Archive for October 13th, 2010

Today in microeconomics, we covered the classic model of the Robinson Crusoe economy. But when it came time for the professor to tell the story, they did not even know the title of the Defoe novel from which our dear friend Robinson emerged. It was a bit embarrassing when a student had to explain that the title  is in fact the character’s name, Robinson Crusoe. Of course, many critiques have been made of this metaphor (what about Friday?); but for me, it reinforced a point made earlier that economists don’t generally read, and reminded me of a wonderful passage in an essay by Philip Mirowski that discusses exactly this issue:

This account can be found in nearly every textbook: it is the story of Robinson Crusoe. In the middle of indoctrination of the tyro into our science, we find this story, this artful narrative, of what it means to be a neoclassical rational actor. The isolated individual, alone confronting scarcity on his island with his scant endowments, deliberates as to the appropriate combination of goods to maximize his well-being, imposing order upon the primaeval chaos of Nature. As I have intimated before, economists generally don’t read, but they think they know this story cold. The English hosier in the eighteenth century and the American academic in the twentieth understand each other perfectly, describing the inherent transcendental logic of their own system as it spreads across the face of the globe.

But economists don’t generally read, and therefore they don’t generally realize that the actual Defoe novel does not underwrite their convictions to any appreciable extent. The man who wrote the following might resist being dragooned into the neoclassical cause:

“The most covetous griping miser in the world would have been cured of the vice of covetousness, if he had been in my case; for I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with. I had no room for desire, except it was of things which I had not, and they were but trifles… I learned to look more on the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometime such secret comforts that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet something He has not given them.” (Defoe, 1941, pp. 126-7)


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