Sunday, June 24, 2012

What is the economy for?

We've been talking about Jane Jacob's book The Nature of Economies. Here's one final quote, which I think is one of the finest and most beautifully written definitions of what an economy is for that I've read.

..it seems to me that economies have a lot in common with language - a lot besides unpredictably making themselves up. What is language for? The glib answer is communication, which you could say of the yips of coyotes and pheromones of termites. Not an answer that does justice to the functions of language. How about this? Language is also for learning and to pass along learning, in the process permitting us to develop cultures and multitudes of purposes.

Just so, economies are to fill material needs, which you could say also of the foraging of deer and the scavenging of buzzards. Not an answer that does justice to the functions of economies. Like language, economic life permits us to develop cultures and multitudes of purposes, and in my opinion, that's its function which is most meaningful for us. p147

I of course agree. The point of an economy is to enable our purposes. That is, if we think about what our purposes are. Evolution won't supply them. Evolution is amoral and just works through a particular environment.

Our current liberal emphasis on means rather than ends won't supply purpose. It leaves purpose as the residual in the system, but it leaves the economy directionless, and without any tendency to deliver the things we want if we can't express them in the price system. It leaves the culture to drift.

So I think it is a gem of a little book, which reflects deep thought and insight - more than first appears from its simplicity and dialogue format. It is a humane and wise thinking through of the economy as an ecology.

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