those subfields he contributed to create flourish. Becker is remembered by many as both a trailblazer and a mentor who played a fundamental role in supporting early controversial research. By taking a quick glance at his career, where the University of Chicago appears to be a centripetal force, it is easy to see that Becker played on the careers of his colleagues and protégé s a very similar role as his own Chicago mentors—especially Milton Friedman—played on him.

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Order, Coordination, and Collective Action among the Undead (co-authored with Alain Marciano)

1442235020In Economics of the Undead, edited by Glen WHitman and James Dow.

The post-zombie infection society seems to be one of total chaos, in which only humans appear to be capable of maintaining a form of order. This is what strikes us, at first sight, on seeeing thousands of zombies roaming towards a commercial mall in George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead and its 2004 remake by Zack Snyder. But if we shift our point of view away from the humans and towards the zombies, we can easily see that in these accounts, as well as in many others, zombie flocks show characteristics of an unplanned order similar to those observed among cohorts of living beings crowding in a mall. Zombies brush against each other too without colliding often, almost never fighting each other, and never attempting to eat each other. Like humans, zombies follow implicit rules, too. Furthermore, as we will argue later, zombies are sometimes capable of engaging in forms of deliberate planning and purposeful collective action as well. Thus, like human societies, zombies societies exhibit more order that is commonly assumed; in particular, two levels of coordination—spontaneous order and deliberate organization—co-exist. First, we contend that, within large masses – or flocks – of zombies, coordination results from bottom-up, unplanned processes rather than from a top-down, constructed, commanded one. Order exists without a formal organization and rests on a limited set of simple rules of behavior, which have interesting survival properties for the zombie group. But, at this level, zombies cannot reach goals that go much beyond their primal instinct to eat living human flesh. These large masses of zombies cannot engage in forms of purposeful collective action, precisely because there is no organization. Among the living, collective action through organization occurs, for instance, within a firm that gathers many individuals and organizes the division of labor. We contend that deliberate organization also occurs within some zombie societies. But this only happens within groups that, like their human counterparts, follow the lead of an entrepreneur in order to achieve ambitious goals. Many contributions, such as Romero’s movies, confirm our analysis.


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Becker and Posner: Freedom of Speech and Public Intellectualship (co-authored by Alain Marciano)

This paper analyses what Gary S. Becker and Richard A. Posner have written for various media (either in print or online) that are not strictly aimed at academic audiences. We provide an historical account of how they became interested in such activities, from their first attempts, made independently from each other, to their joint- venture on the internet through the Becker-Posner Blog. In our description of their respective, independent and then collaborative experiences, differences appear between Becker and Posner about how to be a public intellectual, but also similarities as what it means and implies. From this perspective, the blog proves to be a further and crucial step in their career as public intellectuals. Both Becker and Posner use the blog for the freedom and flexibility it offers. They use it to develop a sort of “casual economic thinking” that they push farther than in any of their other writings, even as public intellectuals.Download Paper

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The Evolving Notion of Relevance: an historical perspective to the ‘economics made fun’ movement

This paper aims to study the ‘economics made fun’ literature with regard to its main purpose: popularizing economics. We shed an historical light on such literature by showing that its main strategy for introducing economics to non-specialists had already been tried in the 1970s in what were described as “issues-oriented” textbooks. We show that both literatures, as introductory enterprises, were responses to similar challenges. The first one is the problem of economic illiteracy, a problem that has concerned teachers in economics since the early 1960s. Both literatures did offer an interesting response to perceived shortcomings of introductory courses. The second challenge came from the attacks on economics and its teaching for their lack of relevance. We explore how the notion of relevance evolved in time and how both literatures attempted to respond to the criticisms of their time accordingly. By addressing these questions, our study explores how economists used these introductory enterprises to disseminate a certain image of them and their discipline in comparison to other social scientists and non-specialists, and how these representations evolved in time.

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Wandering through the Borderlands of the Social Sciences: Gary Becker’s Economics of Discrimination

This article contextualizes the writing, reception, and impact of Gary Becker’s first book, The Economics of Discrimination, in order to deepen our understanding of the relationships between economics and the other social sciences. First, we study the social scientific work on race relations prior to Becker’s book, work that was heavily influenced by the work of the economist Gunnar Myrdal and criticized for lacking an underlying theoretical framework. Second, we analyze the novelty of Becker’s contribution. Becker’s book introduced nonpecuniary motives into the neoclassical framework so as to respond to the criticisms leveled by institutional economists against the marginal analysis of labor markets. In doing so, Becker attempted to redefine the relationship between economists and other social scientists. Third, we study the reaction to Becker’s redefinition of disciplinary territories, which illustrated the current debates within sociology and labor economics. Finally, we study the impact of Becker’s book on social scientific research in the 1960s.

