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Richard Bronk. The Romantic Economist: Imagination in Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN: 9780521513845. Price: US$80

  • David Fettig

…plus d’informations

  • David Fettig
    St. Thomas University

Corps de l’article

It is hard to imagine a more oxymoronic title for a book than Richard Bronk’s heroic effort to awaken (or reawaken) the Romantic heart of the dismal science. The qualities attributed to Romantic-era thinkers are not exactly those ascribed to modern economics, but Bronk argues that they should be; after all, economics is a human science and likewise should be introduced to the depths of human experience and motivation. Bronk is not making a moral argument or an impassioned plea intended to rationalize the study of the humanities and make the case for their practical utility; rather, he is suggesting that economists can actually gain insight into currently intractable problems by borrowing from the philosophy and literature of Romanticism, and that the models that economists employ would be improved by such interdisciplinary efforts. He wants to improve the practice of economics. Economists model human beings, so why not include the ideas of writers and thinkers who gave us such insight into human motivation and intention?

The relationship between neoclassical economics and literature has not been much of a relationship at all. From the time economic science began to aggregate human behavior and make assumptions about choices, decisions and intentions, writers have cast a wary eye. Most famous, perhaps, is Dickens’s send-up of economics in Hard Times, with its Grandgrindian view of facts and only facts as the foundation of human intellect and reason. Children in Hard Times are raised as parodies of what would later be termed rational utility maximizers – the neoclassical idea that is the basis for most modern economic modeling – only to have their lives disassemble as they grow into conflicted young adults desperate for honest emotions but uncertain what such feelings are or what meaning they have. Such, in effect, are modern economists, Bronk argues. If you want to model human behavior so that you can predict its future course, you must incorporate more than people’s desire to get the most bang for their buck. We are more than that, Bronk maintains, we are Romantics. Bronk recalls the famous dialectic described by C.P. Snow, wherein two cultures – the scientific and the humanistic – are incomprehensible to each other and thus separated by an insurmountable gap.

But make no mistake; The Romantic Economist is no anti-economic polemic. Bronk, educated in Classics and Philosophy at Merton College, Oxford, spent nearly two decades working in the City of London in such fields as international economics, business and politics, and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Bronk respects neoclassical economics and the insights it has given us into human behavior and, thus, improved our abilities to enact useful public policies. Still, something is missing, “and certain important adjustments, particularly at the edge of the discipline, to the research practices and assumptions used by most economists could make an enormous difference to their success in helping us explain the real world and make practical decisions” (xii-xiii).

Those “certain important adjustments” mark the real contribution of this book. If Bronk had only set out to write a review of the history of economic thought and the parallel world of literary philosophy he would have served many readers well. The opening chapters provide this background as a necessary foundation for the discussion to follow. Those readers familiar with the history of economic thought, though, can jump directly to Part II, wherein Bronk lays the groundwork for a practical application of Romantic thinking in the service of economics. For example, Bronk coins a term to describe the human species that does more, he says, to accurately describe human behavior – homo romanticus. This is to counter two predominant descriptions of humans, homo sociologicus (a social chameleon determined by environment) and homo economicus (a rational maximizer of utility). There is currently great debate within the field of economics about how to describe human behavior, with a relatively new field – behavioral economics – currently attracting much attention and challenging fundamental tenets of the current academy. For Bronk, the resolution of this debate must involve homo romanticus (who is self-creating, sentimental, sympathetic and imaginative) into economic models. He proposes the following synthesis: “[H]omo romanticus will explain the creation of new ideas, preferences and institutions; homo sociologicus the role of social conditioning and the social construction of preferences; and homo economicus the optimisation of given endowments and preferences” (246). Bronk knows his economics and he deftly breaks down the problems associated with modern economic analysis; this mastery allows him to confidently state alternatives. In this case, he means to infuse imagination – “the ability to act rationally and optimise requires a disciplined and active imagination” (240) – into economists’ description of human agency.

So how can Wordsworth, for example, extend and improve the field of economics? By encouraging a more holistic view of the world, according to Bronk. Wordsworth himself viewed a rationalist approach as self-limiting because it encouraged narrowness and microscopic views that lost the bigger, truer, picture. Bronk reminds us that the purpose of Wordsworth’s ballads (as explained by the poet) was to describe real events, in language used by real people, and to “throw over them a certain colouring of imagination” (16), such that we see these common events in a new way. This is the key message that Romanticism offers economics: “[T]he need to make use of imaginative shifts of perspective and metaphor to present things in a new light and thus gain new and surprising insights, while having a strong general understanding of the ways in which the metaphors we use create and structure what we see” (16).

Easier said than done, of course. But that doesn’t mean Bronk’s challenge should go unheeded. And in certain respects his challenge is being met, not by poets and writers but by behavioral economists. Bronk describes the work of some of these researchers, namely Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel recipient in Economic Sciences in 2002) and Amos Tversky, in his dissection of homo economicus, and any reader familiar with their work – or that of other behavioralists – will wonder if this new science, by incorporating the very human qualities Bronk finds described by the Romantics, doesn’t subsume his thesis. In other words, if economics has recognized its own limitations and has thus created a new branch of research (not always to the delight of the old school) to extend the science, do we still need to reach over C.P. Snow’s great divide to incorporate Romanticism into a modern human science? As Michael Shermer’s recent book The Mind of the Market (Times Books, 2007) reveals, brain research is only beginning to unlock secrets of economic decision-making, along with all other forms of behavior; and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (Harper, 2008) describes the many experiments that are cataloguing factors other than utility maximization that influence behavior. Do we need the Romantics when we’ve got Nobel scientists on the game? Bronk certainly makes a strong case that we do.

In the matter of imagination, Bronk suggests that economists dismiss this Romantic principle at their own peril. “[Romantics] were acutely aware that [imagination] is often totally ignored by those of more rationalist persuasion – largely because it is so difficult to capture and define – and they were determined to right the balance” (99). Coleridge, for example, insisted that imagination is central to everyday perception, that there was a creative role to perception – the very act of seeing was a form of making – and that to dismiss this element of human consciousness was to miss a key determinant in behavior. The mind, in other words, is not mechanically determined and always predictable. “A crucial lesson to emerge from the Romantic fascination with the imagination is its role in helping us both understand our social predicament (past and present) and read and construct the unknown future. . . . [Coleridge] believed that only imagination and reason acting together can help us glimpse the deeper truth hidden behind the mass of contradictory data” (101-102).

Bronk’s discussion of imagination and its role in decision-making, especially the forward-looking nature of imagination, is especially illuminating when considered against self-interest, the very cornerstone of neoclassical economics. Bronk is clear: if you want to understand self-interest, then you must consider imagination. Self-interest is forward-looking. We can’t make rational decisions about the present without somehow engaging our imagination to play out likely scenarios for the future. Since we cannot know the future with any certainty, we must imagine and create it. Self-interest, then, is not mechanical and rule-bound. “[T]his is perhaps the single most important lesson of Romanticism: when we act with the future in mind, we must imagine how the unknown future will be for us, and how we want it to be. The remit of rational analysis and optimisation is forever limited when peering into the future – because that future is created, in part, by how we (and others) imagine it could be” (103).

Bronk’s tour of the applicability of Romantic philosophy to modern economics spans the micro decisions of utility and profit-seeking players to such broader issues as globalization and the nature of capitalism in all its guises, culminating in his description of the practical application of Romanticism to economic research. In a section titled “Romantic Pointers to Best Research Practice,” Bronk describes four such research avenues. Before briefly describing those pointers, though, one must remark on the hedging quality of the language Bronk employs to make his case. He tells us that the procedural approaches he is about to outline “seem to flow from the Romanticism-inspired analysis on the nature of imagination,” and that these approaches “may succeed in helping economists and other social scientists” (276-277). On the one hand, “seem” and “may” don’t inspire much confidence; after spending many well-reasoned pages making his case, one might expect a bit more certainty. On the other hand, those words reflect Bronk’s careful reasoning and proper humility about the task he has accepted. Indeed, he is recommending a line of research that is so radical as to require a book-length manifesto to rationalize. Neo-romantic economics (if Bronk will agree to the phrase) is so new as to be untested, and Bronk – like a good rational scientist – is right to withhold certainty until after the work is done.

As to those pointers for research practice, they are: analytical negative capability (enforcing oneself to doubt one’s own beliefs or priors); multi-paradigm scan of research problems and questions (to detach oneself from a preferred paradigmatic theoretical approach); disciplined eclecticism: choice of theory driven by nature of problem (in the end, we have to choose a theoretical approach, and we should do this by focusing on a problem, not on a favored theory); and finally, the post-analytical audit (what did your research approach fail to capture?). Consideration of these pointers reminds the reader of two key purposes of The Romantic Economist, namely, to remind social scientists that their design of research projects and their observation of data is shaped by their priors (including language and metaphor), and to suggest methodologies to inspire a reassessment of those ex ante assumptions so that ex post data can reveal new insights. “I have argued that there is an important role for multi-perspective scans of data at the initial problem-definition phase of research, combined with disciplined eclecticism designed to ensure that the choice of theory or model is driven by this initial assessment of the problem” (288). In other words, think differently, but be disciplined about it.

This book will enlighten students and scholars of literature, and will provide useful instruction in the history of economic thought. Many of those who live on the other side of C.P. Snow’s divide, though, will leave Bronk’s book with their skepticism intact. Regardless, they too would benefit from considering his notion of infusing Romantic-era literary philosophies into modern economic problem-solving. And many readers will be impressed, if not a little thrilled, by Bronk’s intellectual dexterity; to wade confidently in the waters of literature and economics is more than a little impressive. If Bronk does nothing more than encourage the convergence of these two worlds, then his book is of great value. Claude Osteen and others have written in recent years about a theoretical phenomenon known as “new economic criticism” (see Osteen’s The Economy of Ulysses [Syracuse UP, 1995]), and some economists have been dabbling in the field of literature, especially as means to highlight and describe the influence of economic ideas in storytelling (see Michael Watts’ The Literary Book of Economics [Intercollegiate Studies Inst., 2003]). Bronk’s book adds another layer to this literary/economic convergence. And while it is difficult to imagine that we will one day find ourselves with a branch of the dismal science known as Romantic Economics, that doesn’t mean the Romantics don’t have something useful to add. The Romantic Economist reminds us of the important contributions of these thinkers and their continued relevance.

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