Three Worlds of Evolutionary Economics

I’ve been thinking for quite some time about a possible book length research project, which I  envision will take  approximately 2  years to get to a state where I would have a manuscript to submit to a publisher. As I have been thinking through possible directions and problems, I have settled on the following as a rough and preliminary outline for this project. Though I think it goes without saying at this point, I’ll say it nevertheless: The following is a rough and preliminary outline intended to get some thoughts down on paper.

The Three Worlds of Evolutionary Economics.

Several years ago I wrote a short entry for The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Sciences on Evolutionary Economics which surveyed different approaches to evolutionary theory in economics. For the sake of simplicity at this point I will call a theory evolutionary if it addresses issues of change over time in economic and social organization.I am however mindful of Kenneth Boulding’s assertion that there is no such thing as economics. There is one overarching area of the social sciences and questions that are more or less directly related to economic issues.

For some reason, the contributions of Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos have had (in my opinion) an oversized influence on economists who write about the philosophy of economics. The downside, as well as the upside, to this is that it is relatively easy to draw lines around groups of theorists in economics and to delineate rival traditions on multiple levels:

  1. Heterodox vs. Orthodox;
  2. Evolutionary approaches vs.  the modeling of how existing economic systems function;
  3. Distinctions between different perspectives amongst evolutionary economists: the followers of Adam Smith as exemplified by the New Institutional Economics, the followers of Thorstein Veblen as exemplified by the Original Institutional Economics and of course, the followers of Karl Marx as exemplified by Marxists and other radicals.

 On one hand, this makes for a relatively neat organization around which to frame the study but it also presents me with a conceptual problems:

  1. There are a lot of relevant contributors to theories of social and economic evolution outside of economics and evolutionary economics is supposed to be interdisciplinary;
  2. Once you get outside of economics I have found that boundaries are not as easily drawn between camps;
  3. It is not always  easy to place non-economists into one of the three worlds.

Nevertheless, the outline for this is pretty clear in my head. Below, I have a rough outline of Chapters though it might be better to break it into sections and have separate chapters in each section to address individual theorists and strains within the broader traditions.

Chapter One: Defining the terrain and mapping out criteria to judge progress in the field.  Some questions to be addressed in this chapter are: What makes a theory in economics and the social sciences evolutionary? What is the relationship between evolutionary biology and evolutionary approaches to economics and other social sciences? Can economics and other social sciences be scientific? Is it appropriate to draw paradigmatic boundaries? How can we judge, if at all, progress in the field?

Chapter Two (this could be broken down into multiple chapters): Adam Smith’s views on social change as driven primarily by growth in complexity with the market seen as primarily beneficent. This is clearly present amongst the contemporary theorists of the New Institutional Economics. In this sense, Evolutionary Economics is a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, mainstream economics.

Chapter Three: Original Institutional Economics. Original Institutional Economics is generally looked down on by the mainstream of the economics profession today as not “real economics”. To some extent Original Institutional Economic starts of course with Thorstein Veblen but in another sense, it starts with Darwin and 19th century evolutionary approaches to social theory and philosophy. While much of 19th century evolutionary theory incorporated or advocated invidious distinctions, Veblen is somewhat unique and forward looking in breaking with invidious distinctions. It’s also important to address the connections between Veblen, John Dewey and C. S. Pierce.  Another important strain of Institutional Economics takes inspiration from Karl Polanyi. Addresssing Polanyi also provides a means for incorporating debates and perspectives from economic anthropology. It’s a relatively easy step from there to contemporary theorists in Original Institutional Economics and Geoffrey Hodgson’s approach.

Chapter Four: Marxist approaches to Social and Economic Evolution. Obviously, it is important to start with Marx but then some problematic questions arise: where do you go from here, who is and isn’t a Marxist, and does it matter? Economics still has an explicitly and avowedly Marxist contingent as well as a broader radical tradition which  overlaps with some aspects of the OIE tradition. This branches out into complex issues about historical materialism, world systems theory, as well as some of the traditions in economic anthropology.

Conclusion: Obviously, a concluding chapter sums up the overall study. Part of my argument would be that an overemphasis on paradigmatic boundaries is unhealthy, but that there are nevertheless ways of theorizing which lead us to greater understanding and ways of theorizing that obscure our understanding. As for my own biases, my published work on evolutionary economics lies primarily in the OIE tradition, though I have drawn significantly on contributors outside of economics and whose contributions run counter to some trends within OIE. At present, it is my view that a broader, interdisciplinary, materialist and scientific approach holds out the most hope for progress in understanding social and economic evolution.

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