jueves, 16 de julio de 2015

Some theories could even be said to constitute secular religions in their own right, implying “theologies” of evil and of the human condition, of redemption, and ultimately of a final paradise, which we achieve through economic growth.

The Secular Religions of Progress

by Robert H. Nelson

Economics has never been, nor could it ever be, free of value judgments. The economy is not isolated from the rest of society, cordoned off from the lively world of competing beliefs. Rather, questions of the organization of the economy, and of the economic policies to be pursued, are interwoven with other social concerns and public policy in general. Economists often lose sight of the altogether interconnected nature of the economic and the non-economic. The illusion of neutrality is reinforced by the radical simplification that often characterizes economic methods; in striving to make economic problems tractable for mathematical representation, inherent ethical considerations are obscured.

Some of the greatest economists of earlier eras, like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, regarded themselves as moral philosophers, as analysts of the moral foundations of society. Few contemporary economists see themselves in such a light. If they do take moral considerations into account, it is typically as parameters for subsequent economic analysis.

As a result, the powerful normative elements of economics tend to be driven underground. Economists today become implicit moral philosophers, a point the University of Illinois economist Deirdre McCloskey often emphasizes. Most economists, for example, regard economic growth as a main goal of the economic system, and seek to assess the desirability of public policies by the extent to which they are efficient or inefficient toward that end. Whether growth should itself be a paramount objective, and whether efficiency should therefore play such a critical role in distinguishing between good and bad policy, typically receives little sustained attention among mainstream economists, with few exceptions (such as Herman Daly in his 1996 book Beyond Growth).

Economic growth is actually a relatively recent term for a phenomenon that was once called “progress.” The creation of the American economics profession began with the founding of the American Economic Association in 1885 and was a product of the Progressive Era. Progressives believed that scientific experts, including professional economists, should engineer society toward a better future. But moral and economic crises in the 1930s and 1940s called into question the Progressives’ basic methods and aspirations, giving reason to leave behind the morally freighted language of “progress.” By the second half of the twentieth century, historians increasingly characterized the thought of the Progressive Era in such terms as “the gospel of efficiency.” A new greater emphasis on technical economic efficiency, along with the closely related concept of growth, recast progress in more scientific and mathematical, and less emotionally and ideologically weighted, language. But the terminological substitution of “growth” for “progress” makes little difference. The case for economic growth is largely indistinguishable from the case for economic progress; both are ultimately deeply normative.

But why is progress, or growth, desirable? Progress means improvement, and so its desirability is in a sense tautological, but economic growth is thought of specifically as the increase in material outputs — the maximization of the production and consumption of goods and services. To understand why this goal is considered desirable today, we must look back over the major economic theories of modernity. Although the survey that follows will sometimes paint in very broad strokes, it will show just how strongly these economic theories draw on moral philosophy and especially on religious thought. Some theories could even be said to constitute secular religions in their own right, implying “theologies” of evil and of the human condition, of redemption, and ultimately of a final paradise, which we achieve through economic growth.

- The Economist as a Moral Philosopher

Adam Smith was a pivotal figure in the transition from traditional Christianity to secular religion. In Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), there is, as University of Chicago economist Jacob Vinerkeenly observed, “an unqualified doctrine of a harmonious order of nature, under divine guidance, which promotes the welfare of man through the operation of his individual propensities.” In Smith’s later work The Wealth of Nations (1776), he was less forthcoming about the divine ordering of nature, but the underlying moral philosophy was fundamentally similar.

The term “natural” recurs throughout The Wealth of Nations as a normative basis for judgments on economic processes and outcomes. “Natural” means the natural order of the world, as established by God, which we fallen human beings can only imperfectly understand but to which we should strive to conform as best we can. Smith could express his conception of economic processes as a divine natural harmony largely in secular terms, drawing on the Newtonian understanding of the universe as a complex mechanism put in motion by God. Much as gravity was the force that maintained order for Newton in the physical universe, self-interest holds up both moral and economic order for Smith.

The Wealth of Nations was thus a new development in secular religion, ultimately grounded in the natural law theology that had long been prominent especially in the Catholic tradition. In Smith, it was combined with a Calvinist sense of the human condition as deeply corrupted. But even though most human beings were frail and foolish, pursuing their own interests without regard to the needs of the wider community, God had benevolently arranged for society to thrive and advance toward its greater welfare.

Smith was writing for a world in which Christian values suffused every area of society. As secularism increased in the centuries that followed, the advancement of these values would come to depend on separating them from traditional religion and its historic institutions, while instead embedding them — even if thereby distorting them — in various forms of secular religion. By mostly omitting explicit references to a Christian God, The Wealth of Nations, with its newly secularized account of a divine balance of natural forces in society, was in an ideal position to become a major influence on future economists.

Among twentieth-century economists, the University of Chicago’s Frank Knight was the closest to Smith as a moral philosopher. Knight was a key figure in founding the “Chicago school of economics,” which typically advocated the organization of society along free-market lines. After Knight, however, few Chicago economists wrote about the market in explicitly moral and religious terms, although the moral and religious elements maintained a powerful implicit presence.

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