from Lars Syll
Mainstream economics is usually considered to be very ‘rigorous’ and ‘precise.’ And yes, indeed, it’s certainly full of ‘rigorous’ and ‘precise’ statements like “the state of the economy will remain the same as long as it doesn’t change.” Although ‘true,’ this is, however — like most other analytical statements — neither particularly interesting nor informative.
As is well known, the law of demand is usually tagged with a clause that entails numerous interpretation problems: the ceteris paribus clause. In the strict sense this must thus at least be formulated as follows to be acceptable to the majority of theoreticians: ceteris paribus – that is, all things being equal – the demanded quantity of a consumer good is a monotone-decreasing function of its price …
If the factors that are to be left constant remain undetermined, as not so rarely happens, then the law of demand under question is fully immunized to facts, because every case which initially appears contrary must, in the final analysis, be shown to be compatible with this law. The clause here produces something of an absolute alibi, since, for every apparently deviating behavior, some altered factors can be made responsible. This makes the statement untestable, and its informational content decreases to zero.
One might think that it is in any case possible to avert this situation by specifying the factors that are relevant for the clause. However, this is not the case. In an appropriate interpretation of the clause, the law of demand that comes about will become, for example, an analytic proposition, which is, in fact, true for logical reasons, but which is thus precisely for this reason not informative …
Various widespread formulations of the law of demand contain an interpretation of the clause that does not result in a tautology, but that has another weakness. The list of the factors to be held constant includes, among other things, the structure of the needs of the purchasing group in question. This leads to a difficulty connected with the identification of needs. As long as there is no independent test for the constancy of the structures of needs, any law that is formulated in this way has an absolute ‘alibi’. Any apparent counter case can be traced back to a change in the needs, and thus be discounted. Thus, in this form, the law is also immunized against empirical facts. To counter this situation, it is in fact necessary to dig deeper into the problem of needs and preferences; in many cases, however, this is held to be unacceptable, because it would entail crossing the boundaries into social psychology.
In mainstream economics there’s — still — a lot of talk about ‘economic laws.’ The crux of these laws — and regularities — that allegedly do exist in economics, is that they only hold ceteris paribus. That fundamentally means that these laws/regularities only hold when the right conditions are at hand for giving rise to them. Unfortunately, from an empirical point of view, those conditions are only at hand in artificially closed nomological models purposely designed to give rise to the kind of regular associations that economists want to explain. But, really, since these laws/regularities do not exist outside these ‘socio-economic machines,’ what’s the point in constructing thought experimental models showing these non-existent laws/regularities? When the almost endless list of narrow and specific assumptions necessary to allow the ‘rigorous’ deductions are known to be at odds with reality, what good do these models do?
Deducing laws in theoretical models is of no avail if you cannot show that the models — and the assumptions they build on — are realistic representations of what goes on in real-life.
Conclusion? Instead of restricting our methodological endeavours to building ever more rigorous and precise deducible models, we ought to spend much more time improving our methods for choosing models!