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The Composition of Economic Causes Author(s): Daniel M. Hausman Reviewed work(s): Source: The Monist, Vol. 78, No. 3, The Metaphysics of Economics (JULY 1995), pp. 295-307 Published by: Hegeler Institute Stable URL: . Accessed: 22/06/2012 09:32
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of Economic


matters. He

are not directly applicable tomost subject of induction are suitable only to domains inwhich few causal factors are at work, and most subject matters are complex and involve the simultaneous action of many causal factors. The possibilities of experimental intervention increase the range of direct believes that inductive methods believes that his methods inquiry, but that range is still limited. that scientific knowledge of complex subject matters believes can be attained by deducing from inductively attained knowledge of the inductive Mill

Mill is an empiricistand an inductivist, he Although JohnStuart


of multiple causes acting action of single causes what the consequences will be. Mill calls this procedure "the deductive method" simultaneously or "the method a priori" but both names are misleading. The deductive


is, in fact, an indirect inductive method, in which the laws of in causes are separately determined by inductive methods. The role The

of deduction cumstances. deductive

in the argument's

is to determine what follows from these laws in complex cir evidence that inductively supports the premises of a argument is supposed to be the inductive basis for one's belief conclusions.1 InMill's words:

When an effect depends on a concurrence of causes, these causes must be studied one at a time, and their laws separately investigated, ifwe wish, through the causes, to obtain thepower of either predicting or controlling the effect; since the law of the effect is compounded of the laws of all the causes which determine it. {Logic, 6.9.3) If one wants to "obtain the power of predicting or controlling" an effect such as projectile motion through understanding its causes, one needs to investigate separately the separate causal factors (gravity, momentum, of the laws of all the causes," of de of a plurality of causes, is

friction) and their laws. This notion of "compounding ducing the consequences

of the concurrence

"The Composition of Economic Causes" by Daniel M. Hausman, The Monist, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 295-307. Copyright? 1995, THE MONIST, La Salle, Illinois 61301.



But the notion of "compounding" is not simple or straightforward even in I shall disentangle some of the principles the case of classical mechanics. invokes in attempting to explain how scientific knowledge Mill of complex matters

takes explanations in dynamics as paradigmatic and problematic. Mill does not pause over the notion of adding up the effects of different causes.

fails. Some of theproblems in acquiringknowledge of complex subject

of science, but some philosophy to grapple with, too. remain for non-Millians one can find regularities As Mill in complicated recognized, arise from details of Mill's

subject matters

is possible,

and I shall argue

that his account

But these regularities, which Mill called "empirical laws," phenomena. are not explanatory, and they are a precarious basis for prediction. Until empirical laws are linked to underlying causal laws, one does not know when the empirical laws can be relied upon and when they are likely to laws are nevertheless a valuable part of science, break down. Empirical because constitute data which theories should explain and because, they they may be of use. Scientists should not, despite their precariousness, however, rest content with empirical laws. They should seek to uncover causal in doing so by applying direct laws, and they cannot succeed inductive methods to complex subject matters. When in this paper I shall of "laws," I shall be referring to causal laws. speak Social


are particularly inappropriate candidates for the phenomena or "the method a posteriori" of "specific experience" because are complex, available in limited varieties, and not subject to appre they IfMill were a physicist, he might stop ciable experimental manipulation.

to the general science of society, because not applicable there are too causes for us ever to ascertain all their laws and to determine their many combined which, effects, but itwill work in subject matters such as economics inMill's opinion, there are few really significant causes. of Logic, phenomena he envisions

Mill's directdeductivemethod.2This method is The explanation lies in

social phenomena and especially economics are Mill's main interest, and he wants to explain how one can acquire scientific knowledge of them.

there with expressions of pity for theplight of the social theorist. But


When Mill firstintroducesthedeductivemethod inBook III of A

scientists deriving the laws governing from the laws of all the relevant causes. Suppose, for

