Monday, November 12, 2012

Aristotle and the beginning of the Western tradition

With the election still reverberating in the air, it's a good time to get some longer perspective. I read Aristotle's The Politics (Classics) a few weeks so, but haven't talked about it yet. It is going to take at least a week to go through all the ramifications of this book.

Why read something two thousand years old?

Let me explain first of all how I was led to this. I started off this blog asking what had gone wrong with the economy. The answer, as I've gradually come to think, is we have a set of institutions and practices which are designed for scarcity, the oldest problem of mankind. But the basic things of life are now superabundant, at least in the West. We have more material stuff than we know what to do with. Our problem is not starvation, but obesity.

So we have solved the "economic problem", as Keynes called it. As we become more and more efficient and productive, the amount of labor devoted to the exchange economy - services as well as manufacturing - is plunging, just as agriculural employment did before in the nineteenth century. The economy is sputtering as a result.

Mainstream economists are confident that demand will simply shift to newer goods and services. But the nature of our wants and preferences are changing. Most mainstream economists are oblivious to this, because they take tastes and preferences as exogenous. The discipline ignores changing preferences by definition. It is a profound blind spot.

Many of the other things we want in life are changing, as we ascend what Maslow called the hierarchy of needs. The issue is that the things we increasingly want more of are not easily packaged and sold as excluable, non-rivalrous goods and services. They are not as suited to be as easily sold in the market, or delivered by the welfare state. It is difficult to establish clear property rights. (Ask the music or newspaper industries). Alternatively, as technology advances, the marginal cost of so many new goods and services is so low that (as in Facebook, or Google, or Flickr, or other paragons of the new economy) it is easier to give them away to the consumer.

Most of the value in the economy is now intangible, but we have been slow to catch up with the consequences. Mainstream economists are wrong to assume that new jobs will always be created to replace old ones, even though that has been true for the last two centuries.

I have become frustrated with our general lack of answers for what we do with the economy once many of the things we want are not material or easily tradable - such as connection, enjoyment, security, love and relationships, meaning and purpose. These are the things we turn to once we have enough shelter and food and security.

In other words, we need to take a much deeper look at what makes people flourish; not just what simply ensures survival, because flourishing has to be the objective of the economy from now on. And that means it is sensible to take a step back and look at long-run answers to this question, and older conceptions of human nature.

This is all the more important because most of our political theory has ignored this question for two hundred years, as the idea of ends or the "good life" have been sidelined. Liberal political theory - and I mean here liberal in the broad sense, which covers most of the current political spectrum - has as a matter of conscious intention no sense of what flourishing means or what our ends should be. Instead, it asks how people can minimally coexist together in a largely neutral state. In other words, it focuses almost entirely on the referee rather than asking what game we are playing, and what our goals are.

So, among other things, I was riveted by this book : After Virtue, by Alisdair McIntyre. He argues our ethical theory has become incoherent because we lost the much older tradition in the West, dating back to Aristotle, which is based on the virtues. That tradition places much more emphasis on character and judgement than impartiality, and it seeks the "golden mean" and ways to avoid excess rather than universal rules.

I read Aristolte's Nicomachean Ethics. There has also been a revival of interest in virtue ethics in contemporary philosophical circles. It has even reached some brave mavericks in the economics profession, such as Deirdre McCloskey's magnificent books.

I think many of our most intractable current political disputes arise because we argue over distribution without any reference to the virtues or actual flourishing. The left thinks equal distribution is enough. The right tends to want some standards of behavior or work ethic, but finds it hard to articulate this in liberal or libertarian terms. So it falls back on "the market". Our basic economic and political issue is what "fairness" means.

The Politics

This is why I wanted to read Aristotle's other major book, The Politics. Right at the dawn of the western tradition, he discusses what a society focused on virtue and flourishing and the Good Life ought to look like in practice. Part of the fascination is he is, of course, one of the foundational thinkers of the West, one of the most brilliant thinkers who ever lived. As an educator, he profoundly influenced the next two thousand years of history, including the Islamic world via Avicenna and the medieval Chirstian world via Aquinas. In practical terms, he tutored the most brilliantly successful conqueror in history, Alexander the Great, as well, so he is not simply an ivory-tower theoretical hermot. He taught in post-democratic Athens, but was eventually forced to flee by the mob who were hostile to Macedonian non-citizens like himself.

So we have a pragmatic voice of wisdom from a world which had grappled with many of our issues of freedom, leisure and democracy, but which is absolutely disintersted about our own political divisions. Aristotle lived two millenia before America was even discovered.

We will start off with what he says about household management, oikonomia - the origins of our word for economics.


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