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The importance of rhetoric

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By Stuart Birks

Rhetoric has a long history of more than 2,400 years. The terms ethos, logos and pathos, dating back to the time of Aristotle, are still used today. There is a famous collection of lecture notes, Smith A (1963) Lectures of rhetoric and belles lettres: delivered in the University of Glasgow by Adam Smith, reported by a student in 1762-63, London: Nelson. Smith talked of judicial eloquence (related to law and disputes) and deliberative eloquence (on matters of policy).

It is hard to see how economists can exclude the role of rhetoric when analysing issues related to policy and the application of law.

In the interests of plurality, and drawing on outside sources, a readily accessible book is Leith, S. (2011). You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. London: Profile Books. It makes several pertinent points.

“What is democracy but the idea that the art of persuasion should be formally enshrined at the centre of the political process? What is law but a way of giving words formal strength in the world, and what is the law court but a place where the art of persuasion gives shape to civil society? And what, in any society where one person or group exercises power over another – which is to say any society at all – is the instrument of that power but words?” (p.10)

Words have impact for many reasons, including their ability to frame issues, and the way their meaning can be shaped to convey a particular impression. In fact, the more we consider rhetorical aspects, the larger their influence appears to be on economics itself. Leith writes:

“Your arguments will tend to prosper if they are founded on the common assumptions of your audience; or, in special cases, if the audience is minded to defer to your authority.” (p.48)

Economists, speaking the language of economics, are implicitly framing issues according to their concepts and theories. Given that mainstream economics focuses on an ideal of perfect competition, Leith makes another relevant point about Aristotle:

“He saw that the world was compromised and imperfect, and that we don’t live among abstract forms, but among people.” (p.261)

So perhaps the mainstream approach to economics misses important subtleties of the real world. This can distort our perception. A typical example is our use of classification, a central component of analysis. We talk of consumers and producers, products and markets, industries, labour, and population categories such as social class, ethnicity, age and gender.

Another non-economist has written a book on introverts and extroverts (Cain, S., 2012, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers). She uses an economics-related ex-ample to make a point, referring to the origins of the GFC:

“[I]t became fashionable to speculate whether we’d have been better off with more women and fewer men—or less testosterone—on Wall Street” (p.162)

This speculation follows from a gender-based view of society, but Cain, using another categorisation, continues by suggesting an alternative:

“[M]aybe we should also ask what might have happened with a few more introverts at the helm—and a lot less dopamine.”

She focused on psychological factors affecting people’s desire for reward and willingness to take risks. She also acknowledges that she is relying on evidence of differences in behaviour on average by members of selected groups, so she is only putting forward an alternative theory, simplified framing, analogous structure that might give some partial insight into the real world.

Given such constraints in our reasoning, we should not be fooled by debates as to which of two theories is “right” – itself a rhetorical trick of simplifying an issue into one of two alternatives. We should recognise that neither theory is likely to fully describe reality.

Language plays a large part in shaping our perceptions and the conclusions we reach. This is a major determinant of opinions and behaviour, and an aspect of framing which is central to our analyses. It is a good reason to be cautious about the extent of our understanding of the economy and the world.

From: Pp.10-11 of World Economics Association Newsletter 2(3), June 2012

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