Is economics a science or religion?

Is economics a religion or a science?  That some people ask this question is an indication that the answer could be complicated and interesting.  It could be that economics is neither and that it is in a class by itself.

Lets look at how these three disciplines handle knowledge, predictability and their psychological roles.

Science, religion and economics are all concerned with knowledge.   Science is concerned with what can be known from rational observations.  Religion gives answers to questions that cannot be answered from observations although the line between the two types of knowledge may be moving.

Economics has some problems with its body of knowledge in that not everybody even understands it and many people disagree.  A lot of economic theory and knowledge is useful although some things said are statements of faith.  One of the problems is that economics is concerned with human behavior, how we exchange goods and service, and people behave in  many different ways.  Some of us have strong commitments to the way we behave and think people who behave differently are sick.

Economics is famous for its assumptions which are taught in first-year classes and then forgotten because they obviously are not based on reality.  I like to think these assumptions should be used as guidance for policies which will take us closer to an equal and just society.

All three of these disciplines make predictions.  Scientists are generally rather good and accurate.  The accuracy of theological predictions we won’t know until a later date and economists are notorious for inaccurate predictions.  Part of the economic problem may be an assumption that economies develop in straight lines as per regression analysis.  It might be that economies are  fractal in nature in which case changes in fractal dimension (two minus the Hurst exponent) might give an indication of changes.  (I understand the Hurst exponent is used by the “quants” who have had some success in analyzing stock and foreign exchange markets.)

The most difficult part of this discussion is the psychological roles of religion and economics.  I cannot think of a psychological role for science.

Most of us have to come to terms with the emotional aspects of living in a world in which there is suffering, mortality and loneliness.  (See the lines at the bottom of this post.)  Religion provides a social life and helps people relate to the world by encouraging prayer, meditation  services, music, a work ethic and love.
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The way our industrial economy is organized leaves us with a different problem – a conflict between our short-term and long-term interests.  In an economy where growth is essential and lots of people want to be at the head of the pack,  we need to use large quantities of agricultural, energy and mineral resources.  But these resources are limited, or at least those which are easily accessible are limited.  While our short-term interests are to use up resources quickly our long-term interests are to conserve these resources.

As most of us, most of the time, act and think in our own short-term we need some psychological support.  This is where economists come. When a highly paid expert knowledgeable about things we don’t understand tells us that our exchange of goods and services and our work ethic are  creating wealth, we know that our short-term view is for the best.  It is essential for most people to believe in “free enterprise” (or a government managed economy) if the current economic organization is to continue.

The role of economists is not to solve economic problems or to warn us of crises.  It is to convince us that this time is different.  Most people want to believe it.

So is economics a science or a religion?  Probably it is in a class of its own and something unique to our way of exchanging goods and services.

The following lines are from the song Wandering Star from the musical Paint Your Wagon

Mud can make you prisoner
And the plains can bake you dry
Snow can burn your eyes
But only people make you cry

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

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One Response

  1. very good piece
    economics is surely closer to religion than to science

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