The Economists’ Brazen Effrontery: The Scylla and Charybdis of Economics

In the epic tale of Odysseus, who accompanied his fellow Achaeans to fight the Trojans in the western part of modern-day Turkey, and then for many years was prevented from returning home by the enmity of some of the Greek gods, who took umbrage at some of his actions, it is told that his faithful wife Penelope was beset by a horde of lusty, vulgar, greedy, insistent, and unscrupulous suitors, who vied with each other to see which of them would succeed the great Odysseus in his marriage bed, and become the master of his lands and possessions on the island of Ithaca.

The tale of economics, along with the many other spurious intellectual suitors, such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and behaviourism, that have plagued humanity with their attentions, importunities, and boastful claims, is a little different from Odysseus’ tale, for until now, like an unnaturally shy bridegroom, the correct theory of human behaviour has never appeared on the scene of human knowledge. But in its long and mystifying absence, economics, along with all these other false suitors, has sought to claim lordship in the important realm of knowledge of human behaviour, while its many practitioners have tried to seduce ordinary people with their misleading claims of truth, rigour, and completeness. Just like the rowdy, drunken suitors who plagued Penelope with their unwelcome attentions, these audacious economists have plagued humanity with their false claims and theories, along with their predictions – which, however, rarely come to pass when their theories are applied in real life, which is the only meaningful test of any theory of human behaviour, including economics. But like Penelope’s suitors, who were not discouraged by her steadfast reluctance to select a fortunate individual among them, these repeated failures have not discouraged economists from continuing to insist that their theories are nevertheless true, and therefore it is reality that must be wrong.

Not content with limiting themselves to proffering explanations only for economic phenomena, in recent decades, due to the waning credibility of that bizarre and nonsensical theory known as psychoanalysis, as well as the absence of any other dominant theory of human behaviour, economists like Gary Becker have had the effrontery to claim a far greater range of application for economics than merely economic activities, including marriage, social relationships and interactions, divorce, and so forth. But with the tardy arrival of the Theory of Imitation, these brazen efforts to expand the scope of economic theories to include non-economic behaviours are, like the determined but impotent efforts of Penelope’s many hopeful suitors, destined to be beaten back, repelled, and punished for having dared to encroach on matters where they have not the slightest validity.

During Odysseus’ return voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, he is beset by numerous trials that test his valour, fortitude, cunning, intelligence, and leadership over his shipmates. One of these is the passage through a maritime straits denoted by the names Scylla and Charybdis, two awful monsters that take turns devouring the unwary sailors who venture too close to their rocky and treacherous shoals, where their ships are wrecked and the unfortunate sailors drowned.

After the collapse of communism, free-market economists have been emboldened to trumpet their doctrine as the only true economic doctrine. What a great many people have failed to realize is that communism and free-market capitalism represent, not the only possible economic systems between which we must choose, but the Scylla and Charybdis of economics that we must avoid in order to improve society and human relationships. For both of these dogmas lead to highly undesirable states of society that fall very short of what most people would consider as constituting an ideal society. But instead – and to the great detriment of many people around the world – first communism, and now free-market capitalism, has been adopted or implemented in many countries, as if humanity were determined to ruin and poison itself by trying whatever medicine happens to be available in the rather bare cupboard of economic theories and panaceas, by numerous well-intentioned people who have failed to understand that their theories and beliefs about human behaviour are wrong.

The fate that finally befell the licentious suitors who guzzled Odysseus’ wine, devoured his food, slaughtered his herds, and lived, uninvited and unwelcome, in his house, was ignominiously to be slaughtered by Odysseus and his brave son Telemachus following Odysseus’ long-awaited return to his homeland. Since we live in a more civilized time, I am, of course, not suggesting that a similar fate be meted out to the many economists who have made false claims and sought to occupy the legitimate position that rightfully belongs to the Theory of Imitation. But it is, however, high time for us to chase these ignoble suitors from the realm of established – meaning true – knowledge, so that their false theories and beliefs will no longer influence people and cause harm all over the world, as they have done on a very wide scale until now.

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