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Is There Progress in Economics?

Knowledge, Truth and the History of Economic Thought

Edited by Stephan Boehm, Christian Gehrke, Heinz D. Kurz and Richard Sturn

This thought-provoking book discusses the concept of progress in economics and investigates whether any advance has been made in its different spheres of research. The authors look back at the history, successes and failures of their respective fields and thoroughly examine the notion of progress from an epistemological and methodological perspective.
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Chapter 10: Is there progress in normative economics?

Knowledge, Truth and the History of Economic Thought

Philippe Mongin


Philippe Mongin* DIFFICULTIES SURROUNDING THE QUESTION, BUT WHY IT DOES ARISE In this paper I take up the challenge of discussing progress in normative economics. The difficulties surrounding the enterprise are obvious. First of all, it is notoriously hard to say what exactly normative economics is about Ð welfare or choice, value judgements or the study of value judgements, economic policy or armchair evaluation. Economic methodologists or theorists have provided grand statements on how normative economics should be separated from positive economics and applied economics; see Keynes (1890), Robbins (1932), Samuelson (1947), Little (1950) and Archibald (1959), to name only a few. However, these accounts are hardly compatible with each other, and it is not always clear how they relate to the work actually done in economics. This paper will adopt the following non-commital view: the task of normative economics is to investigate methods and criteria for evaluating the relative desirability of economic states of affairs. This is a noncommital statement because it does not say whether normative economics itself endorses the evaluations (and thus makes value judgements) or just explores the way of making them (and thus only relates to value judgements). It does not decide either whether a more desirable state is one involving more welfare, or more choice, or more of anything else. Despite its generality the definition is not vacuous. It makes it clear that normative economics has a teleological rather than a deontological structure, to use the familiar ethical distinction. That is, normative economics draws conclusions...

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