When Economists Go Touchy Feely!

I have been sick, ill and infirm of late, and as such have been unable to rustle up too much stuff here. But I was roused from Tamiflu-induced confusion by this piece, which claims economists are basically concerned with human freedom. Now you know what the Chicago Boys were doing in Chile, and what the inspirational force behind An Bord Snip Nua was.

Edward L. Glaeser: The Moral Heart of Economics – NYTimes.com

As Smith moved from moral sentiments to political economy, his focus changed from the perfection of private nature to the improvement of public systems. Most economic writing since then has typically shied away from offering moral advice to individuals and instead focused on improving public institutions and policies.

But that shift doesn’t mean that there isn’t a deep moral tenet – a belief in the value of human freedom – at the core of our discipline.

Some economists made that belief explicit. In the 18th century, Smith wrote, “Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so.”

What a crock. This ‘belief in the value of human freedom’, when it came to Ireland, was expressed by Smith thus:

[Ireland] is ill provided with [coal and] wood; two articles essentially necessary to the progress of Great Manufactures. It wants order, police, and a regular administration of justice both to protect and restrain the inferior ranks of people, articles more essential to the progress of Industry than both coal and wood put together.

(cited in Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism)

Furthermore, Smith held that although

“the relief and consolation of human misery depend on our compassion for [the poor], the peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.”

Glaeser cites in passing Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s predecessor in the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Those of you with longish memories may recall that he inspired the name for this humble blog. He expressed his belief in the value of human freedom thus:

“If a people have not acquired an habit of industry, the cheapness of all the necessaries of life encourages sloth. The best remedy is to raise the demand for all necessaries…Sloth should be punished by temporary servitude at least”

If Francis Hutcheson were around today, he’d either be working for the IMF or standing as an independent in the upcoming Dáil elections.

1 Response to “When Economists Go Touchy Feely!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

I on Twitter

January 2011

%d bloggers like this: