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

  • David Fettig

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  • David Fettig
    St. Thomas University

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 …

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