Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Place of Economics

An interesting (and one would hope thought-provoking) essay on the Dismal Science--not to mention education as a whole, from a Georgetown prof who disagrees with the Modern Project.


...Modern economics is taught as a "science," namely the science of acquisition, growth, efficiency and money-making. It is the most mathematically-based of the modern social sciences, the one that can claim the greatest rigor (and hence is the envy of the other social sciences, who crave to base themselves on economic approaches), and seems to have the greatest relevance to the "real world." Like the natural sciences, it claims to be an amoral science, solely concerned with generating valid conclusions (the "is") without any legitimate concern for the moral consequences or implications (the "ought").

...Very little integration between and among the disciplines takes place at modern Catholic universities, which model themselves more upon the basis of Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" than Newman's "Idea of the University." That is, the modern university is conceived as a discrete set of undertakings and research agendas that have no obvious connection to one another, but which together all contribute to the "creation" of new knowledge and the growing prosperity of society without any intention or effort to draw connections between the various disciplines. The faculty and administration increasingly deny that there can be any overarching end or good of education, that an integrated human being ought to be the purpose of our instruction, that requirements in philosophy, theology, and other humanities ought to inform all of the various disciplines

The prof mentions an interlocutor-student who admires Modernity and its consequences.

...The student rightly notes that I am influenced and guided by the arguments of Aristotle, who in turn guided the theology of Aquinas. With ample progressive spirit - undoubtedly informed by his economics training - this student rather glibly dismisses out of hand that an Aristotelian and Thomistic worldview has any relevance for a modern age. If it's old, it must be dated and superseded. This well-worn argument typically asserts that, since Aristotle's scientific theories have been shown to be false, then the whole of his philosophy must also fall. Putting aside for the moment the former claim - that Aristotle's natural science has tout court been proven false, which is itself a problematic claim - the attendant claim that Aristotelian teleology, along with its concomitant insistence upon the primacy of politics (that is, political philosophy) as the "architectonic" science by which all other sciences are ordered in a society, cannot be so readily dismissed. If there is a good for humans - if we flourish under certain conditions and not others - then it is the proper place of a political science to seek a political ordering that best ensures that flourishing.

Here's the payoff line:

This is, by definition, a moral undertaking: if there is a good to which human life aims, then necessarily there are non-good or even vicious forms of life. By extension, such an understanding of a good human life would implicate all the other human sciences - including, centrally so - economics. As Aristotle writes in Book I, Chapter 8 of the Politics, an economics that aims solely at acquisition without limit for the sake of acquisition alone would constitute "living, but not living well."

...and finally names the demon:

...This student advises me to stick to political theory and leave economics to the economists. But herein lies the very problem we face: economists largely are incapable of thinking in these essential terms - they are some of our prime culprits in teaching that morality ought not to be mixed with the economic. Indeed, for all the accusations against the self-certainty of religious believers, it is our economists who constitute the true "faith-based" community of our age. Economics Departments are comprised of a cadre of "true believers," an order who faithfully defend the Free Market and worship at the altar of Efficiency and Profit. There is virtually no discussion or debate about the terms upon which economics is based; indeed, in contrast to nearly every other discipline in the humanities and social sciences, our economists brook no deviation from the orthodoxy of Mainline Libertarianism

That prof took the long way around to advise why Libertarians have such a hard time gaining political traction. In essence, Libertarians who are consistent don't give a rat's ass about "living well" in the Aristotelian sense.

But they do like their Bimmers.

HT: Dreher


Anonymous said...

Thanks Daddio, that was some good stuff. Especially the link to the NYT's article. I didn't know there was a name for the brand of economic thought I subscribe to. Todays new word is "heterodoxy".

The best line of the article was at the end:

"voicing any skepticism or doubt provides “ammunition to the barbarians,” he said, and allows narrow-minded people to “hijack any argument to suit their purpose.”

Mr. Rodrik said he used to worry about this until he realized that “on any issue, there are barbarians on both sides,” so there was no point in shading an argument to “suit one set of barbarians over the other.”

Dad29 said...

For more contrarian economic thought on "free trade" (particularly w/PRChina) read the econ letter from the chief economist at HarrisBank/Chicago.

The "free market" econowonks would have the USA repeal the FLSA and all OSHA regs, too.

We can agree, I think, that more regulation is not necessarily good--and that some regs could be dropped with no problems.

But we will also agree that the "Club for Growth" mentality is antithetical to the US' national interests.

Dad29 said...

...and if you really want to have fun, just search on "Club for growth" on my blog.

They are truly moronic folks...