Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

What might an economist look for in chemistry?

Burina Elizaveta, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Economists, as other scientists, have extensively used analogies as a tool of scientific discovery. More specifically, they «borrowed» principles and their mathematical descriptions, e.g. equations, to build or simply formalize their models. Analogies with physics were, probably, the most popular among economists. Among those who resorted to the use of analogies with physics as a tool of scientific discovery were Walras, Fisher, Georgescu-Roegan, just to name a few. Resorting to physics as a method has been largely analyzed by the historians of economic thought: by Mirowski, Morgan, Boumans, and Cartwright among many others. They paid special attention to different uses of energy as a physical concept. Recently there’s been an increased interest in the use of biological analogies. However, what’s still in the shadow is the use of analogies with chemistry. Curiously, some famous economists were trained as chemists. William Stanley Jevons was trained in chemistry and completely self-educated in economics. However, he was more eager to use analogies with physics rather than with chemistry. Boulding (1970) told «a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, "Assume we have a can opener"!». But how different were the solutions, suggested by a physicist and a chemist? The main difference between a physical and a chemical process is that during the former there’s only the form of the matter that might change (shape, state, temperature), while during the latter the kind of matter changes (molecular structure alters, new properties are formed). In this paper I analyze several cases, from Vladimir Bazarov’s recovery model, build by analogy with an autocatalytic reaction in 1927, to a very recent example of the use of a chemical analogy in the paper titled «A Chemical Analysis of Hybrid Economic Systems—Tokens and Money» (Pardi, Paolucci, 2021). The paper attempts to answer what are economists looking for in chemistry. Can it be that certain processes taking place in economics might be better explained using the logic of a chemical, rather than a physical change? At the same time, what do the economists believe to be a successful use of chemical analogies?


Keywords: analogies, chemistry, modeling, Bazarov

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