If translated into English, most of the ways economists talk among themselves would sound plausible enough to poets, journalists, business people, and other thoughtful though non-economical folk, like serious talk anywhere among boat designers and baseball fans, say—the talk is hard to follow when one has not made a habit of listening to it for a while. The culture of the conversation makes the words arcane. But the people in the unfamiliar conversation are not Martians. Underneath it, all (the economist’s favourite phrase) conversational habits are similar. Economics uses Mathematical models and statistical tests and market arguments, all of which look alien to the literary eye. But looked at closely they are not so alien. They may be seen as figures of speech-metaphors, analogies, and appeals to authority.
Figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us. Someone who thinks of a market as an “invisible hand” and the organization of work as a “production function” and his coefficients as being “significant,” as an economist does, is giving the language a lot of responsibility. It seems a good idea to look hard at his language.
If the economic conversation were found to depend a lot on its verbal forms, this would not mean that economics would be not a science, or just a matter of opinion, or some sort of confidence game. Good poets, though not scientists, are serious thinkers about symbols; good historians, though not scientists, are serious thinkers about data. Good scientists also use language. What is more (though it remains to be shown) they use the cunning of language, without particularly meaning to. The language used is a social object, and using language is a social act. It requires cunning (or, if you prefer, consideration), attention to the other minds present when one speaks.
The paying of attention to one’s audience is called “rhetoric,” a word that I later exercise hard. One uses rhetoric, of course, to warn of a fire in a theatre or to arouse the xenophobia of the electorate. This sort of yelling is the vulgar meaning of the word, like the president’s “heated rhetoric” in a press conference or the “mere rhetoric” to which our enemies stoop. Since the Greek flame was lit, though, the word has been used also in a broader and more amiable sense, to mean the study of all the ways of accomplishing things with language: inciting a mob to lynch the accused, to be sure, but also persuading readers of a novel that its characters breathe, or bringing scholars to accept the better argument and reject the worse.
The question is whether the scholar—who usually fancies himself an announcer of “results” or a stater of “conclusions” free of rhetoric—speaks rhetorically. Does he try to persuade? It would seem so. Language, I just said, is not a solitary accomplishment. The scholar does not speak into the void, or to himself. He speaks to a community of voices. He desires to be heeded, praised, published, imitated, honoured, en-Nobled. These are the desires. The devices of language are the means.
Rhetoric is the proportioning of means to desires in speech. Rhetoric is an economics of language, the study of how scarce means are allocated to the insatiable desires of people to be heard. It seems on the face of it a reasonable hypothesis that economists are like other people in being talkers, who desire listeners whey they go to the library or the laboratory as much as when they go to the office on the polls. The purpose here is to see if this is true, and to see if it is useful: to study the rhetoric of economic scholarship.
The subject is scholarship. It is not the economy, or the adequacy of economic theory as a description of the economy, or even mainly the economist’s role in the economy. The subject is the conversation economists have among themselves, for purposes of persuading each other that the interest elasticity of demand for investment is zero or that the money supply is controlled by the Federal Reserve.
Unfortunately, though, the conclusions are of more than academic interest. The conversations of classicists or of astronomers rarely affect the lives of other people. Those of economists do so on a large scale. A well known joke describes a May Day parade through Red Square with the usual mass of soldiers, guided missiles, rocket launchers. At last come rank upon rank of people in gray business suits. A bystander asks, “Who are those?” “Aha!” comes the reply, “those are economists: you have no idea what damage they can do!” Their conversations do it.
As used in the passage, which of the following is the closest alternative to the word ‘arcane’?