A Foundation of Determinism

Paul Krugman recently did a Five Books interview with The Browser, talking about his five favorite books. The books are: Asimov’s Foundation series, Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, two books by Lord Keynes, and a book of essays by economist James Tobin, one of Krugman’s old teachers. Of Foundation he says:

This is a very unusual set of novels from Isaac Asimov, but a classic. It’s not about gadgets. Although it’s supposed to be about a galactic civilisation, the technology is virtually invisible and it’s not about space battles or anything like that. The story is about these people, psychohistorians, who are mathematical social scientists and have a theory about how society works. The theory tells them that the galactic empire is failing, and they then use that knowledge to save civilisation. It’s a great image. I was probably 16 when I read it and I thought, “I want to be one of those guys!” Unfortunately we don’t have anything like that and economics is the closest I could get.


This sounded vaguely familiar, and looking around I realized I’d heard about this affection of Krugman’s for Foundation before, but again it strikes me as underlining a lot of what I find basically unappealing about the approach to economics and humanity which Krugman has.

To me, the interesting thing about the Foundation books is their historical sweep. Asimov said he got the idea from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and there’s a wonderful sense of the sweep of history, of loss and of scale in the books. (Of which, to my mind, it’s only worth reading the golden age novels, not the later ones tacked on.) But what’s incredibly frustrating is the gnostic determinism of the vision — that somehow, a really brilliant group of guys can working through a whole bunch of equations and calculate what is going to happen for centuries into the future, as if the universe were some gigantic difference engine with the people in it as gears, moved through predictable motions by the forces exerted on them.

This view, it seems to me, is not just incorrect, but also fairly dangerous. Wrong because it fails to take into account human free will, which is, it seems to me, one of the most defining elements of humanity. Dangerous because it offers the illusion of control, that one can take some great action and reshape society if one can only get people to stop acting as persons and play their appropriate parts in the grand machine.

To see economists as like Asimov’s psychohistorians seems to me to glorify economics far above than its proper level. What economics is fairly good at is explaining how certain mechanisms work “all other things being equal” — yet what makes it frustratingly approximate is the degree to which things are so seldom equal. As soon as people starting thinking of the economy as some great machine with levers just waiting to be pulled (whether it’s liberals convinced that if only we could put through a couple more trillion dollars worth of stimulus everything would be fine or conservatives convinced that we can always raise tax revenues by lowing tax rates) they set themselves up to cause more harm than good.

9 Responses to A Foundation of Determinism

  • I read the original Foundation trilogy and found them fascinating. Following the fall and rise of a civilization a la Gibbon was an intellectual treat. The idea of mathematics being able to predict history struck me as complete hokum. The only thing Hari Seldon and his followers couldn’t predict was the appearance on the scene of a mutant nicknamed The Mule. Asimov wrote quite a few histories for a general audience and they weren’t bad reading, but they were all flawed because Asimov the atheist had a tin ear in regard to religion. This was on full display during the “Dark Ages” portion of the Foundation trilogy when Seldon’s followers start up a fake religion to help guide the course of human history.

    “The religion– which the Foundation has fostered and encouraged, mind you– is built on strictly authoritarian lines. The priesthood has sole control of the instruments of science we have given Anacreon, but they’ve learned to handle these tools only empirically. They believe in this religion entirely and in the …oh…spiritual value of the power they handle…The Foundation has fostered this delusion assiduously (pp. 106-107).

    I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis. The priesthood built itself and if we help it along we are only following the line of least resistance (p. 86).

    To the people of Anacreon he was high priest, representative of that foundation which, to those ‘barbarians’ was the acme of mystery and the physical center of this religion they had created– with Hardin’s help– in the last three decades (p. 89).”

    When it came to religion Asimov had as much insight as a blind man trying to explain his favorite color.

  • I think of “determinism” in a technical sense, meaning not random. Not having the read the novels, do the psychohistorians have a mastery of probability to the point that their equations can account for outcomes drawn from a probability distribution?

    It sounds like Krugman has not matured beyond the undergrad economics honeymoon stage. A lot of economists exhibit stunted growth in the wisdom department.

  • I did not read the novels.

    Apropos to today’s developing economic/political cataclysms is the blind faith of geniuses in elitist control over everything and everybody.

    Old Druidic (I just made up) proverb:

    “Never misunderestimate the insensibility of congressmen, credentialed eggheads without real world experience, Fed Chairmen, Fed Open Market Ops Committees, and presidents.”

  • Not having the read the novels, do the psychohistorians have a mastery of probability to the point that their equations can account for outcomes drawn from a probability distribution?

    This is where the fact that I knew less about statistics at the time I read the novels and that it’s been a while will come into play, but there was a lot of hand-waving on this. Overall, the idea was that given that the Galactic Empire involved so many people, it was highly subject to statistical predictability, such that the psychohistorians could predict when it would fall, how, where the strongholds would be, where invasions would come from, how things would start to come back, etc.

    To add to the silliness, the “one thing they couldn’t predict” was an interruption in their plans by a warlord of sorts names The Mule, who could not be predicted by their calculation because he was a genetic mutant (somewhat deformed) and thus could not be calculated by their statistical models.

  • Krugman isn’t the only economist to be inspired by the Foundation series. Hal Varien (chief economist for Google) apparently read the book in high school and had exactly the same reaction.

    Personally I found the whole idea of pyschohistory so self-evidently absurd that I couldn’t really get into the book. I’d like to think that if only I’d been a little better at suspending disbelief I’d have become a world famous economist like Krugman or Varian. I’d like to think that.

  • Interesting. I really liked the books too, and went on to get a degree in economics. The connection never occurred to me. I’ll give Krugman this – he’s got to have some real self-awareness to have made that connection.

    But a person won’t get too far in studying economics (shouldn’t get too far…) before noticing the wiggle room built into all the equations. People’s choices are based on their preferences, and while economists can note them, they can’t predict them. There’s a catch-all term that economists sometimes use, “fads and fashions”, which refers to the fact that some element of human behavior is unpredictable. You can aggregate across individuals and get something like a consistent pattern, but there’s always going to be women’s soccer or ciabatta bread or something that wasn’t predicted, not because there was a lack of accurate data, but because human behavior depends on the wills of individuals.

  • I find the idea of Paul Krugman commenting on David Hume disturbing.

  • I enjoyed reading the Foudation! It’s great fiction! Like all science fiction you have to suspend beieif or disbelief in somtiing for the plot to work like the possibilty of realtime intersteller travel with only minor improvements in current technology. The amazing thing about the series, and any thing else Asimov wrote on politcs or econmics, was that real time star travel required much less suspension of belief than the political and economic process of his novels.

  • Krugman’s desire to be “one of those guys” shouldn’t tarnish the idea that a science of “psychohistory” might be possible.

    I prefer Michael F. Flynn’s “Country of the Blind” in which various groups independently invent “cliology”. Some are interventionist, trying to mold events to their ends, others have ceased doing so because their models aree too imprecise and their meddling has caused unforeseen “blowback”.
    Flynn, who is Catholic, goes to some lengths about free-will implications.

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