System complex

Wilson is sick, and we would like to know whether penicillin example,





help cure Wilson.3 The method a posteriori would have us inquire recovered more often whether others with symptoms resembling Wilson's or more rapidly when given penicillin. The method a priori in contrast will us draw upon our knowledge of the causes of Wilson's and upon our knowledge of the operation of penicillin to decide symptoms Both methods are "empirical" whether penicillin will help cure Wilson. would have and involve

testing. The difference is that the former attempts to use ex or observation to learn about the complex phenomenon directly, periment to study the relevant component while the latter employs observation causal factors. In an example such as this one, the deductive method seems unob to be causal factors that are known but in economics, jectionable, significant are left out of the story. As Mill was well aware, economic agents may be motivated

by all sorts of passions?whether they be or neurotic?which are left out of benevolent, patriotic, malevolent, economics. Mill seems to be of two minds about whether this is scientifi cally acceptable. On the one hand, he criticizes members of the "school of for theorizing about govern Bentham" (including his father, James Mill) ment without all the causes, whether significant or not incorporating

{Logic, 6.8.3). But when it comes to economics, Mill apparently recom mends just themethodological practice that he condemns in his father. For the correct method of including all the causes "within the pale of the is not feasible. Economists must set their sights lower and aim at a hypothetical science of tendencies which is, inMill's view, only generally "insufficient for prediction" yet "most valuable for guidance" science" {Logic, 6.9.2). Let us call this sort of deductive method, that so closely resembles themethod ofMill's father, "the inexact deductive method," because it in corporates follows: only some of the causes. J. S. Mill defends this method as

The motive which suggests the separation of this portion of the social phenomena from the rest, and the creation of a distinct branch of science relating to them, is, that theydo mainly depend, at least in thefirst resort, on one class of circumstances only; and that even when other circumstances interfere,the ascertainment of theeffectdue to the one class of circumstances alone is a sufficiently intricateand difficult business tomake it expedient to perform it once for all, and then allow for the effect of themodifying cir



cumstances; especially as certain fixed combinations of the former are apt to recur often, in conjunction with ever-varying circumstances of the latter class. (Logic, 6.9.3) The defenses Mill for employing this inexact deductive no alternative, (2) metaphysi is (1) practical?there the results are only hypothetical, the tendencies persist offers here


seem to be

these defenses. any other.4 I shall be questioning In the case of economics, theorists following the deductive method first borrow basic "laws" from the natural sciences or from psychology, which Mill science. Then regards as an introspective experimental theorists deduce what follows from them in various circumstances.

cal?although even when there are other disturbing causes, and (3) pragmatic?this is an efficient way of theorizing, and more order can be found this way than in

Finally, verification is essential (though not in order to test the basic laws, which are already established and could hardly be cast in doubt by the of a conclusion deduced from a partial set of empirical vicissitudes It is unclear whether verification causes). the deductively derived laws as economic tionmerely determines Applying the discussion is necessary in order to regard laws at all, or whether verifica of these laws.5

is much messier than so far suggests. The laws that one derives are inexact and sometimes drastically in conflict with the phenomena. This inexactness is only to be expected, since many causal factors are left out of the deriva tion. But the problems lie deeper, because the premises in the deductions are not established non-law The laws or true descriptions of the relevant circumstances. such as premises are frequently extreme simplifications,

the applicability the deductive method in economics

perfect. The evidential weight of a deductive derivation of a causal law for a complex system would, itwould seem, depend on whether such simpli or in some sense reasonable approximations. fications are dispensable serious difficulty concerning the deductive method involves the supposed "laws" of the component causes, since it is questionable, at least in the case of political economy, whether they are really laws. For A more

claims that commodities are infinitely divisible or thatknowledge is

example, Mill believes that themost basic law of political people seek more wealth, yet he asserts that it is absurd people on? do in fact always seek more wealth (Logic,

economy is that tomaintain that going

6.9.3)! What's





A simple example from physics may be helpful here. Suppose that a is falling straight down through a column of water, and ball-bearing suppose that it is subject to only two forces. There is a downward force of gravity, mg, which is constant, and an upward force of resistance depends on several factors and varies with the speed of the ball. These causes. Galileo's law describes forces are the two component that two the

operation of one of these component causes, and hydraulics provides the law is formulated as the claim, "All bodies law of the other. If Galileo's the surface of the earth fall toward the center of the earth with a constant it is, of course, just as false as is the claim that acceleration," law is instead usually under seek more wealth. Galileo's always


