Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rot in the foundations

So what should we take from the Skidelskys' book? As I said in the last post, I think the basic takeaway is familiar: there is rot in the foundations of our system of economic thought, and hence economy. Utility and neutrality about ends solved many problems for economics and society in the nineteenth century. They helped build liberal democracies in the twentieth century.

But now we need to adapt. They say we need to measure things in relation to basic goods, not simply growth or utility. For me, it's no longer a matter of the quantity of utility, but the kind of utlility or needs. (John Stuart Mill managed to confuse the utilitarian system at an early date in this respect as well with his notion of the quality of wants. That was, however, forgotten).

The starting point for the Skidelskys is in so many ways similar to my own. They cite Keynes' Essay on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, with its prediction of "solving the economic problem". They note the overthrow of virtue ethics and its replacement with modern economic notions of utility. They emphasize that economics pays no attention to the nature of wants.

Classical liberalism and its modern variants has gone as far as it can go. Utility doesn't work any more. Rights don't work any more. Neutrality doesn't work any more.

But I think their seven basic needs and social democratic approach is not the right way forward.The Skidelsys keep to a broader kind of liberalism, a kind of autonomy-plus.

I think the notion of practices, particular forms of life with their own purposes, as Alisdair McIntyre discusses, is more productive. The Skidelskys don't pay much attention to institutions or incentives or the daily life of the economy. There is little attention to the labor market, or technology, or the deeper changes which abundance may present. I think Deirdre McCloskey covers some of the issues in more depth, as well.

That said, I think I will have to come back to the book at regular intervals and reread it, however, just to test and turn over the ideas again. It took me unusually long to write these posts in the book because there is so much in it. I'm already wondering if I have fairly grasped all their arguments.


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