How to be Human* *Though an Economist: REVIEW

I can’t seem to get enough of the writing style of Deirdre McCloskey. I’m not sure if it’s the comfortable sarcastic tone of her prose or the fact that I’m able to relate as an economist. And by sheer luck, I was able to obtain a signed copy of How to be Human (Though an Economist). The signature is addressed to Cynthia, so I hope Cynthia whoever you enjoyed the book enough to sell your signed copy (apparently the exchange value was greater than the use value).

This book is a collection of essays written mostly for various journals and newspapers. They are grouped into 15 sections, each being a rule for economists to follow in order to achieve humanity. Well not precisely. They are more of a much-needed ethics handbook for economists. A Hippocratic Oath for economists if you will.

Some essays focus on the life and attitude of a particular economist to follow among whom are Armen Alchian, Friedrich Hayek, and James Buchanan. Others cover particular issues McCloskey sees in the attitude of modern day academic economists. Some are as simple as how to properly run a seminar.

The central piece of advice, running through all the chapters, is to avoid an attitude of sneering at other disciplines as “less scientific” or “inefficient”, and in fact trying to incorporate these ideas into our own discipline may be useful. McCloskey’s critique of economics as a whole is that we have left our roots as primarily storytellers about the way that people act in the world and try to gain a sense of intellectual security in mathematical equations. She often goes back to Adam Smith to remind us of his oft-neglected other book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. After all, he thought of himself first as a moral philosopher who accidentally sprung to life the discipline of economics on the side.

I recommend this book mostly for those who are in the economics world themselves. Those from outside our sphere will enjoy some of the stories and can still take much of the advice, but some examples may not be as directly applicable. One complaint stems from the fact that these are a collection of essays not written with the intention to bind together so a lot of the ideas overlap and it can feel quite redundant at times. However, what is repeated is so important that it really can’t hurt that much.

8.5 out of 10.


Edit: I didn’t know the definition of pedantic.

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2 thoughts on “How to be Human* *Though an Economist: REVIEW”

  1. Is Mcclosky an Austrian Economist? Because her points about the profession reflect the same critiques we have been making for decades. I think her point about the reliance on empiricism is a problem that is plaguing a lot of social sciences. History so far has remained mostly aloof to this because it is inherently about telling interpretive stories.

    I’m curious whether or not she would think that Mises or Rothbard are good academic role models in the same vein as Hayek. Those two men were so uncompromising as to hurt their careers, and even I as huge fans of them think that was their weak spot.

    1. She herself says she is a follower of the Chicago School. But I think she brings forward many of the Austrian critiques for a more secure Chicago perspective. What I believe would separate her from Mises and Rothbard is the rigidness of the praxeological method. She is, as am I, a fan of the philosopher Richard Rorty which leads me to believe she has pragmatist leanings, as do I. Pragmatism can be understood as a middle road between rationalism (praxeology) and empiricism (Friedman’s positivist method). However, I don’t want to project too much onto her and would recommend looking at her broader work.

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