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  • History, Philosophy and Methodology of Economics x
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This chapter develops the sceptic’s conceptual framework as an alternative to the deterministic framework prevalent in economics. The proposed conceptual framework is based on the identification of two separate orders of fact, where the ex post order of facts provides a record of past events, and the ex ante order of facts relates to the structure in the economy and can serve as a guide to action. The ex ante order of facts encompasses causal and structural facts. Determinism requires some empirical regularities, grounding these in the ex post order of facts, under the assumption of the scientific vocation of the impersonal perspective according to which prediction is but explanation – of ex post facts – in the opposite direction. The free will argument used against determinism also fails to draw the distinction between ex post and ex ante facts, since its limiting itself to providing an intelligible account of past events.

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This chapter discusses the nature of an economics which does not rely on the concept of a preference field, but which provides for empirical orientation by means of institutions. The notion of consistent choice that finds expression in everyday terms such as a disposition, taste, habit, fashion or custom has the form of an ex ante fact. Provided the notion is not illusory, dispositions, tastes, and so on are therefore independent of particular situations and have a certain invariance, though one would expect them to change from time to time. The proposed abstract model of a genetic explanation consists of (i) explanatory constraints serving as ex ante facts and (ii) explanatory shells for forming ex post facts. If economics is to have empirical content it needs to free itself from a paradox it finds itself in. Choices in general cannot be formulated as ex ante facts. But institutions could be so formulated, though unfortunately economists treat them mostly as ex post facts; either (i) as choices now presented as ex post facts, or (ii) end points of a historical investigation. If formulated as ex ante facts they serve as constraints, but not as constraints on behaviour, instead as constraints on possible explanations.

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Economic theory might be expected to position institutions as its empirical content, but the integration of theory and institutional facts has so far not been accomplished in economics. The raison d’être of this book is the opening of a path towards the integration of theory and institutional facts, applying an analytical – rather than historical or evolutionary – approach. This requires a conceptual framework that shows how knowledge of institutions fits into our understanding of economic questions. The conceptual framework relates to the empirical content of economics, identifying two types of facts, distinguishing, for instance, between statistical data, on the one hand, and the relationship that may exist between statistical data, on the other hand. Institutions should figure as facts.

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This chapter considers the role which the notion of rational action plays in equilibrium theory. An individual’s choice reveals something about his preferences to the observer and even to the choosing individual himself. The assumption that there is a most preferred combination of goods is merely the assumption that an individual acts purposefully. When we interpret behaviour as purposeful action the beliefs and preferences that are revealed may simply be ones that an individual happened to have at a particular moment, without any significance beyond that moment. When we treat the beliefs, aims and preferences of others as empirical facts, the nature of such facts differs according to whether they are elements in our intelligible accounts of the actions of others or whether they are factors that we take into account in our own actions. They feature as either ex post facts or ex ante facts. In neo-classical economics the empirical content of preferences are ex post facts that have been mistaken for ex ante facts.

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A realistic economics may take as some of its empirical content the institutions of an economy. In neo-classical economics, in contradistinction, it is the choices of individuals that constitute the empirical content of theory. Institutions and choices, however, belong to two different orders of fact, according to the conceptual framework developed in this book. Choices belong to the ex post order of facts, and institutions belong to the ex ante order of facts. The former are mere records of past events, whereas the latter have to do with structure and causation. Economic theory presents preferences as if they were in the nature of ex ante facts, giving rise to choices, but in the absence of observing preferences, it infers them from the choices. Accordingly, the empirical content of economics are in the nature of ex post facts. Preferences are ex ante facts to the operating individual, but to the observing theorist, they are in the domain of ex post facts. This book shows how a confusion between ex post and ex ante facts has manifested itself in micro-economics.

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In this chapter the sceptic conceptual framework will be applied to equilibrium models of comparative statics in micro-economics. The purpose is to show that equilibrium models are deterministic, with preferences functioning in the manner of a structural fact, as defined in the sceptic conceptual framework. This points to a link between equilibrium models and the sceptic conceptual framework, where ex post facts correspond to casual data and ex ante facts correspond to parametric and institutional data of the bahavioural functions of micro-economics. The ex ante order of fact has the connotation of something enduring, rather than just stochastic elements of the ex post order of fact. But while preferences may be ex ante to choices, economics use the preference field in an ex post manner, though dressed up as an ex ante fact.