people stood as making a qualified or modal claim: in the absence of any other forces, bodies (would) fall with a constant acceleration. Similarly one that might interpret the claim that people seek more wealth as maintaining in the absence Read of any other causes (or ceteris paribus), wealth.6 this way, Galileo's people seek more

when both causes with: What

law tells us what happens in the absence of the resistance, and the laws of fluid mechanics tell us what happens in the absence of forces such as gravity. Newton's first law tells us what happens are absent. That happens when the component causes supposed amount the laws"? No "compound causes need both causes leaves only the problem thatwe started are present? How are the laws of to tell us this? How are we supposed to

that this something extra is that the net force is the vector Suppose sum of the component forces. If the forces are described as above in for mulations that state how things would be if the forces were acting alone, then there is no way to "compound the laws." To make sense of the notion

component together.We

of knowledge of the separate is going to tell us what will happen when they act to know something extra about their joint action.

of adding component forces, we thus need to reformulate the laws of the law with the claim (GO component causes. We should replace Galileo's


thatthenet forceon theball is larger mg in thedownwardsdirection by than ifgravityis not present.(C) should not,however, identified be with
law, for, unlike Galileo's If forces were not additive, true.7 the ac law, (G') is true only ifforces are (G') would be false, even ifGalileo's

additive. law were

At any instant, then, the net force downwards will be mg minus force of resistance, though calculating the rate at which the downward




much more

terminal velocity the ball reaches requires than simple arithmetic. To make possible the "deduction" of the net force, one needs to know more than just how the causes act sepa needs to know the law governing their combination, and this rately?one diminishes and what law cannot be derived merely from knowledge of how they act separate because ly. To speak, as Mill does, of a deductive method, ismisleading the law governing the conjoint operation of causes cannot be deduced

from the laws governing the component causes separately. Given the additivity of forces, it is natural to describe the component causes as giving rise to "tendencies." This is the interpretation of Mill defended by Nancy Cartwright.8 On this interpretation, claims such as

or "capacities" seek more wealth" express "tendencies" rather "People to regularities such as Galileo's than laws. Such tendencies give rise law and G', and it is by virtue of the connections between tendencies and reg that claims about tendencies can be tested. The themselves tendencies are not

ularities however

to regularities. For example, people's equivalent to seek more wealth might give rise to nearly universal wealth tendency in circumstances such as those that characterize stock seeking behavior markets. But the claim that people tend to seek more wealth is not claim to any of the regularities towhich it gives rise. For the tendency is not restricted in scope, and the tendency is supposed to remain "operative" even when it is not reflected in any known regularity. reducible I am not sure whether one understands methodology and explanation focuses on laws or if one focuses on tendencies or even it turns out to matter. Talk of tendencies or capacities has

better if one whether


mind some principles (such as additivityin theexample above), which

describe the ways in which tendencies manifest themselves in different focus on circumstances. Once we have such principles, we can, however,

point unless tendencies persist and can be added, balanced, weighed, or otherwise combined. Talk of tendencies is only useful when we have in

Mill's writings generalizations (such as G' above). I do not thinkthat

law view of clearly commit him to either a tendency or a ceteris-paribus causes, and indeed I do not think that Mill component distinguished clearly between these interpretations of "laws" of component causes. I

law view of component causes, tentatively prefer the ceteris-paribus it seems tome themost modest metaphysically because and because I'm of taking the revolutionary step of demoting laws from their central leery





pursuit of more wealth can be a fundamental explaining how people's even though there is no universal law saying that people seek more cause, wealth. Both interpretations also permit one to describe the difficulties

role in the understanding of science. But the decision ultimately depends on what theories of scientific explanation and theory construction are most satisfactory. At a superficial level both accounts appear to be capable of

causes. So without resolving thismetaphys that arise in "compounding" ical conundrum, letme expand upon these difficulties. One serious problem for the deductive method is, as we have seen, that it is not possible to deduce what happens when causes act jointly from

