The Politics, Mathematics and Morality of Economics: A Review Essay on Robert Nelson's

Posted: 29 Feb 2008

See all articles by Cristobal Young

Cristobal Young

Princeton University - Department of Sociology


Is economics a science or a theology? Nelson sensibly argues that economists are a priestly class; they issue authoritative (scientific) blessings upon the marketplace. The bishops of this class are the mathematicians, who convert ideology into science. This essay, in contrast, argues that mathematics has more to do with internal competition between economists than with politics or religion. Indeed, in the early years, mathematical economics was dominated by socialist advocates of central planning. Over time, the mathematical school evolved towards a milder critique, emphasizing the weakness of free market assumptions. With an ironic twist, mathematical economics ultimately came to be interpreted as a defense of laissez faire. In short, mathematics traversed the whole political spectrum from socialism, to social democracy, to capitalism. While modern-day economists do often seem like free market evangelists, the role of mathematics in this is poorly understood.

Keywords: mathematical economics, religion, socialism, central planning, laissez faire, sociology of economics

JEL Classification: A110, B210, N010, B240, Z120

Suggested Citation

Young, Cristobal, The Politics, Mathematics and Morality of Economics: A Review Essay on Robert Nelson's. Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 3, pp. 161-172, , Available at SSRN:

Cristobal Young (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Princeton, NJ
United States

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