The Age of Disgregation

From One Side of the Atlantic to the Other

The field that this chapter should cover is enormous. Rather than embarking on a wide-ranging but incomplete survey, only the main lines of research will be explored.

After the end of the Second World War the focal centre of economic culture shifted from Europe to the United States. Many had moved there, escaping racial or political persecutions. The wealth of a country that had won the war without experiencing within its territory the devastation it entailed constituted another important advantage. The Fulbright grant programme, for instance, financed study in American universities for many young European economists as well as visiting professorships. Moreover, research activity was supported (and to some extent directed to specific issues) by an extensive network of foundations (such as the Cowles Foundation or the Rand Corporation) and by military programmes started in wartime and continued in the cold war period.

Only recently has this latter aspect received the attention it deserves (Mirowski 2002, 2012). Together with a more practical leaning of American culture, the immediate issues raised by the war contribute to explaining some differences between the European cultural climate and the economic culture that gradually made its way from the United States to conquer the world, albeit - as we shall see - amidst many variants and never with complete success.

Though remaining within the conceptual framework of the marginalist tradition (the one-way avenue leading from scarce resources to the satisfaction of human needs and desires), the focus of US economic culture shifted from the analysis of society to the analysis of decisions, and from parametric to strategic, game-theoretic analysis of general equilibrium (i.e. from assuming the independence of each individual’s decisions from those of all the other individuals to considering their interdependence).


Hence the importance attributed to the notion of the rational economic agent, which constitutes both the main pillar and the week point of the theoretical construction. Hence, too, the drive to bring within the scope of economic science, conceived as analysis of rational choice, all aspects of human life - the so-called imperialism of economics.

Built in an axiomatic way, the notion of rationality implied adhesion to the utilitarian foundations of the marginalist tradition.[1] We will therefore take it, in the next section, as the starting point for our analysis of the paths recently followed by economic science: an analysis made more complex by the exponentially growing number of economic researchers active in universities and research centres. The trend towards professionalization of economics, already felt in Marshall’s times, became dominant and imposed on economic research scientific criteria typical of those stages that Kuhn (1962) christened ‘normal science’: internal consistency and coherence with the basic axioms of the dominant tradition and a strict attitude of closure towards whatever did not fit into this tradition. Hence the growing importance of what came to be called the mainstream, a dominant approach combining idolatry for mathematical models based on a one-dimensional view of the economic agent with a strong penchant for liberalism in policy.

  • [1] Quite different would have been the implications, for instance, of a generic reference tothe good sense of the paterfamilias, a notion that by itself would not have sufficed for theconstruction of utility functions.
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