Neoclassical Economics - Criticisms


Neoclassical economics is sometimes criticized for having a normative bias. In this view, it does not focus on explaining actual economies, but instead on describing a "utopia" in which Pareto optimality applies.

The assumption that individuals act rationally may be viewed as ignoring important aspects of human behavior. Many see the "economic man" as being quite different from real people. Many economists, even contemporaries, have criticized this model of economic man. Thorstein Veblen put it most sardonically. Neoclassical economics assumes a person to be,

"a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift about the area, but leave him intact."

Large corporations might perhaps come closer to the neoclassical ideal of profit maximization, but this is not necessarily viewed as desirable if this comes at the expense of neglect of wider social issues. The response to this is that neoclassical economics is descriptive and not normative. It addresses such problems with concepts of private versus social utility.

Problems exist with making the neoclassical general equilibrium theory compatible with an economy that develops over time and includes capital goods. This was explored in a major debate in the 1960s—the "Cambridge capital controversy"—about the validity of neoclassical economics, with an emphasis on the economic growth, capital, aggregate theory, and the marginal productivity theory of distribution. There were also internal attempts by neoclassical economists to extend the Arrow-Debreu model to disequilibrium investigations of stability and uniqueness. However a result known as the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem suggests that the assumptions that must be made to ensure that the equilibrium is stable and unique are quite restrictive.

Neoclassical economics is also often seen as relying too heavily on complex mathematical models, such as those used in general equilibrium theory, without enough regard to whether these actually describe the real economy. Many see an attempt to model a system as complex as a modern economy by a mathematical model as unrealistic and doomed to failure. A famous answer to this criticism is Milton Friedman's claim that theories should be judged by their ability to predict events rather than by the realism of their assumptions. Mathematical models also include those in game theory, linear programming, and econometrics. Critics of neoclassical economics are divided into those who think that highly mathematical method is inherently wrong and those who think that mathematical method is potentially good even if contemporary methods have problems.

In general, allegedly overly unrealistic assumptions are one of the most common criticisms towards neoclassical economics. It is fair to say that many (but not all) of these criticisms can only be directed towards a subset of the neoclassical models (for example, there are many neoclassical models where unregulated markets fail to achieve Pareto-optimality and there has recently been an increased interest in modeling non-rational decision making).

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