The Review of Austrian Economics, 16:4, 381–384, 2003.
2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Manufactured in The Netherlands.
Steve Keen (2001) Debunking Economics, Annandale, NSW, Australia: Pluto Press,
335 + ix pp., $27.50
Debunking Economics is a bold attempt to shake the foundations of the neoclassical
economic mainstream. Embarking on this review, we had suspected we might ﬁnd large
areas of agreement with a fellow apostate. However, Keen’s work suffers from many of the
very faults of which he accuses the mainstream. The most troublesome is that Keen’s work
is quite frequently ideologically motivated, even while criticizing neoclassical practitioners
for ideological economics. In the end we ﬁnd it a brave but ﬂawed effort to dethrone the
current economic orthodoxy.
Methodological Holism Versus Methodological Individualism
Keen demonstrates that many attempts to aggregate quantities applying to individuals, so
as to come up with a measure for “society’s utility” or “society’s indifference curves,” lack
coherence. Fair enough. But the conclusion he draws from that fact is an ideological one.
After pointing out the ﬂaws in certain aggregate measures, Keen says, “society must exist
as an entity in its own right” (p. 40). But that doesn’t follow from his argument; indeed,
we would say Keen hasn’t taken the argument far enough. “Social utility” is a meaningless
concept, period, and so it is not surprising that (as Keen shows) it cannot be calculated from
“Society” is one of many useful concepts with which individuals comprehend their world.
It is true that there are many aspects of individual experience from which we can usefully ab-
stract a social aspect. But it is purely metaphysical speculation to imagine that an abstraction
from individual experience exists apart from the individual experience itself. (Ironically,
Keen immediately follows the quote above with a criticism of the mainstream for its “un-
scientiﬁc nature.”) As we see it, society is a network of practices, practices whose existence
is entirely dependent upon their being subscribed to by individuals.
Keen goes on to say, “society is something more than the sum of its individual members”
(p. 47). Keen believes that his truism explodes the economist’s traditional “atomistic”
method of focusing on the individual (e.g. p. 261 and p. 306). But this doesn’t follow at
all: All “social” outcomes are the composite of individual actions, even if such actions
are inﬂuenced by the existence of others. One does not show the limitations of physics by
pointing out the inﬂuence of The Communist Manifesto.
The idea of society as an independent being above and beyond its members is, of course,
akey element in many collectivist ideologies. Keen, in reaching conclusions that do not
follow from the arguments he presents, is letting his ideological slip show.