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Revealed preference theory — an empty tautology

Summary:
From Lars Syll The experiment reported here was designed to reflect the fact that revealed preference theory is concerned with hypothetical choices rather than actual choices over time. In contrast to earlier experimental studies, the possibility that the different choices are made under different preference patterns can almost be ruled out. We find a considerable number of violations of the revealed preference axioms, which contradicts the neoclassical theory of the consumer maximising utility subject to a given budget constraint. We should therefore pay closer attention to the limits of this theory as a description of how people actually behave, i.e. as a positive theory of consumer behaviour. Recognising these limits, we economists should perhaps be a little more modest in our

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from Lars Syll

Revealed preference theory — an empty tautologyThe experiment reported here was designed to reflect the fact that revealed preference theory is concerned with hypothetical choices rather than actual choices over time. In contrast to earlier experimental studies, the possibility that the different choices are made under different preference patterns can almost be ruled out. We find a considerable number of violations of the revealed preference axioms, which contradicts the neoclassical theory of the consumer maximising utility subject to a given budget constraint. We should therefore pay closer attention to the limits of this theory as a description of how people actually behave, i.e. as a positive theory of consumer behaviour. Recognising these limits, we economists should perhaps be a little more modest in our ‘imperialist ambitions’ of explaining non-market behaviour by economic principles.

Reinhard Sippel 

Sippel’s experiment showed considerable violations of the revealed preference axioms and that from a descriptive point of view — as a theory of consumer behaviour — the revealed preference theory was of a very limited value.

The neoclassical theory of consumer behaviour has been developed in great part as an attempt to justify the idea of a downward-sloping demand curve. What forerunners like e.g. Cournot (1838) and Cassel (1899) did was merely to assert this law of demand. The utility theorists tried to deduce it from axioms and postulates on individuals’ economic behaviour. Revealed preference theory — in the hands of Paul Samuelson and Hendrik Houthakker — tried to build a new theory and to put it in operational terms, but ended up with just giving a theory logically equivalent to the old one. As such it also shares its shortcomings of being empirically nonfalsifiable and of being based on unrestricted universal statements.

The theory is nothing but an empty tautology — and pondering on Reinhard Sippel’s experimental results and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s apt description, a harsh assessment of what the theory accomplishes is inevitable:

Revealed preference theory — an empty tautologyLack of precise definition should not … disturb us in moral sciences, but improper concepts constructed by attributing to man faculties which he actually does not possess, should. And utility is such an improper concept … [P]erhaps, because of this impasse … some economists consider the approach offered by the theory of choice as a great progress … This is simply an illusion, because even though the postulates of the theory of choice do not use the terms ‘utility’ or ‘satisfaction’, their discussion and acceptance require that they should be translated into the other vocabulary … A good illustration of the above point is offered by the ingenious theory of the consumer constructed by Samuelson.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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