Globalist Perspective

The Non-exemplary Lives of Economists

Can privileged social scientists produce great breakthroughs?

Takeaways


  • Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist?
  • Can well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies really produce breakthroughs in social sciences?
  • Will the lessons of individuals in orderly and rich societies remain circumscribed only by orderly and boring people -- and not carry over to the rest of the world?
  • Faced theoretically with a given problem, we can provide a reasonable answer and even explain the choices.
  • Faced by the same problem in our own lives, we quickly find out that such a well-reasoned answer was only partially correct.

Recently I read, rather by accident than design, short lives of several contemporary economists. What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs.

Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives — to the extent that I could tell.

C.V.’s and Yah-Dee-Dah

The lives (i.e., CVs) typically went like this.

He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was at W.

Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on.

Cookie cutter social scientists

You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, the titles of the papers and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.

I was wondering: How can people who had lived such boring lives — mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another — have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating?

Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead a personally interesting life in order to understand how atoms move. But perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico)

The big question

Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist?

To some extent, probably yes. You can be very smart and figure out how people behave under conditions that you have never yourself experienced—nor has anyone you know.

I cannot say it is impossible. But I think it is unlikely.

Different when it happens to others than to me

It is in human nature, however smart we may be, to understand certain things or to look at different and new aspects of an issue only when we face the problem ourselves.

I think we have all experienced that. Faced theoretically with a given problem, we can provide a perfectly reasonable and coherent answer and even explain the choices well.

But then faced by the same problem in our own lives, we quickly find out that such a well-reasoned answer was only partially correct.

I could never have imagined!

The answer failed to consider several secondary issues, many conditions and constraints that, in the abstract case, we either ignored, assumed away, or most likely just never thought about. Or never imagined.

Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies. We all (perhaps except when we are 25) wish to lead such lives.

Privileged orderly and boring lives are limited

But they are also very limited lives: the range of emotions and choices that we experience is narrow.

We may want to have as our teachers in social science people who had to drink poison to make a point (Socrates), or were jailed and tortured (Machiavelli), or were executed on the orders of a national assembly (Condorcet), or banished and killed by a totalitarian regime (Kondratieff).

Or we might want those who had to flee their governments and reinvent themselves (Marx), or move into incendiary politics (Weber), or migrate to another language and continent (Schumpeter, Hayek, Kuznets, Leontief), or experience the thrill of forbidden pleasures (Keynes).

But if our life is a C.V., can we understand human choices and human nature — a precondition for being a great social scientist?

Can the orderly and bored produce breakthroughs?

By asking that question, are we not asking whether well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies can really produce breakthroughs in social sciences?

Or will their lessons remain circumscribed only by orderly and rich societies and by orderly and boring people — and not carry over to the rest of the world?

In other words, to use Plutarch’s term, do we need exemplary lives for greatness in social sciences?

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About Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic is the Presidential Professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and Senior Scholar at Luxembourg Income Survey.

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