Herb Thompson (1997) "Ignorance and Ideological Hegemony: A Critique of Neoclassical Economics", Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics, 8(4): 291-305.


*Appreciation is extended to Simon Avenell, Patricia Cahill and Ameer Ali for helpful comments on earlier drafts.







Following in the tradition solidified by Samuelson (1947) during the second half of the twentieth century, there have been two trends amongst neoclassical economic theorists. The first is that neoclassical economists increasingly devise compelling, mathematically elegant hypotheses with little interest in their policy implications. The second is their reluctance to engage in conversation with alternative paradigmatic schools (eg. feminists, Marxists, Institutionalists or Post-Keynesians). In doing so they have become, as Samuels recently noted in this Journal, "anti-intellectual, believing that economics is only, or primarily, a set of techniques" (Samuels 1996: 308). Their lack of concern about being unaware of what it is that they don't know, is what I identify as ignorance-squared.

In January 1996, a group of "heterodox economists" made a presentation to the publishing Committee of the American Economics Association responsible for the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Literature, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Anne Mayhew, editor of the Journal of Economic Issues, speaking before the Committee, argued that not one of the publications of the Association conform to the model of scientific inquiry to which the profession pledges allegiance. She cogently argued that a small group of economists have "captured" these journals to promote mathematical complexity at the expense of issues, which incorporate "history, institutions and power". Further, the prestige of the Association and the journals is used "to narrow the discipline, to reward the excessive technical training of the prestigious graduate schools, and to stifle the advance of heterodox approaches to economics". Finally, she noted the curious state of affairs that whereas most economists do not read the American Economic Review, most want to publish an article there in order to advance their careers! (Mayhew 1996)  

Clive and Cara Beed have also shown how "quality journals" (predominantly neoclassical) are being used to set standards for both recruitment and promotion (Beed and Beed 1996). It is becoming commonplace for journals to be hierarchically ranked, using a range of diverse standards for policy purposes in the academic industry. The implication is that it is no longer sufficient for academics to publish their ideas; rather it is now necessary to publish in journals that, as Mayhew asserts, they most likely don’t read. Beed and Beed argue that it is not pedagogically sound to rank journals since ranking reveals little more than the mainstream's view of itself. More strongly, they, and others, suggest that, an interpretive, hermeneutic view would be that it is contradictory to imagine that the ideas of social science can be evaluated in any objective quality sense at all (Bohman 1991).

In what follows, the content and causes of Mayhew's and the Beeds’ articulated frustration is pursued. Recent literature on the production of knowledge and ignorance-squared is discussed and then used to investigate neoclassical economic knowledge. Subsequently, it is argued that it is fruitless to appeal to neoclassical theorists to become more methodologically pluralist or to enhance their rhetoric. It is concluded that, although a number of causes exist for the intellectual narrowing of the discipline, a fundamental answer to the query "why is this the case?" may be found in Gramsci's notion of ideological hegemony. 


"The more I study economics the smaller appears the knowledge I have of it... and now at the end of half a century, I am conscious of more ignorance of it than I was at the beginning." (Alfred Marshall, quoted in Schumpeter, 1941: 248)


The usual methodological question in economics is, "how can one tell whether a particular bit of economics is good science?" (Hausman 1989:115). Herein is pursued a somewhat different sociological question which is not how to come to know what one doesn't know, the form of ignorance acknowledged by Marshall in the quote above; but why it is the case that neoclassical economists don't want to be aware of what it is that they don't know, which is subsequently defined as ignorance-squared. 

