Public choice theory, sociologists, and homo plannercus

So I was going to discuss a recent piece that appeared in the LA Review of Books by James Harkin discussing public choice theory, but not particularly well.  However, Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber does a point-by-point critique that I couldn’t match, except for a few nits and quibbles which aren’t very interesting, but I shall post anyway.

Well, one nit: ok, I get why Henry Farrell focuses on the way that James Harkin conflates public choice and game theory, but…am I the only person who is rather blown away by the original article’s assumption that public choice theory is super-important in economics and massively influential in social science more generally? Rational choice, sure. Public choice….ehhhh?  *I* think it is a nice body of theory–always rather fond of it even if I personally disliked James Buchanan, but  back when I was in an econ grad program, public choice theory was viewed a lot like labor economics and monetary economics–fusty, old, uninteresting–a little like macrame and sculptures of bunnies on bicycles.  Who are the young public choice theory firebrands dominating the social science discourse these days?  Did I miss them?

The brilliant and funny Gabriel Rossman takes up the article to discussion how sociologists, his posse, tend to misconstrue what economists do, and how they think. At one point he compares Bourdieau and Gary Becker, which in the hands of a lesser brain/writer would make my eyeballs bleed, but I’m willing to suspend visceral disbelief and think about what those two have in common.  Rossman ends, however, with the counterpoint:

Now mind you, it’s not like economists have a clear understanding of what we do either, with their understanding generally falling into three categories:

  • Homo sociologicus ordinarius – A politically correct ninny with more indignation than expertise
  • Homo sociologicus reticularis – Social network analysts who make cool pictures and have mastered a technical expertise different from but on par with anything economists do
  • Homo particularis sociologicus – A particular colleague or noteworthy scholar who happens to be a sociologist but with their identity and contribution being understood as idiosyncratic rather than disciplinary

On the other hand, the economic folklore about sociology is different in character from ours of them insofar as economists’ views of the other social sciences are like how Bukowski was asked what he thought about another poet would always reply “I don’t think about him.” In that sense econ’s ignorant understanding of soc is more like our understanding of anthro than our understanding of economics since there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of a discipline that you’re dedicated to critiquing and a vague understanding of a discipline that you mostly just ignore.

You could could substitute “plannercus” in for “sociologicus” and you’d pretty much have my world. Fortunately, my Asperger’s blinds me to most status hierarchies, and, thus, I am free to ignore.

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