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This chapter traces the development of common sense notions of needs, tastes and preferences into the concept of an ordinal preference field, and tries to show that it is extremely unlikely that an ordinal preference field can be both consistent over time and comprehensive and that the concept is likely to be based on a confusion between different logical forms of empirical fact. While preferences are portrayed as ex ante facts in the rational choice model, the actual empirical content are not preferences but are the actual choices made by individuals. What we know about choices are records of past events. Preference fields are inferred from choices, but we can then not use the inferred preferences to explain choice, for that would be explaining what has already been assumed. Preferences, though portrayed as structural facts, are nonetheless nothing other than ex post facts are dressed up as ex ante facts.

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Dogmatic and Pragmatic Views on Free Markets and the State of Economic Theory

Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC-ND

Made famous by the Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, the concept of an ‘invisible hand’ might be taken to imply that a government that governs least governs the best, from the viewpoint of society. Here an invisible hand appears to represent unfettered market forces.

Drawing from this much-contested notion, Mittermaier indicates why such a view represents only one side of the story and distinguishes between what he calls pragmatic and dogmatic free marketeers.

Published posthumously, with new contributions by Daniel Klein, Rod O’Donnell and Christopher Torr, this book outlines Mittermaier’s main thesis and his relevance for ongoing debates within economics, politics, sociology and philosophy.

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The expression ‘the invisible hand’ has become an aphorism for the idea that the pursuit of private ends by a large number of independent individuals leads to a situation that is beneficial to all. It is not clear whether, according to proponents of this idea, the beneficial guidance of the invisible hand may always be relied upon, provided only that man does not try to impose his own ideas upon the overall state of economic affairs, or whether the conditions under which the invisible hand may be expected to operate have to be created deliberately. In the first case, the social and economic institutions of a market economy would be in a sense natural whereas in the second case they would be an ideal of a possible form of social and economic organization, which, like and together with other ideals, one has to strive to realize as best one can. Though the matter may be seen in the end to be more complex, it may be said that those who incline to the former view hold a dogmatic and those who incline to the latter a pragmatic view on free markets. One of the aims of the study is to examine certain free-market arguments and to characterize, formulate and assess the dogmatic and pragmatic positions respectively. A working criterion for making the distinction is discussed in Chapter 2 and the two views are assessed in some detail in Chapter 9. The pragmatic position is particularly difficult to articulate, but it is suggested that it is the more tenable of the two.

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Dr Karl Mittermaier’s existence was unknown to me prior to Chris Torr’s email in October 2018. But I very much wish we had been acquainted. After reading all his writings then available, I discovered an extensive overlap in our intellectual interests and hence many missed opportunities for thought-provoking conversations.

This, then, is my tribute to a deep, fearless and brilliant thinker known to me primarily through his writings, but also through the recollections of his devoted wife Isabella, his colleagues and his students.1 He was a profound and original scholar who deserved far greater recognition than he received.

Karl was one of that small but brave band of economists who insist on being philosopher-economists, people who believe that explorations of the conceptual foundations, methodologies and theoretical manoeuvres in our often contested and argumentative discipline are just as essential as extending the theories that purportedly explain the reality in which we live. Not for him the standard fare of developing more or less recipe-driven, mathematical theories, but the richer intellectual feasts awaiting those seeking deeper appreciations and more critical assessments. As his writings demonstrate, such thinking explores debates, seeks clarity, draws distinctions, pays attention to context, is inter-disciplinary and asks awkward questions. Above all it avoids superficiality. The philosophical cast of his mind was plain in his first paper in 1978 on inflation,2 and continued to his last, published posthumously in 2018, on Menger’s Aristotelianism.

In economics, the schools of thought mostly absorbing his attention were Austrian and Neoclassical economics, the former being highly familiar with internal philosophical debates, the latter somewhat less so.

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