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The Godless Religion: Economics, Equilibrium, and the Copernican Revolution

Freeman, Alan (2001): The Godless Religion: Economics, Equilibrium, and the Copernican Revolution.

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The paper argues that a formal, and fruitful, historical analogy can be drawn between economics and a religious hierarchy, most notably the mediaeval Catholic church. This idea was fully developed in Freeman (2007), ‘Heavens Above: what equilibrium means for economics’, in Mosini, V (ed) (2007) Equilibrium in Economics: Scope and Limits. London: Routledge ISBN 0415391377 It was entitled ‘Heavens above: what equilibrium means for economics’, and appeared on pp240-260. This paper was published in German in the journal exit and is available on RepEc as MPRA paper number 6892 at http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/6892/

The paper draws an analogy between the resistance of economics to non-equilibrium formulations, and the resusteance of the Ptolemaics – supported by the church – to Galileo’s cosmological philosophy. This resistance, I argued, revolved around the implicit threat of this cosmology to the social and political order, which relied for its morality on the supposition that the heavens were the location of perfect matter, from which were derived the laws and privileges of the feudal order.

The notion that the sun, stars and planets revolved around the earth rested – as Kuhn pointed out - on a concept of ‘centre’ and a concept of ‘rotation’ which instantiated, and supported, the social concept that the heavens moved in fixed and perfect spheres. Resistance to placing the earth in the heavens came from two sources. The church, and the order on which it rested, were deeply threatened by the new theory, and could be mobilised against it by Galileo’s reactionary opponents on this basis.

In addition, the profound paradigm shift required to comprehend the Copernican system ensured that this system was literally ‘absurd’ and ‘incomprehensible’ even to serious scholars such as Clavius, the most respected cosmologist of the age.

The paper argues that the equilibrium assumption in economics plays the same role. It incarnates the principle that markets are perfect. Any failure, therefore, must be a result of external circumstances and cannot be generated from inside the market. This principle has therefore insinuated itself, at every level, and in all branches of economics, as the dominant ideology.

The ‘temporal’ alternative – TSSI within Marx’s value theory, Kaleckian and Post-Keynesian theory within Keynesianism, and indeed, the original Austrian idea within marginalism, is persistently displaced by a dominant ‘equilibrium’ form – Bortkiewizcian/Sraffian interpretations in Marx, ‘ISLM’ Keynesianism, and Walrasian/Marshallian general equilibrium within marginalism. Such views, whilst making formal concessions to ‘dynamics’ (conceived as comparative statics) and to ‘probability’ (conceived of as accidental deviation from perfection)

My adoption of a Copernican analogy draws on a parallel which, I think, goes beyond merely outward resemblance: between the intellectual resistance to Copernicus orchestrated via the organised catholic church, and the intellectual resistance to temporalism, orchestrated via the profession of economics.

This paper was originally posted on the OPE-L list on February 14th 2001 (#4896}, and can be accessed on http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive.

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