The Economists of Good and Evil?

In 2009 a book about economics appeared in the Czech language which soon became an international best seller and challenged many of the assumptions which underpin modern economics as both an academic subject and as a science of official policy. The book was Tomas Sedlacek’s The Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street (Eng. Ed. OUP, 2011). In it, Sedlacek does what every TOK student should do when exploring any discipline, namely explore the assumptions which underpin its theoretical framework. In his book Sedlacek provides a chronological exploration of the historical, philosophical and religious context of different economic systems. In doing so he makes explicit the role of beliefs and values in various historical periods and the impact they had for the economics of the time. Whilst this was a highly individual approach for an economist at the time, it seems that things may be changing and that modern economics may be prepared to accept that economics is not and should not be a value-free human science. Moreover, Sedlacek rightly points out that modern economists are an anomaly with their insistence on seeing the discipline purely in terms of the cold application of mechanistic theories to human economic behaviour. Historically from Aristotle to Amartya Sen, via Adam Smith and E.F. Schumacher, economic discourse has been framed within a particular set of acknowledged moral values.

A few thoughts are worth pointing out. Firstly, all economic theoretical systems are underpinned and determined by moral values, they are not identified or discussed in those terms but they are embedded in their assumptions. Secondly, all economic behaviour, whether individual, corporate or national, has value-laden outcomes, some people benefit whilst some lose out. Thirdly, the concept at the heart of modern economics, utility, however it is defined or categorized (form, time, place, possession), involves terms which denote or include value and not merely quantity. Usefulness, the standard understanding of utility, is a value, it implies the presence of some ‘good’ and this not just in terms of mechanistic exchange of items or services. Lastly, however much economists may wish to perform economic analysis purely in quantitative terms, the former cannot help but be shaped by their value-laden assumptions and interpretations.

By pretending that Economics is entirely divorced from ethics, economists fail to acknowledge the values present in their theorizing but they also, from the point of view of many, fail to honestly admit that whether they want it or not, their discipline arguably is or should be a tool for promoting social justice and equality and not simply be the blind servant of right leaning governments, of financial institutions and of corporations. Jean Tirole, the 2014 Nobel Prize winning economist, admitted as much when he argued that economics is best understood as being, “fundamentally a moral and philosophical science, embedded in the larger social sciences.” Selacek would say ‘amen’ to that.

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