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Drawing New Lines: Economists and Other Social Scientists on Society

This article investigates the expansion of the scope of economics in the 1960s. We show that the public policy problems raised by the issue of poverty reinforced the expansion, as economists became progressively involved in the social issues of the day. Until the early 1960s, poverty was a neglected issue, as most Americans had experienced an increase in their living conditions since the late 1940s. In such a context of affluence, the rediscovery of poverty came as a shock, and it drove scholars and the government to address many poverty-related problems. Defined as relative deprivation, poverty linked low income to many social issues, thus blurring the traditional boundary separating economics from the other social sciences. As a result, economists and other social scientists contributed to the social scientific literature on these problems, which raised the following question: to what extent could economists be considered as legitimate advisers on social policy? We study how Washington economists came to tackle poverty-related issues through, among other things, the work of CEA members and the development of social indicators by Mancur Olson at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This growing influence of economists sheds light on the emerging economic analyses of social phenomena, such as human capital theory, health economics, and the economic analysis of crime, which appeared as valuable tools for public policy. We also study the reaction of other social scientists (mainly sociologists and political scientists) to the economists’ growing influence, by studying the debates regarding the possible creation of a Council of Social Advisers, which would complement the work of economists as public policy advisers. Although critical of economics, many other social scientists were unwilling to get involved in social policy-making, which, ultimately, strengthened the image of economists as experts on social policy.

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The Expansion of the Scope of American Economics (1949-1992), Doctoral Dissertation in French

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Dans ma thèse de doctorat, je propose d’établir une histoire de l’élargissement de l’utilisation des outils de la science économique après la Seconde Guerre mondiale à des sujets « non économiques ». Je montre que l’émergence de questions « aux frontières » de la science économique et des autres sciences sociales fut stimulée par la place changeante de l’Etat dans la société américaine depuis l’après guerre. C’est son contrôle grandissant sur l’économie au sortir de la guerre, puis son intervention dans le domaine du social durant les années 1960, qui permettent d’expliquer le rapprochement de ce qui relève de l’économique, du politique et du social. Le traitement de ces questions aux frontières favorisa par la suite le franchissement des frontières traditionnelles par certains économistes.

Plusieurs résultats sont identifiés. Le premier résultat montre que l’évolution des frontières séparant les sciences sociales ne fut pas instantanée ni homogène, mais s’effectua en trois étapes clés. Tout d’abord, à partir de la fin des années 1940, les économistes s’intéressèrent à l’analyse du politique. Dans un contexte marqué parla Guerre Froide, une intervention importante de l’Etat dans les affaires économiques, et une certaine méfiance vis-à-vis du pouvoir central, les économistes s’interrogèrent sur la possibilité d’obtenir des décisions collectives satisfaisant les préférences individuelles, et, ce faisant, abordèrent des problématiques similaires à celles des politologues. Puis, à partir du milieu de la décennie 1960, les politiques publiques se focalisèrent sur les problèmes sociaux découlant de la pauvreté : le crime, la santé, l’éducation, ou encore la discrimination. Conjointement au programme de « Guerre contre la pauvreté », je montre que l’élargissement de l’analyse économique s’orienta vers l’étude du social. Enfin, forts du succès de ces développements de la science économique, certains économistes développèrent l’idée que les comportements rationnels et les forces de marché étaient la base universelle de tout comportement humain. L’émergence d’une « approche économique » des comportements humains souleva une question centrale : l’analyse de la société peut elle se réduire à l’analyse des forces économiques ? Tout au long des années 1970 et 1980, ce débat permit d’étendre les frontières de l’analyse économique à toutes ses disciplines avoisinantes, tout en stimulant le renouveau d’un dialogue interdisciplinaire.

Le deuxième résultat concerne la pratique des économistes. Chacune des étapes de l’élargissement des frontières de la science économique s’accompagna d’une pratique et de perceptions particulières de la science économique et de ses frontières, pouvant en exclure d’autres. Par exemple, l’émergence de l’analyse économique du politique par l’école des Choix Publics à la fin des années 1950 exclue les analyses économiques du social de Gary Becker à cette époque.

Le troisième résultat met en lumière la grande diversité des points de vue défendus parces auteurs à l’origine du mouvement d’élargissement des frontières. Les divergences que l’on peut identifier concernent en particulier le rôle de l’Etat et les relations perçues entre la science économique et les autres sciences sociales. Ainsi, l’utilisation progressive des outils de l’analyse économique à des sujets sociaux ou politiques ne se traduit pas forcément par une critique systématique de l’intervention publique. Elle ne se traduit pas non plus systématiquement par la volonté d’asservir les autres sciences sociales à la théorie du choix rationnel ou à l’approche économique de Gary Becker.

Enfin, le dernier résultat concerne la notion d’impérialisme de l’économie et les débats sur la définition de la science économique. La notion même d’impérialisme de l’économie, laquelle émerge dans les années 1970, peut se comprendre comme une reconstruction à posteriori, donnant un sens aux élargissements successifs du domaine de la science économique, qui eurent lieu cours des années 1950 et 1960. Par conséquent, la vision communément admise de l’impérialisme de l’économie, selon laquelle le phénomène proviendrait directement de la définition de Robbins (1932), est remise en cause. Il semble plus correct de dire que dans les années 1970, les protagonistes de l’élargissement des frontières réutilisèrent une définition proche de celle de Robbins afin de donner un sens aux évolutions passées de la science économique, notamment sa formidable extension dans les années 1960.


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