Optimization as Constraint: A Comment on Mazzoleni and Nelson

Sidney Winter, Management, The Wharton School

Abstract: This comment is an in-depth exploration of the neoclassical commitment to the idea that economic actors are appropriately modeled as optimizers—of profit, utility, or whatever. The robustness of this commitment is a major feature of the intellectual landscape surveyed by Mazzoleni and Nelson (2013, Industrial and Corporate Change, 22, 6), and the challengers’ inability to overthrow it is clearly a key rubric for an answer to the basic Mazzoleni and Nelson question about explanations for the failures of the successive challenges to neoclassicism. The principal thesis here is that the neoclassical commitment to optimizing actors has exacted a high opportunity cost because of its distorting effect on the discipline’s priorities. The commitment encourages theorists to engage primarily in the construction and analysis of models that are viewed as parables and valued primarily on aesthetic grounds, and not for the insight into reality that they provide. Thus, the contemporary aesthetics of neoclassical theorizing push the economics discipline away from serious engagement with the complexity of economic reality.

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