Vol.1 No.7, 23 August 2001

Statement by 'The Cambridge 27'

A major wave of questioning and opposition to the theoretical basis of neo-classical market economics, which is the basis of current economic theory, is building up. Papers critical of this unquestioned and unquestioning approach are published in the 'Post-Autistic Economic Newsletter'.

In the issue of 10 July 2001 a proposal for 'Opening Up Economics', released by 27 PhD students at Cambridge University is published. Their statement is presented below.

Aart Roukens de Lange
Editor, SANE Views

A Moderate Proposal

On June 14th, 27 PhD-students at Cambridge University released the open letter that appears below. Phil Faulkner, Leon Montes and Ingrid Robeyns wrote the proposal, following a visit by members of Le Movement Autisme-Économie. The French students were keen for support from Cambridge, we felt entirely sympathetic with their point of view, and thought we should express our position. This was the primary purpose of the proposal.

But as with the open letter of the French students a year ago, the impact of the Cambridge letter may turn out to be greater than its authors anticipated. A canvassing of Cambridge graduate students in economics generated many more positive replies than negative ones. But of the 27 PhD-students who initially expressed support for Opening Up Economics , the majority feel that the likelihood of their being persecuted by the Cambridge Economics Faculty, if their support were to become known, is such that they feel they must remain anonymous for the time being. Of course this climate of fear is not unknown in other economics departments. Even so, the present case is shocking because the most noticeable thing about the graduate students proposal is how moderate it is. It merely raises three basic questions and encourages economists to discuss them openly. It is difficult to imagine how anyone who subscribes to the ethos of science or to the principles of an open society could find the least objection to this proposal.

However, the facts are such that the Cambridge students need your support. They are asking for economic students and economists, wherever they are based, who wish to formally and publicly back their proposal to email them at [email protected] with the following:

"I support the proposal of the Cambridge economics PhD students...signed"

Please include university/position if you wish these to be noted. Your name will be posted on the Opening Up Economics page at www.paecon.net The web page will be regularly updated with the full list of supporters. Already there are 86 names on the list. It will only take you a minute or less to add yours.

Opening Up Economics: A Proposal By Cambridge Students

The Cambridge 27 (University of Cambridge, UK)

As students at Cambridge University, we wish to encourage a debate on contemporary economics. We set out below what we take to be characteristic of today's economics, what we feel needs to be debated and why: As defined by its teaching and research practices, we believe that economics is monopolised by a single approach to the explanation and analysis of economic phenomena. At the heart of this approach lies a commitment to formal modes of reasoning that must be employed for research to be considered valid. The evidence for this is not hard to come by. The contents of the discipline's major journals, of its faculties and its courses all point in this direction.

In our opinion, the general applicability of this formal approach to understanding economic phenomenon is disputable. This is the debate that needs to take place. When are these formal methods the best route to generating good explanations? What makes these methods useful and consequently, what are their limitations? What other methods could be used in economics? This debate needs to take place within economics and between economists, rather than on the fringe of the subject or outside of it all together.

In particular we propose the following:

  1. That the foundations of the mainstream approach be openly debated. This requires that the bad criticisms be rejected just as firmly as the bad defences. Students, teachers and researchers need to know and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the mainstream approach to economics.
  2. That competing approaches to understanding economic phenomena be subjected to the same degree of critical debate. Where these approaches provide significant insights into economic life, they should be taught and their research encouraged within economics. At the moment this is not happening. Competing approaches have little role in economics as it stands simply because they do not conform to the mainstream's view of what constitutes economics. It should be clear that such a situation is self-enforcing.

This debate is important because in our view the status quo is harmful in at least four respects. Firstly, it is harmful to students who are taught the 'tools' of mainstream economics without learning their domain of applicability. The source and evolution of these ideas is ignored, as is the existence and status of competing theories. Secondly, it disadvantages a society that ought to be benefiting from what economists can tell us about the world. Economics is a social science with enormous potential for making a difference through its impact on policy debates. In its present form its effectiveness in this arena is limited by the uncritical application of mainstream methods. Thirdly, progress towards a deeper understanding of many important aspects of economic life is being held back. By restricting research done in economics to that based on one approach only, the development of competing research programs is seriously hampered or prevented altogether. Fourth and finally, in the current situation an economist who does not do economics in the prescribed way finds it very difficult to get recognition for her research.

The dominance of the mainstream approach creates a social convention in the profession that only economic knowledge production that fits the mainstream approach can be good research, and therefore other modes of economic knowledge are all too easily dismissed as simply being poor, or as not being economics. Many economists therefore face a choice between using what they consider inappropriate methods to answer economic questions, or to adopt what they consider the best methods for the question at hand knowing that their work is unlikely to receive a hearing from economists.

Let us conclude by emphasizing what we are certainly not proposing: we are not arguing against the mainstream approach per se, but against the fact that its dominance is taken for granted in the profession. We are not arguing against mainstream methods, but believe in a pluralism of methods and approaches justified by debate. Pluralism as a default implies that alternative economic work is not simply tolerated, but that the material and social conditions for its flourishing are met, to the same extent as is currently the case for mainstream economics. This is what we mean when we refer to an 'opening up' of economics. [email protected]

Details of the Post-Autistic Economics Newsletter and other contributions to the July issue of the are:

sanity, humanity and science

post-autistic economics newsletter

Issue no. 7; 10 July 2001
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