Bad Ideas, Economics, Honesty, Intellectual Honesty, Liars Lies and Lying, Science, Village Idiots

When are We Hypocrites to Call Economics “Witchcraft”?

A friend called Saturday and we spent a little while on the phone together.  At some point we were discussing — not quite economics — but the tendency of some people to dismiss economics in a perhaps disingenuous way.

At that point, my friend reminded me that economics is sometimes called “witchcraft” (or worse).  She then went on to state something along these lines:

I’ve said to one or two of them in my day: “If you really think economics is ‘witchcraft’ then be honest enough to treat economics just as you would treat witchcraft.  That is, you don’t go around telling the world your opinion of which spell to perform in order to cure leprosy when you really don’t believe in witchcraft, do you? So, if you really think economics is witchcraft, then don’t go around telling everyone your favorite economic ‘theories’.  Because that’s just hypocrisy.”

“It’s like this:  If you are busy telling me what tax policies will do to job growth; what effect entrepreneurs have on the economy; whether the economy is getting better or getting worse;  what anyone’s long-term chances are of moving up the economic ladder; why capitalism is better than socialism — or telling me anything like those things — then you either believe those things can be known, or you’re a lying hypocrite.”

“You see, I think — really think — you’re just playing a kid’s game with me.  You’re saying, ‘economics is witchcraft’, but you only mean my knowledge of economics is witchcraft — my knowledge and not yours — because you believe your knowledge of economics is worthy of a glorious hard-on.”

She went on some more about it, but the above is about all I feel confident at this point trying to quote, or at least trying to reasonably paraphrase.

So, when if ever are we hypocrites to call economics, “witchcraft”?  And when are we not?


Please Note: I’ve edited an earlier version of this post in the hopes of staying on topic.

3 thoughts on “When are We Hypocrites to Call Economics “Witchcraft”?”

  1. By Jove! That’s exactly what it is!

    It’s just that we’ve always blindly assumed that high finance was so terribly dry and boring that it couldn’t possibly have any sham or mystery or romance attached. We sneer at boring beancounters at our peril, unfortunately.


  2. Economics isn’t witchcraft. It’s a set of observations about the interactions between human economic behavior and the other factors that influence supply and demand– weather, politics, health and medicine, demographics, peace and war, etc. In some ways, it has a lot in common with sociology.

    Economics is many-factored and involves loads of data. It’s hard for anyone to keep track of all of those factors and that’s what make economics a ripe setting for fraud. Fraud always depends on people being unable to obtain and/or assimilate all relevant information. Merrian-Webster notes that the term “witch” is generally applied to someone with malignant supernatural powers. So, someone who can do things the rest of us cannot (at least not in our present position in time and space) and who causes harm by doing them. Fraud and deceit could also be so described. If the instrument of harm is very complicated, like some of Wall Street’s mortgage-based derivative instruments, then the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between what we can understand and what the “practitiones” are able to accomplish so effortlessly seems darkly magical indeed.


  3. I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “witchcraft”, but I’ve certainly used other derogatory terms. The main problem I have with it is that people take its theories too seriously, even though those theories are far more limited in their usefulness than either economists or many people who love to quote them seem to think they are.


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