Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

The Max U Approach: Prudence Only, or Not Even Prudence? A Smithian Perspective


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In many works Deirdre McCloskey criticizes professional economics for too readily representing man as a maximizing agent—Mr. Maximum Utility, or Max U. McCloskey says that economic activities are not the machinations of robots or mathematical functions, but rather affairs among human beings. She prefers to approach the human being as a complex of virtues (or lack thereof). In all this, I basically concur. But McCloskey says that the Max U approach represents man in terms of one virtue: prudence. She calls the Max U approach “Prudence Only.” My concern is that associating Max U with prudence does not do justice to prudence. In treating of prudence, I draw exclusively from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith makes many statements about prudence. It is by no means clear that they add up to a well defined notion of prudence, but it is clear that most of Smith’s important statements about prudence do not fit the Max U approach. My paper aims to correct and avoid any notion that Smithian prudence may be thought of as maximization or optimization.

Podcast related to this article: David Lipka on Deirdre McCloskey, Max U, and Prudence in Adam Smith (EJW Audio, January 2013).