knowledge Now,

otherwise?InBook 3 of his Logic Mill writes: thought

ifwe happen to know what would be the effect of each cause when acting separately from the other,we are often able to arrive deductively, or a priori, at a correct prediction of what will arise from their conjunct agency. To render this possible, it is only necessary that the same law which expresses the effect of each cause acting by itself shall also correctly express the part due to that cause of the effectwhich follows from the two together. This condition is realised in the extensive and importantclass of phenomena, commonly called mechanical, namely, thephenomena of the communication of motion (or of pressure, which is the tendency tomotion) from one body to another.. In this important class of cases of causation, one cause never, properly speaking, defeats or frustrates another; both have their full effect .... This law of nature is called, in dynamics, the principle of theComposi tion of Forces: and, an imitation of that well-chosen expression, I shall give the name of theComposition of Causes to the principle which is exemplified in all cases inwhich the joint effect of several causes is identical with the sum of their separate effects. (Logic, 3.6.1)

of what happens when

they act singly. How

could Mill



is claiming that one can deduce what will happen when causes are combined from the laws of their separate action plus the principle of the of Causes, which says that "the joint effect of several causes Composition is identical with principle,

falling ball-bearing, one "adds up" the forces (or the accelerations they cause) and gets the right answer. Itwould be more informative to call the is espousing "compositional" rather than "deductive" for the of the combined effect is a process of adding and subtracting.

the sum of their separate effects." I shall call this In mechanical "the additivity assumption." like the phenomena

method Mill derivation we're

If one assumes

additivity, then the deductive method can work, but not yet out of the woods, for it is not clear what additivity means




of the special case of mechanics. it literally as, for example, when one

In some

instances one can take

demanded supposed

interprets a change in quantity as a sum of an income and a substitution effect.9 But how is one

to "add up" the consequences for behavior of, for example, un certainty, time preference, diminishing marginal rates of substitution and is more like diminishing returns? What goes on in much of economics

deducing thanadding,and it is unlikewhatMill envisioned.

Even if one could make clear what was

involved in "adding" causal to see what justification theremight be for it is hard factors in economics, that the causes for some particular set of phenomena are in some assuming sense additive. In the case the assumption of the ball-bearing, it seems that the causes are additive. One


to be easy to can alter the

viscosity of the liquidwithinwhich theball is fallingand even, at great

force. The predictions of the combined expense, alter the gravitational formula are in good agreement with the data. But the same possibilities of that show us that we have got the combined law right experimentation also make the deductive method unnecessary: Mill's methods of induction component causes separately might of course have many advantages, but it is not needed in order to justify the claim that the formula combining cannot factors

can be applied directlyto thecombined law.Proceeding by studyingthe

gravitational and frictional forces is indeed a causal law. What when one justifies the compositional assumption establish the combined law? The effect of multiple causal directly acting

together might be completely different from the "sum" of their factors may interact, and Mill has provided little separate effects. Causal reason to believe that tendencies, such as the tendency to seek more are still "acting" in the presence of other causes. One might think


one could answer thisskepticism that about thepossibilityof developing out the steps of economics deductively merely by successfullycarrying thatinfact Mill is confident thepos of method.And I think thedeductive of developing economics deductivelybecause of how neatly his sibility
and Ricardo's economics example, given the capitalist's follows from simple and plausible premises. For drive for profits, theworker's inclination to

in Ricardo andMill held that breed, and diminishingreturns agriculture,


population and rents is not aptly described as a procedure of adding

rates of profit should decline and population and rents should increase. the classic argument for diminishing rates of profits and increasing





minishing returns is not a force that needs to be added or subtracted from the drive tomaximize profits, and the latter does not need to be added to or subtracted from the propensity to propagate. One thus needs no addi to derive the economic conclusion concerning profits tivity assumption and rents, and so the success (such as itwas) of an economics based on such a derivation does not support the additivity assumption.10 Mill's economics followed his compositional Furthermore, even if or themore follows,

component causes, because none of the three factors violate any of the ceteris paribus conditions attached to the other factors. For example, di


and increasing Suppose thatthederivationof diminishingratesof profit

rents did exemplify Mill's deductive method and suppose (contrary to data), one found that the rate of profit did diminish and rents 19th-century and population did increase. Would one then be justified in regarding this trend as a causal law? The demands reason of the deductive method would have


straightforward deductive method much of economics its apparent success would not vindicate the method.