"Ignorance", is discussed herein as the antonym of knowledge, ie. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact. The term is not meant in a derogatory manner, but rather, is normally ascertained as the starting point in the quest for knowledge. As reflected in recent literature on ignorance-squared "(T)he greatest achievement of science… is the discovery that we are profoundly ignorant; we know very little about nature and understand even less" (Kerwin 1993: 174). Economic theories provide a formal expression of our perception of reality and all knowledge is produced through social interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1967; Bloor 1976). Ignorance does not imply merely a lack of knowledge, but also the possibility that its antonym is being produced. To supplement this assertion, it is argued that neoclassical economists, as traditional intellectuals, cultivate the social production of ignorance in the struggle for ideas. This is done through narrow pedagogy, delineation of research parameters, and by constraining the production and presentation of non-neoclassical knowledge. 

Training in textbook economics and economic research systematically fosters ignorance-squared, in that students and researchers are shielded from any acquaintance with problems outside the domain of successful puzzle solving. The curriculum is always crowded with the positive heuristic of neoclassical economics; there is always too much to teach. There is never time for reflection, for perspective, for the cultivation of awareness, and most importantly, for the presentation of other contentious viewpoints, much less for the knowledge produced outside the disciplinary boundaries. When neoclassical economists restrict their own discourse, as well as their students’ ability to engage with others of the same, or related specialties, then "ignorance-squared", in the manner put forward by Ravetz (1993) is enhanced.

In neoclassical economic terms, the marginal cost of the search for particular knowledge increases, and can be prohibitively high (Wible 1995: 303). But what is not clarified by neoclassical economics is that in any social formation the allocation of resources to the production of knowledge will be determined, as are other resource allocations, through struggle, and in that struggle, both knowledge and ignorance are produced dialectically. Therefore, dominant and subordinate positions are reflected by the various paradigms within the discipline, ideologically and politically. 

We are all ignorant in a variety of ways, to various degrees, with respect to specific issues, problems and questions. In fact, it is the increasing awareness of our ignorance of what there remains to know that is most special about the learning process. A taxonomy of ignorance provided by Smithson (1989:9; and 1993:135) suggests a variety of forms:

  1. All the things of which people are aware they do not know (the most recognised form of ignorance);
  2. All the things people think they know but do not (ignorance based on error);
  3. All the things of which people are not aware that, in fact, they do know (intuition);
  4. All the things people are not supposed to know but could find helpful (taboo);
  5. All the things too painful to know (psychological suppression of memory); and
  6. All the things, of which people are not aware that they do not know (ignorance-squared).

Of particular interest is the latter (ignorance-squared). There is nothing necessarily negative about the fact that we proceed through life unaware of most of what there is to know. What is argued however, is that neoclassical economists promote ignorance-squared. So as not to suggest this promotion is solely limited to economists, the reader is referred to an analogous process for physical science, as discussed by Olwell (1996). There are many obvious reasons why this process exists, some of which are intuitive. Although a query as to "why this is the case is notoriously slippery in that it reflects an appeal for simplistic reductionism, an explanatory form of reductionism can offer a prioritised list of causal explanations. 

To illustrate, there are numerous reasons for promoting ignorance-squared. Given the search costs combined with specialisation, there is only so much time to devote to methodological issues. Therefore, the dominant paradigm will draw the attention of most scholars. Moreover, the more a system (of thought) is entrenched, and the longer the time it has been operating, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to change that system (Collingridge 1980). Likewise, the more a person has invested in the training required to be admitted to the neoclassical coterie, the more it is in that person's interest to prevent the depreciation of knowledge threatened by alternative modes of discourse. Another reason may be the appeal of elegant mathematically constructed neoclassical axioms. For instance, Einstein's theory of relativity became the standard textbook theory of gravitation in the 1920s. Yet, it wasn't until the 1950s that radar and radio astronomy became sophisticated enough to generate and test the theory via precise predictions with experimental uncertainties less than one percent. The general acceptance of the theory in the intervening 30 years had been largely attributed to its beauty (Weinberg 1992: 98), similar to the dominance of general equilibrium theory in economics in the second half of the twentieth century. Given the conceptual apparatus of ignorance-squared, let us now examine the production of economic knowledge that incorporates simultaneously, the production of ignorance. 

