Maskin on Samuelson
In an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, May 20-21, 2017 under the pretentious title “An Einstein for the Dismal Science,” Eric Maskin made extravagant claims for the significance of Paul Samuelson. For Maskin, himself a Nobel laureate in economics, Samuelson was one of the three “most important creative economists of the 20th century” (The other two were Kenneth Arrow and John Maynard Keynes.)
Maskin explains several of Samuelson’s theories, but for him Samuelson’s main importance lies in making economics mathematical. Some economists resisted his call, but “he won his war with the profession. Almost any theoretical article in an economics journal today bristles with mathematical formulas. And nearly every proposition makes an assertion that, in principle, could be refuted empirically.”
Maskin will have it no other way. He does not explain, though, why mathematical model-building combined with empirical testing is the sole legitimate way to proceed in economic theory. Maskin notes that it is sometimes possible to use mathematics to expose an error in verbal arguments; he fails to point out that through ordinary language, mistaken mathematical assumptions can be identified. Samuelson’s procedures may dominate academic economics today, but the Austrian economics of Mises and Rothbard has nothing to fear from Samuelson and his followers. Maskin is on the side of the big battalions; but Mises and Rothbard valued truth more than professional success.