been met, but what is there to believe that the factors mentioned cause rates of profit and increasing rents? Empirical the diminishing studies only establish the existence of an empirical law. To believe that one has a causal how showing. Mill displays that the deduction correctly law, one has to believe the individual causes act together. But this is what needs has no answer for those who doubt whether causal laws of such as economies of economic can be deduced a matter from the laws of

complex phenomena the separate causes. If the derivation deduction

of strict logical these qualms would be unfounded. But the derivation of economic laws depends on incomplete premises, initial conditions, and a vague additivity as simplifications concerning sumption. So there are ample grounds for skeptical doubt. The difficulty from a set of true premises, forMill seems

laws were

the generalization, the deductive method does not provide the sort of Mill thought sciences ought to provide decisive supporting argument that unless there are grounds to take the component for their conclusions, causes as additive.

insuperable. Although a messy derivation of an economic from simplifications, plausible ceteris paribus laws, and an generalization additivity assumption can increase one's confidence in the correctness of




Mill might appear to close thisgap inhis argumentfora deductive

in the following famous passage:

The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state.Men, however, in a state of society, are stillmen; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature.Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance, with different properties; as hydrogen and oxygen are different fromwater. . . . Human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of the nature of individual man. In social phenomena the Composition of Causes is the universal law. (Logic, 6.7.1) There are two serious problems with this quotation. First, since one is not, to acquire of social in Mill's view, able knowledge appreciable without employing the deductive method, one cannot know phenomena claims about the relations between human nature are true without

whether Mill's

this passage laws governing human beings that the psychological in argues only are the psychological laws governing individual human beings, society but nothing follows from this concerning the character of social laws in show. Second, general. that "the laws of the phenomena To reach the conclusion of are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions society of human beings united together in the social state" Mill needs to show that all laws of social phenomena derive from the laws of psychology and of the natural addressing has not provided such an argument, and by the different question of the relations between theproperties of sciences. Mill

social phenomena and is trying to taking for granted what Mill is stronger on assertion than on argument. Mill

beings as little as the properties of water resemble he goes on immediately This after the passage

the waters. For many prop compounds and constituents, he has muddied or rate of social mobility erties of societies (consider, for example, increase of the money supply) resemble properties of individual human

of Mill does notbelieve thattheadditivity effects always obtains,and

just quoted to write,

those of hydrogen.

principle [of the Composition of Causes], however, by no means prevails in all departments of the field of nature. The chemical combination of two substances produces, as iswell known, a third substance with proper ties different from those of either of the two substances separately, or of both





of them taken together.Not a trace of the properties of hydrogen or of oxygen is observable in those of their compound water. (Logic, 3.6.1)

with a third which The compositionof causes is here identified principle,

one might

call "the summation of properties." Mill finds that the of chemistry are not mechanical, because many of the prop phenomena erties of compounds are not "sums" of the properties of their constituents, governing their constituents and how they combine. Mill slides back and forth between questions about (1) what can be deduced concerning matters from a knowledge of the "laws" governing indi complex subject vidual causal factors and principles of combination, (2) whether effects of causes can be "added," and (3) whether similar to those of their constituents. the composition the properties of compounds are

even though theymight be literallydeducible from generalizations

Although nevertheless

of causes

is not true of all phenomena,

The former case, that of theComposition of Causes, is the general one; the other is always special and exceptional. There are no objects which do not, as to some of their phenomena, obey the principle of the Composition of Causes; none that have not some laws which are rigidly fulfilled in every combination intowhich the objects enter.The weight of a body, for instance, is a property which it retains in all the combinations inwhich it is placed. (Logic, 3.6.2) grounds Mill's formaking the general metaphysical claim of the prepon


of Causes" with regard to some of "their phenomena," but Composition one would expect if physical properties are mechanical this is just what and all objects have some physical properties. This fact, if it is a fact, not justify the conclusion that "The former case, that of the Com is the general one." And even if this conclusion were position of Causes, justified, itwould not in turn provide a strong reason to regard themessy from simplifications and psychological deductions laws as social laws. deductive method.

