Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dropping Anchor: Further Thoughts

Dan Klein asked me, in reference to this post, whether, for Oakeshott, "dropping anchor" was merely an interruption of the real quest, that of being "perpetually en voyage." As I began to compose my response to Dan, I realized it might be of general interest... well, of general interest to the sort of nerds who hang around here, anyway! So here goes:

What Oakeshott is trying to get at in the passage I quoted is not so much that either dropping anchor or sailing on is the "real deal," but that there is a tension between that we should never completely dismiss from out awareness. Let us use an example from Klein's book itself to make this clearer.

George Stigler is Klein's chief exemplar of "narrow neoclassicism." Stigler had at hand at a certain "equipment of theoretic hooks and nets," such as optimization within a given means-end framework, perfect knowledge of search costs, knowledge as information, and so on, and began using that "in order to take the fish of the locality," the "locality" being neoclassical economics as understood in the 1950s.

But others had the intuition that there were richer fisheries further from the coast, but ones that would require fortification of the boat and stouter nets and hooks. Harold Demsetz, say, believed there was promising fishing just a bit further offshore, with only one new piece of equipment needed: punctuated equilibrium characterized by periodic re-interpretation of the means-end framework. Israel Kirzner believed there was a great catch to be had in even deeper waters, but with a good deal of new equipment needed: discovery, alertness, true error, true regret, and so on.*

If my understanding of Oakeshott is correct, what he would say to Stigler is, "There is nothing at all wrong with your having stopped where you did with the set of tools you had at hand: after all, the theorist who interrogates instead of using his theoretic equipment catches no fish. But from where do you get the idea that you should have the final word on what tools can be used to fish and where others might seek out schools? The idea that only your equipment is 'scientific' and the only edible fish are those found in your area is nonsense." And I posted these quotes in tandem because I think that is a lot like what Klein is saying to Stigler.

But doesn't this open up a purported science like economics to any crank who comes along with a tattered net and a rusty set of hooks to set himself up as a fishing guide, leading countless students on futile trips? (And that, I think, was Stigler's worry.) I don't think so: as I suggested in my paper "Economics and Its Modes**," the proof is in the catch!

* --Note to Daniel Kuehn: Klein is very good on explaining how Kirzner really does differ from neoclassicals on these points.

** -- Subsequently published in Collingwood and British Idealism Studies.


  1. "I realized it might be of general interest... "

    Yeah, posts like this are what I look forward to most here. You've helped me shed some misplaced (libertarian) conviction and interested me the broader world of political theory.