Journal Article

The politics, mathematics and morality of economics: a review essay on Robert Nelson's <i>Economics as Religion</i>

Cristobal Young

in Socio-Economic Review

Published on behalf of Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics

Volume 3, issue 1, pages 161-172
Published in print January 2005 | ISSN: 1475-1461
Published online January 2005 | e-ISSN: 1475-147X | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/SER/mwi007
The politics, mathematics and morality of economics: a review essay on Robert Nelson's Economics as Religion

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Is economics a science or a theology? Nelson sensibly argues that economists are a priestly class; they issue authoritative (scientific) blessings upon the marketplace. The bishops of this class are the mathematicians, who convert ideology into “science”. This essay, in contrast, argues that mathematics has more to do with internal competition between economists than with politics or religion. Indeed, in the early years, mathematical economics was dominated by socialist advocates of central planning. Over time, the mathematical school evolved towards a milder critique, emphasizing the weakness of “free market” assumptions. With an ironic twist, mathematical economics ultimately came to be interpreted as a defense of laissez faire. In short, mathematics traversed the whole political spectrum from socialism, to social democracy, to capitalism. While modern-day economists do often seem like free market evangelists, the role of mathematics in this is poorly understood.

Keywords: Mathematical economics; religion; socialism; central planning; laissez faire; sociology of economics; JEL classification: A110, B210, N010, B240, Z120

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Subjects: Moral Philosophy ; Corporate Social Responsibility ; Welfare Economics ; Political Economy ; Economic Sociology

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