Meterror Impacts Once Again
A Reason Not to Buy Cooking Spray

Ask the Gemeinschaft: E. Roy Weintraub and Stephen Marglin Edition

Tyler Cowen sends us to Weintraub:

ECONOMICS: First, Kill the Economists: It is not often that a scholar with no particular historical or philosophical expertise trashes the Western.... Stephen A. Marglin's argument in The Dismal Science is that economics--with its focus on an individual's preferences, the freedom to engage in activities to promote his or her well-being, and the pursuit of self-interest variously construed--perverts a natural moral order:

the foundational assumptions of economics are in my view simply the tacit assumptions of modernity. The centerpiece in both is the rational, calculating, self-interested individual with unlimited wants for whom society is the nation-state.

And what modernity shunned was "community."

His main line is that "The market undermines community because it replaces personal ties of economic necessity by impersonal market transactions.... Economics is not only descriptive; it is not only evaluative; it is at the same time constructive--economists seek to fashion a world in the image of economic theory." Economics and thinking like an economist are bad for the health of the world....

The argument about the proper way to do economics is an old one. An 1832 complaint in The Eclectic Review charged the work of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo with leading the public far from "the true path of inquiry" and making political economy "a hideous chain of paradoxes at apparent war with religion and humanity."... The professionalization of economics was a late 19th century phenomenon. Cambridge's Alfred Marshall, in attempting to construct a scientific economics, was not able to establish economics as a separate discipline until the death of Henry Sidgwick, the university's professor of moral philosophy, under whose direction lectures in political economy had been organized....

The kind of economics from which Marglin recoils is, however, not of the sort that was present in writings of individuals (e.g., Smith, Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Marshall, and John Commons) who have been claimed as ancestors by modern economists. It is instead what developed in the post-World War II stabilization of economic discourse and the final professionalization of the discipline. It was during that postwar period, not in the Enlightenment, that economic science became normal in Thomas Kuhn's sense.

Marglin... believe[s] that the ideas he engages and then casts aside (ideas about the economic agent, preferences, equilibrium, models, and markets) all grew up not in the 20th century but hundreds of years earlier--and that those ideas have had stable meanings ever since:

For four hundred years, economists have been active in the enterprise of constructing the modern economy and society, both by legitimizing the market and by promoting the values, attitudes, and behaviors that make for economic success. No apology is due for this--except for the pretense of scientific detachment and neutrality and the unwillingness to confront the ideological beam in our collective eye.

The ahistoricity of such a statement is startling; for instance, it assumes wrongly that there were individuals called economists 400 years ago and that science in 1600 meant the same thing as it does in 2008.

In his critique, Marglin moves back and forth between moralizing about the loss of community and contempt for the economists' tools and models. He claims:

By promoting market relationships, economics undermines reciprocity, altruism, and mutual obligation, and therewith the necessity of community. The very foundations of economics, by justifying the expansion of markets, lead inexorably to the weakening of community...

From the first times economic arguments were parsed and markets described, there were those who found both contemptible, and this was well before the Enlightenment. Attacks on money lending at interest go back even earlier than Jesus on the temple steps.... William Coleman showed how over the centuries the very idea of economics has been loathed by left, right, and center; Christian, Jew, and anti-Semite; pope and communist dictator; lawyer and business mogul; and scientist and humanist.

In this same tradition of anti-economics, Marglin sees the future of the field as bleak, with the current generation of economics students avoiding large questions in their search for career advancement. And the problems that economics creates will only get worse, he claims, because globalization will make the national community as obsolete as the market has made the local community.

I note in closing that the lead dust-jacket blurb for this volume was provided by the noted economist and social theorist Bianca Jagger (sic). Whatever was Harvard University Press thinking?

I have always found it remarkable that Marglin cannot but assume that "personal ties of economic necessity" are a good thing. Whenever I hear somebody say that they wish I were bound to them by "personal ties of economic necessity," I think that what they really mean is:

I want a world where you don't get to eat unless I approve of what you are doing, so you will be very careful to do only things I approve of.

I don't like that world, much.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Marglin's rants against associative gesellschaft society in general and economics in particular as destructive of normal, natural, good, right, just, human, blood-and-soil, gemeinschaft community is that Stephen Marglin has spent his life not in a gesellschaft but in a gemeinschaft: for forty years he has been a tenured professor in Harvard's economics department. Few positions in the world today offer a life more embedded in a structured traditional community than his.

The gemeinschaft that is the professional community of Ivy League economists in which Marglin has been embedded for the past forty years has not treated him with "reciprocity, altruism, and mutual obligation" but has--rather--in a very gemeinschaftlich way done what gemeinschaften traditionally do to corral their deviant members and to discourage others from imitating them. It has not been pretty.

But it seems to have had no effect on Marglin's thinking, none at all, for reasons I do not understand.