Economic Knowledge

"The aim of scientific discourse is profoundly argumentative and not merely expository; [that] the goal is to persuade readers, to convince them of the validity and importance of the work, and to motivate them to acknowledge the force of the contribution by explicitly accepting and building upon it" (Charney 1993:204)


Neoclassical economists normally treat economic instability as the effect of exogenous, stochastic factors even though nonlinear economics suggests that what may previously have been considered exogenous, or random, may more likely be endogenous to capitalist social formations. As such, economic fluctuations are seen as created by the processes of capitalism itself (Baumol and Benhabib 1989; Savit 1988). This is certainly not a new idea. Marx, Keynes, Hicks, Harrod, Kaldor and Hayek all considered causes for instability which were endogenous (Zarnowitz 1985). And in most of these cases the instability was created by a nonlinear feedback process such as the Keynesian "formation of expectations" (Gans 1991:42). Generally speaking, a nonlinear system must be understood in its totality, which means taking into account a variety of constraints, boundary conditions and initial conditions. These supplementary aspects of the problem must be included in the study of linear systems, too; but (in neoclassical economics) they enter in a rather trivially assumed and incidental way (Davies and Gribbin 1992: 25 and 40).  

Examination of empirically defined problems, such as unemployment or inflation, also reflects irreconcilable differences in the frameworks or worldviews with which these problems are analysed. Those who believe that the free market is inherently stable and coordinated, with instability the result of exogenous shocks, largely fall into the neoclassical camp. Those who see endogenous factors, such as uncertainty or exploitation at work promoting instability, will normally be those working in a tributary rather than the mainstream (Brown 1981:457-58). With reference to instability, the crucial issue at odds between the groups is that of equilibrium or the tendency thereto. 

Equilibrium theory itself has a number of integral constituents which, while not exclusive, include rationality, consumer and producer optimisation, malleable capital, decreasing returns, and constant returns to scale, all of which propound the pre-eminence of the tendency to equilibrium in capitalist goods, factor and money markets.

The 'rational' consumer of the mainstream economist is a working assumption that was meant to free economists from dependence on psychology (Simon 1976:131; Tversky and Kahneman 1987). The dilemma is that the assumption of rationality as intertemporally optimising is often confused with, and regularly presented as, real, purposive behaviour. In fact, the living consumer in historical time routinely makes decisions in undefined contexts. They muddle through, they adapt, they copy, they try what worked in the past, they gamble, they take uncalculated risks, they engage in costly altruistic activities, and regularly make unpredictable, even unexplainable, decisions (Sandven 1995). 

One of the favourite diagrams of producer optimisation in the neoclassical text is the isoquant, showing a given output produced by different combinations of capital and labour. Different points on the isoquant represent different techniques of production, with differing capital-labour ratios. This continues to be presented to students even though neoclassical economics have themselves admitted that there is no possible way to measure aggregate capital independent of distribution, (Harcourt 1975:5-9; Robinson 1987), that much production takes place with fixed factor ratios, and that what are most often lumpy decisions are not reversible in practice (Robinson 1980:220).

The inscription of supply and demand into mathematical equations is generated by the assumption of "diminishing returns". It is becoming more evident that it is "increasing returns" which will better help us "to understand the messiness, the upheaval, and the spontaneous self-organisation of the world" (Waldrop 1992:18, 35; Arthur, 1990). The concept of increasing returns is not new in itself (Arrow 1962; Helpman 1984; Kaldor 1981 and Young 1969). What is new is that Arthur, following Kaldor’s example, places the concept within the context of nonlinearty, instability and disequilibrium. In his work Arthur divides up the profession into two world views, the neoclassical and the 'new' economics: neoclassical economics is based on diminishing returns; 19th century deterministic dynamics approaching equilibrium; homogeneous factors; no externalities; and is structurally simplistic around the concepts of supply and demand. Alternatively, 'new' economics introduces increasing returns; is evolutionary; focuses on heterogeneity and externalities; and is structurally complex and ever changing (Waldrop 1992:38; Bak and Chen 1991). Most students graduate, only having come into pedagogical contact with the former worldview.

