Quotations on Intellectual Hazard

Econ Journal Watch has a swath of quotations concerning intellectual pursuits.

[The economist’s] response [to his impotence to influence opinion] may be to retire from that field of intellectual activity in which he could be of direct service to the community and… concentrate on the development of an intricate technique of analysis. he may then find himself the possessor of a logical system applicable to conditions which might conceivably exist, but a system which no legislator or administrator could be expected to understand, let alone find of service in the case of any concrete problem.

But now the whole scientific fraternity is out to understand the canvas and the colors—not the picture. in fact, one can say that only he who has a clear view of the overall picture of life and existence can avail himself of the individual sciences without harm to himself, for without such a normative overall picture the sciences are threads which nowhere lead to a goal and make our life’s course all the more confused and labyrinthine.

[t]he economist appears to be hopelessly out of tune with his time, giving unpractical advice to which the public is not disposed to listen and having no influence upon contemporary events.

…Consider trying to convince the typical noneconomist faculty member that the Minimum Wage act is not terribly helpful for poor laborers… Suppose an economist, in an applied effort to help a very poor country, recommends to its government a program for attracting foreign capital. The suggestion is that bringing in plants to use semiskilled labor to produce low-quality textiles is possible, if you are willing to pay their workers a dollar a day, which is twice what they are now making on the farm. The economist feels that getting them off the farm and into industry is the only real way of raising living standards in the country. The suggested wage is so low that the average member of the faculty at the university where the economist works would regard it as inhumane exploitation… Clearly, life in the university would be much less pleasant than if the economist had concentrated on Ramsey pricing.

1 Comment

  1. Right. But this isn’t anything new.

    A somewhat famous economist said once upon a time something like this: Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

    He was right. Intellectual pursuit with no thought of practical application is mental self-abuse: it feels good maybe but it can’t achieve any final end. It is one thing to refine one’s understanding in order to deal with future problems, but let’s not forget the present problems and set ouselves too easy a task.


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