One Small Problem With Economics

Early last week, as I was preparing for a course in international political economy (IPE), I read an introductory article on the subject by Robert Gilpin. Aimed at the novice, it described the discipline by explaining how it is organized. To the political economist, information, interests and institutions are of central concern. And yet, just a few sentences previous, it was noted that the scientific method is the approach to IPE. There’s an incongruence here. Like economics, IPE’s methodology only allows for observation of the events. While both disciplines might claim they are interested in the interests of the actors and institutions, they take for granted that the observed action is equal to the intent. In other words, they both assume actors and institutions are rational, and that interest or motives and observable actions are equivalent items.

This is intellectually dangerous. For both IPE and economics, motives are decoupled from the realm of the debate. From the scientific method, we know exactly how much power a keg of gunpowder exerts when lit. However, it tells us nothing of the motives behind the failed assassination of King James I.

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