McCloskey on “Cents and Sensibility”

September 15, 2017
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Here are the opening several sentences of Deirdre McCloskey’s excellent review, in today’s Wall Street Journal, of Gary Saul Morson’s and Morton Shapiro’s new book, Cents and Sensibility:

In the middle of the 19th century, when the new telegraph meant that Texas could communicate with Maine, Henry David Thoreau quipped: “But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Today, the university puts literature and economics under the same roof. But do the two have anything important to say to each other?

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro say yes. Their new book, “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities,” is a sweet contribution to the dialogue. Covering such topics as university admissions, child-rearing, organ harvesting and economic development, the chapters each analyze public questions first through economics, and then through literature. The conclusion is that economics—a hugely influential approach to studying human societies—isn’t worth all that much without first understanding what it means to be human.

Mr. Morson is a professor of Slavic literature at Northwestern University, and Mr. Schapiro teaches economics there, where he is also the president. The book is the fruit of an undergraduate course they taught together, which suggested critiques of their disciplines, and especially of economics. Economics, they argue, has been stripped down to a theory neglecting language and culture. At the same time, literary study has abandoned its responsibility to lead students to the best that has been thought and said. The humanities, Messrs. Morson and Schapiro contend, should acknowledge economics for worldly purposes. Yet for a truly human science the economists need literature, philosophy and history. Each discipline can supply what the other lacks.

Their agendum is, in their phrase, “a return to the ‘real’ Adam Smith. ” They exhort students of economics to grasp that the author of “The Wealth of Nations” also wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The real Smith observes that human beings summon qualities of sympathy balanced with their self-interest. People are not merely economic maximizers: They are ethical creatures from the get-go.

Messrs. Morson and Schapiro advocate a fusion the economist Bart Wilson and the Nobelist Vernon Smith have recently dubbed “humanomics.” The humanities study categories, and the initial step of categorization is essential to any human inquiry.

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