The Microfoundations Delusion
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The Microfoundations Delusion

Metaphor and Dogma in the History of Macroeconomics

J. E. King

In this challenging book, John King makes a sustained and comprehensive attack on the dogma that macroeconomic theory must have ‘rigorous microfoundations’. He draws on both the philosophy of science and the history of economic thought to demonstrate the dangers of foundational metaphors and the defects of micro-reduction as a methodological principle. Strong criticism of the microfoundations dogma is documented in great detail, from some mainstream and many heterodox economists and also from economic methodologists, social theorists and evolutionary biologists. The author argues for the relative autonomy of macroeconomics as a distinct ‘special science’, cooperating with but most definitely not reducible to microeconomics.
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Chapter 4: Two case studies: biology and social science

J. E. King


4.1 INTRODUCTION We saw in the previous chapter just how controversial micro-reduction has been in the philosophy of science, and how the case against it invariably invokes the two principles of the fallacy of composition and downward causation. When applied to economics, these principles provide strong reasons for rejecting the microfoundations dogma. In this chapter I reinforce the case against micro-reduction by means of a much more detailed account of two failed micro-reductions: Dawkins’s attempt to reduce the life sciences to genetics (Section 4.2) and the methodological individualism project in the social sciences (Section 4.3). In each case the macro system under investigation displays emergent properties that could not have been inferred from knowledge of the corresponding micro theory, and which exercise a (downward) causal influence on them. The broader literature on emergence is discussed in Section 4.4. The chapter concludes by summarizing the methodological lessons that might be drawn from all this by economists (Section 4.5). 4.2 THE LIFE SCIENCES The case for ‘hierarchical reduction’ in the life sciences has been presented with great force and clarity by Richard Dawkins. The similarities between his methodological stance and the microfoundations dogma in economics have been noted by several writers, including Wade Hands (2001, p. 385), Harold Kincaid (1997, Chapter 4) and Jeroen van den Bergh and John Gowdy (2003). Dawkins’s position is strongly supported by many eminent biologists, some of whom contributed to the volume edited by two of his former students to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the...

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