Thomas Piketty’s Literary Offenses

Thomas Piketty borrowed a bunch of tools from my garage and used them irresponsibly.

Steve Horwitz and I respond over at the Freeman this morning, with some thoughts about literature, economics, and crossing disciplinary divides.

We are strong supporters of using literary examples as evidence of the way people have thought about economic matters. However, we have also argued that using literature this way must be done with great care and with great respect for both economics and literature. Scholars who want to engage in this kind of work must understand both the economics and the literature well enough to combine them in effective and intellectually responsible ways. Accurately reporting on what the literature says and does not say, and avoiding sweeping claims unsupported by the literary evidence, seem like necessary first steps.

Crossing disciplinary boundaries can lead to powerful intellectual insights. It can also lead to careless work and confirmation bias. We applaud Piketty’s attempt to expand the range of evidence that is seen as relevant to economic arguments, and we are glad to see scholars like Clune and Marche recognizing that part of Piketty’s work. We remain, however, unconvinced by Piketty’s particular argument. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the traditional economic data Piketty is using, the 20th-century literary evidence does not make the case he claims it does.

You can read the rest here.

  • adrianratnapala

    Your article seems very sensible and well reasoned. But when you list 20th century books which include financial details, I can ask “how do I know these guys aren’t cherry picking?”. The point being, I have no idea how to get a fair statistical sample of Nth century literature, and I don’t know it would be worth the effort if I could. That’s not what literature is for. Which I suppose is the point that Ms. Skwire is making.