A few neoclassical theorists have broke part of the mould and are incorporating increasing returns into the analysis of international trade and growth theory (Helpman and Krugman 1985; Krugman 1986; and Romer 1986). However, Romer, for example, makes it evident that he is not straying beyond the boundaries, by designing his analysis as, "…a well-specified competitive equilibrium model of growth. Despite the presence of increasing returns a competitive equilibrium with externalities will exist…and is capable of explaining historical growth in the absence of government intervention" (Romer 1986: 1003-1004). Nowhere does he emphasise that increasing returns also implies a downward sloping supply function and the potential of resulting disequilibrium.

We are left with the pre-eminence of equilibrium economics when the balance of supplies and demands on all spot and futures markets takes place simultaneously, (Hicks 1939; Arrow 1971; and Debreu 1959). In this purely competitive, certain, optimising world of general equilibrium, pure profits are zero. Before students are permitted to achieve this level of sophistication, they must first go through the partial equilibrium components of marginal cost and revenue relationships. 

As long ago as the 1930s, a number of economists, Means (1935), Hall and Hitch (1939), then Lester (1946) and Kaplan, Dirlam and Lanzillotti (1958) all cast serious doubt on the general applicability of the conventional equilibrium analysis of price, (Mueller 1992:151). The mainstream methodological counter-proposition was that it was not important that individuals did not consciously maximise. Rather, it was only necessary that they act as if they did (Machlup 1946; Friedman 1953; Kahn 1959).

More recently, Nitzan and Bichler point out (1995 454-455) that modern corporations are not even "acting as if" they equilibrate marginal cost-marginal revenue to maximise profits. Rather, they attempt to "beat the average". References to the "average" or "normal" pervade the business literature - from the analysis of stock performance, through the stacking of country growth rates and risk premia, to the ranking of corporate profitability. In these terms, according to Nitzan and Bichler, the primary goal becomes "differential pecuniary accumulation", through which the corporation seeks to control a "larger share of the societal surplus". Consequently, success has less to do with the intuitively convincing textbook equality between marginal cost and marginal revenue, than with the capture of external contested income, thereby redistributing the available social surplus. 

As is evident from the above discussion, "whenever (conventional) economics is used or thought about, equilibrium is a central organising idea" (Hahn 1982). Two fundamental assumptions of the equilibrium model in economics are 'timelessness' and 'certainty' (Kornai 1971:19-23). Neoclassical theory deals largely in logical time, which is a period during which whatever needs to happen, will happen (Henry 1983/84:219). Historical time is assumed away, implying that neoclassical economic theory has universal applicability (Georgescu-Roegen 1971:134-140).

Conterminously, neoclassical theory reduces uncertainty to a logical construct in which rational expectations are put forward in order to conform to the demands of equilibration. In contrast, "expectational" time has been the subject of attention for tributary economic paradigms in which the future is created and is not the function of deterministic assumptions of rationality (Carvalho 1983/84:269). According to Shackle, "(E)xpectational time is an aspect of a decision-maker's effort to choose a course of action in the face of uncertainty about the outcome which would flow from this course or that" (Shackle 1968:67). 

One neoclassical defence is to suggest that equilibrium is only a tendency towards which the system is moving. However, Weintraub (1991) reveals the manner whereby econometricians, such as Negishi, maintain that the equilibrium contained in a model is real and intuitively justified. They do this by appealing to the "reality out there…in which it is known that the economy is fairly shock-proof….We know from experience that prices usually do not explode to infinity or contract to zero…" (Negishi 1962:638-639).