derance of additivityare that all objects "obey the principle of the

Mill and to justify There is nothinghere tofill thegap for employing the
Someone who follows Mill's prescriptions for economics identifies a set of potentially significant causes of the phenomena of interest, ascer tains their separate laws, and, assuming additivity, "adds up" their sepa rate effects to determine their joint effects. If the results fit the data, then





that one



interest. Even

one some further reason

way surelygives additivityassumption. Deriving generalizations in this

that they are true and explanatory, but secure justification for the derived laws when the process only provides the deductive method turns out not to be necessary after all. to believe

in the best of cases,

of the phenomena of knowledge thismethod is precarious because of the

Daniel University Madison of Wisconsin,

M. Hausman

*I am indebted to Elliot Sober

and toNancy Cartwright and Uskali M?ki for helpful criticismof a rough draft. An ancestorof thispaperwas delivered at a conferenceatNotre Dame University in 1991, and I profitedfromcriticismfrom theaudience thereand especially from Wade Hands. 1. A System ofLogic (1843) (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949), Bk. 2, ch. 3,
sec. 3. References to A System inverse of Logic will be incorporated a strained into the text in the form, attempt to defend large 2.3.3." "Logic, 2. The so-called deductive method seems

for a very helpful



these matters,

deductivemethod" is just thatthesocial regularity first is derived from observation,rather as a verificationthattheregularityis indeed a derivativecausal law.But inhis discussion of the inversedeductive or historicalmethod,Mill greatly relaxes thedemand that the causal laws. social regularity deduced from be Mill argues that underlying merely showing thatempirical social regularitiesare not ruled out by the causal laws is enough to lend someweight to them(Logic, 6.10). 3. Compare thisto Mill's own example inLogic, 3.10.6. 4. SurelyMill's father might have given thesame argumentinhis own defense.There
is an than obtained from the deduction, so that the deduction rather than the observation serves

strained or questionable nothing one "deduces" deductive method, a description of the particular

Mill admired inComte. In principle there is scale historical speculation of the sort that
about the inverse deductive method. Like the direct regularity from the underlying circumstances. What makes Mill call a social causal laws and it the "inverse

Mill's account of political behavior. See, forexample, politics largelyrecapitulateJames JamesBuchanan, The Limits ofLiberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. (Chicago: Uni versityofChicago Press, 1975). Definition of Political Economy and the 5. Compare J. S. Mill, On the Method of In to It" (1836), reprintedinCollected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 4 vestigationProper (Toronto,Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967), pp. 325-26 and Logic, 3.9.3 and 6.9.1, and see Neil De Marchi, "Discussion: Mill's Unrevised Philosophy of Economics: A Comment on Hausman," Philosophy of Science, 53 (1986), 89-100. Mill writes, "To

irony here

in the fact

that recent


of neoclassical








verify the hypothesis case are in accordance cation of science'

itself a posteriori, that is, to examine whether with it, is no part of the business of science the Definition of Political Economy,"

the textofMill's writingswhetherMill regarded thedeductivemethod as a distinctive method of theoryappraisal or whether he regarded it as the implementation standard of methods when theorizing about complex phenomena. I am indebtedto inductive Abraham of Hirsch for my understanding theseproblems.
6. This For


the facts of any actual at all, but of the appli p. 325). It is not clear from

Separate Science ofEconomics (Cambridge:Cambridge UniversityPress, 1992).

7. further discussion (Oxford:

is the interpretation

of economic


I defend

in ch. 8 of The



see Nancy Cartwright,"Do theLaws of Physics State theFacts?" InHow theLaws of

Physics (1981), Lie Clarendon Forster,

of the peculiarities Press, 1983),


in "adding"

component "Causal


tion and theReality of Natural Component Forces," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 62

and Malcolm "The Confirmation of Common Component Causes," In A. tion, 1988), pp. 3-9. 8. See Natures Capacities 1989), esp. ch. 4. 9. But note that demand

pp. 54-73,




Fine and J.Leplin, eds. PSA 1988, vol. 1 (East Lansing: Philosophy of Science Associa
and curves theirMeasurement are decomposed I discuss below, (Oxford: Oxford and University substitution does not Press, effects in fact

into income much

Mill has in involve "adding" of the sort that mind. of 10. Additivity is assumed in the treatment technologicalimprovements, that but part no of the theoryis so unsuccessful that support thedeductive for method can be found in it.

rather than built up from them. As

of economics