The Politics of Positivism: Disinterested Predictions From Interested Agents

Of the six sections composing «The Methodology of Posive Economics», the first one («The Relation between Positive and Normative Economics») is apparently the less discussed in the F53 literature, probably as a result of being the shortest one and the less relevant for the realism issue, all at once. In view of Milton Friedman’s subsequent career as a political preacher, it seems difficult not to wonder whether this first section ruled it the way the other five directed Friedman’s scientific performance. After all, the role of prediction in defining positive economics was already advanced therein: when an economist predicts, her results are «independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments». This is also why positive economics is a politically relevant discipline: as long as the differences about economic policy –among disinterested citizens– derive only from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action, these differences could be eliminated by the progress of positive economics. Our plan in this paper is to present, in the first place, the role of political motivations in the development of Friedman’s methodological stance. As we will discuss in §2, Friedman was involved in the policy-making process right from the beginning of his professional career, and could experience at first hand the relevance of economic predictions in generating a consensus not only among politicians or the public opinion, but among the profession itself. Conversely, Friedman could also appreciate how difficult was to reach a consensus on a particular policy when the economists disagreed on its practical consequences. In this respect, as we will see, «The Methodology» attempted at guaranteeing the political efficiency of economic research. However, the sociological turn in science studies suggests to question on what basis can we deem a prediction neutral. Is it simply that economists produce these positive predictions disinterestedly, even while deeply engaged in political debates? In §3, we analyse how Friedman himself produced predictions immediately before «The Methodology» was drafted, and how this procedure lies at the core of his Marshallian approach, which he contrasted to the Walrasian strategy on the grounds of its higher political relevance..
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