Hutchison has insisted that even "(T)he assumption of a tendency towards equilibrium implies…the assumption of a tendency towards perfect expectations, competitive conditions and the disappearance of money" (Hutchison 1938:107). Change, not rest is the characteristic 'state' of capitalism. "The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process that is in continual disequilibrium. It may seem strange that anyone can fail to see so obvious a fact long ago emphasised by Karl Marx" (Schumpeter 1976:82).

We are left then, as noted in the assertion of Samuels, with mostly irrelevant elegance and techniques. Intricate optimisation techniques and equilibrium conditions are heaped on a small set of assumptions (Mueller 1992:159). A few methodologists, such as Hutchison, Blaug, Friedman, Caldwell and McCloskey, over the years have attempted to broaden the discussion by seeking methodological norms for both applied and theoretical economists. Hutchison and Blaug, in line with Popper's dicta, (Hutchison 1938; Blaug 1980; Popper 1959) advocated the adoption of a 'falsificationist' methodology; Friedman affirmed the benefits to be derived by economists from what has been identified by others as "methodological instrumentalism" (Friedman 1953; Caldwell 1982: 173-178); Caldwell has pushed the gentility of 'pluralism' (Caldwell 1988); and more recently, McCloskey (1986) has asked economists (in a most complicated and discursive manner) to refine their 'rhetoric' (Mäki 1995; McCloskey 1995). Why haven’t neoclassical economists paid much attention?


Economic Method and Social Interests

One might presume that neoclassical economists would most recently have given a sympathetic hearing to McCloskey’s overture for more fruitful exchange in the pursuit of knowledge. On the contrary, to a large degree McCloskey's plea for communicative rhetoric has been ignored, presumably because they have little need or desire to communicate with their heterogeneous disciplinary associates.

This lack of desire to engage in conversation with others is then passed on to the next generation. The motivated tendency to tailor one's opinions in accordance with perceived audience preferences has been long recognised by social psychologists as a feature of the process whereby people, in general, form their judgments (Kruglanski 1991:227). The perceived audience for most graduate students is their neoclassical mentors.  

In other words, McCloskey cannot have both meaningful rhetoric and neoclassical economics. If economists are not articulate, then in terms of their own theory, either they are not optimisers and are passing up a profitable opportunity, or something in their preference, endowments or technology makes articulateness unprofitable (Kurdas and Majewski 1994:341). Presuming that economists follow their own optimising logic, then the lack of need for a more pluralist articulation has to do with their control over symbolic representation. It should be remembered that, in ideological conflict, any concession of politeness will contain political concessions as well (Bordieu 1977).  

As Mayhew, and Beed and Beed suggest, the exercise of ideological power drives a portion of the full non-neoclassical transcript underground, in this instance to less reputable heterogeneous journals. In mainstream discourse, the subordinates (academic workers and students) tend to reveal only what is "safe" and "appropriate"; that which is delineated by the dominant paradigm or its ideological purveyors. Total subordinate revelation is only forthcoming in student or worker newspapers or "less reputable" heterogeneous journals, all treated with condescending contempt by the orthodoxy. 

University departments, professional journals and peers form an institutional web, which provides for the career potential of any aspirant to the profession (North 1990:95). The proficiency shown in neoclassical tools, concepts and language becomes the hallmark of identification and quality. The Krueger Commission on Graduate Education, established in the United States to report on tertiary education standards in 1990, reported that department procedures "bias the selection towards good technicians, rather than good potential economists". This implies that graduate education de-emphasises creativity and problem solving as the student requires "little or no knowledge of economic problems and institutions" (Krueger 1991:1040-42). Consequently, ignorance is promoted as a qualitative manifestation of a "good economist". The result is that the dominion of organic intellectuals, representing a class position and propounding its symbolic representation, is solidified. In order to join this coterie one must accept and disseminate the ideological and political constituents of class power that it represents. 

There is much more than McCloskey would have us understand. Economics is constructed around more than subjective differences of epistemology, methodological preference or appreciation of elegant techniques; the differences at the core are also political. Neoclassical economics has represented, for two hundred years, the political self-representation of autonomous, self-subsistent, and self-interest-optimising individuals. The populist works of Friedman (1962) in Capitalism and Freedom, or the more adrenalin-pumping stuff of Ayn Rand (1952 and 1957) in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged provide adroit examples of the ideological and political content in the grasp of the "Invisible Hand". It is here where the connection between promoting ignorance-squared and ideological construction is entwined. 

Ideological Construction

And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools, etc? (Marx 1976: 502).


The gadfly Socrates continues to epitomise the courage of seeking knowledge (Plato 1956). The attraction of Socrates is that, through his didacticism, we come to realise that the greatest knowledge we can possess is the awareness of our boundless, fathomless ignorance.

Questioning, wondering, doubting, revising and collaborating are all practices which Socrates and now McCloskey (1985) would proffer to those interested in expanding the breadth of our knowledge through communication. Yet, students, and many of their preceptors, do not know that they do not know that capital cannot be measured; that utility is metaphysical; that optimisation is non-falsifiable; that capitalism is inherently unstable; or that, as Ricardo discovered, when we say 'supply and demand' we are explaining nothing (Dobb 1975: 52 and 119). The incentive remains not to find out; or at the very least, not to recognise the numerous serious-minded non-neoclassical economists who take all of the above for granted! Rather, mainstream protagonists spend time proving to each other that what they are doing is what they should be doing; and then convincing the disciples that what they should be doing is what their mentors are doing, ie., producing "acceptable" knowledge. The entire process is justified from within by noting that economists are all optimising their utility functions (Becker 1975). 

A student may actually accept what s/he is taught as normal, even justifiable, as part of the social order. Another may reject the information as "unreal", "incomplete", "too abstract", "not relevant", or "not falsifiable" and yet have no "realistic" option to present as a critical counter-claim. In either case, to survive, to pass the course, to increase their potential material enhancement upon graduation, both types of student must internalise and become technically proficient with what is served up. At the level of ideas, this symbolic production and re-production of both knowledge and ignorance-squared is replicated, with or without conscious consent (Gramsci 1971:passim).

This process of ideological domination is portrayed through the solidification of ignorance-squared. It portrays, as well, a struggle over the appropriation of symbols, a struggle over how the past and present shall be understood and labelled, a struggle to identify causes and assess blame (Parkin 1971: 79-102). By disseminating a paradigmatic discourse and the concepts to go with it as well as defining the standards of what is legitimate, a symbolic climate is created that prevents subordinates from thinking their way free. Thinking "free", is used in the sense that acts are dialectically interactive with intentions, neither consciousness nor action being "unmoved movers" (Scott 1985: xvii and 38-39).  


Ultimately, economic knowledge, like life, is a process and is none too solid. But then as Ivan Ilych came to see, neither are we, when, no matter how vigorously he tried to drive thoughts away, they continued to confront him (Tolstoy 1967:280-281). No matter how hard neoclassical economists try to drive away the world of complexity, it too continues to confront them. Yet, to the frustration of "heterogeneous" antagonists the neoclassical paradigm remains dominant, blatantly promoting ignorance-squared. Elegance and technique have replaced relevance. What has been shown herein is that the production of that elegance has involved the opportunity cost of simultaneously producing ignorance. Ignorance-squared is replicated amongst students given the social interests of those dominant in the paradigm. This process of producing ignorance becomes entwined with the promotion of ideology to the detriment of us all. McCloskey importunes the deaf, for dialogue with more relevant tributaries of the mainstream is not in the interests of those presently in control. 

The best advice rhetorically should be exactly the opposite provided by McCloskey. Neoclassical economists should accept the advice of Frederick von Hayek's distant cousin, Wittgenstein, who, in the final sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, wrote: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (Monk 1991:156 and 224). However, as it has been argued, the ability to speak and to be heard is based on much more than methodological propositions. They are, as well, functions of social interests and ideological power.


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