Mainstream (neoclassical) economics has always put a strong emphasis on the positivist conception of the discipline, characterizing economists and their views as objective, unbiased, and non-ideological … Acknowledging that ideology resides quite comfortably in our economics departments would have huge intellectual implications, both theoretical and practical. In spite (or because?) of that, the matter has […]
A nice little post at the link below from Lars P. Syll quoting John Maynard Keynes on what he calls ‘organic unity’. Another way of putting it is that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. This is the basis for the discipline of macroeconomics as distinct from microeconomics. Modern mainstream macroeconomics insists on ‘microfoundations’ and neglects the concept of organic wholes, which runs against the spirit of Keynes and his wish to establish a distinct macroeconomics.
Organic wholes can be seen as emergent from, but irreducible to their constituent and interacting parts. Thus while one can still pay attention to microfoundations (the parts), the behaviour of a larger whole can be very different from that deduced from simply adding the behaviour of the parts together.
In economics, the parts might be individuals, firms or households, while the larger wholes might be an economy at the national or global level. Of course, one could think of these concepts in ways which reach beyond the discipline of economics, which conflate wholes and parts and provide useful insights: an individual can be thought of as a ‘whole’ rather than a ‘part’, with the parts defined biologically, such as organs, cells etc, with the whole human being and its functioning as emergent from but irreducible to its constituent parts.
Returning to economics, a national economy can be analysed as a part of the global economy, leading to the possibility of certain macroeconomic paradoxes. So an economy can be seen as both a whole and a part, depending on how we look at it.
The unpopularity of the principle of organic unities shows very clearly how great is the danger of the assumption of unproved additive formulas. The fallacy, of which ignorance of organic unity is a particular instance, may perhaps be mathematically represented thus: suppose f(x) is the goodness of x and f(y) is the goodness of y. […]
When rich speculators prosper
while farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn –
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.
Taken from: Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 53 (Translated by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988)
“An important strand of Western political thought has been concerned with the distinction between two types of freedom. It distinguishes between ‘negative’ freedom, or freedom from constraints imposed by others upon the individual, from ‘positive’ freedom, or freedom to achieve self-fulfilment and realize one’s human potential. In order to fulfil one’s human potential it is necessary to have access to the physical and cultural pre-requisites for the realization of one’s capabilities. Access to education is the most important of all the pre-requisites for self-fulfilment and access to healthcare follows closely behind in terms of importance for human self-fulfilment. Access to food, shelter, personal security, clothing, heating, lighting, safe water, sewage services, means of inter-personal communication and transport are all necessary for self-fulfilment. A just society is one that ensures through one means or another that all citizens have equal access to the means for self-fulfilment. The pre-requisites necessary for a fulfilled ‘good life’ are a fundamental human right within any given society. If one considers the whole global society as a single community with a collective interest in the common good of the whole global population, then an equal access to the fundamental pre-requisites for human self-fulfilment is a foundational human right for the whole global community. If the notion of a political society as one that seeks the common good for ‘all under heaven’ is taken seriously, then equal access for all citizens to the means for self-fulfilment is a necessary ethical foundation for that society, whether it is the sub-division of a country, a country or the world considered as a whole.”
Peter Nolan (2019), China and the West, Routledge, p.180
Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.
Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.
Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading
A break from the economics (sort of), with a quote from the late social philosopher and eclectic thinker, Robert Anton Wilson, from one of his most popular books (and one of my favourite), Prometheus Rising, which tries to make sense of the workings of the human mind and its role in human development in its broadest sense. Here he is on page 113:
“All wealth is created by human beings using their neurons intelligently.
A neurotic young man once went to a Zen Master and asked how he could find peace of mind.
“How can you lack anything,” the Roshi asked, “when you own the greatest treasure in the universe?”
“How do I own the greatest treasure in the universe?” asked the young man, baffled.
“The place that question comes from is the greatest treasure in the universe,” said the Master, being more explicit than is common for a Zen teacher.
Of course, as a Buddhist, the Master had taken a vow of poverty and did not mean exactly what we mean here. But he knew that the brain produces all that we experience – all our pain and worry, all our bliss states and ecstasies, all our higher evolutionary vistas and trans-time Peak Experiences, etc. It is also “the greatest treasure in the universe” in the most materialistic economic sense: it creates all the ideas which, socially employed, become wealth: roads, scientific laws, calendars, factories, computers, life-saving drugs, medicines, ox-carts, autos, jet planes, spaceships…”
I do have time for Marx and Marxist thought, its interdisciplinarity, its breadth and depth of vision and its desire to uncover the workings of capitalism. However it remains flawed, and the historical record of state socialism, where attempts have been made to put it into practice, have resulted in a great deal of oppression and suffering.
That is not to say that all is well with capitalism, and we certainly should not avoid addressing arguments for both its radical reform, and the prospect of its evolution into something else.
Here is institutionalist economist Geoffrey Hodgson, who blogs here, from his recent, excellent, book Wrong Turnings – How the Left Got Lost (p.100):
“The dominant Marxist historical picture of rising and falling social classes meant that socialists did not have to think about how their proposed future would work. This was part of its appeal. It pointed to the growth of the proletariat and proclaimed it as the agent of socialist revolution. The tricky problem of explaining in messy detail how socialism could work in complex, large-scale societies could be postponed and addressed later when the working class has ’emancipated itself’. It was part of its historic destiny, and who could argue with destiny?
This left a gaping hole in the Marxist argument. Theoretical debates over the feasibility of socialism have shown convincingly that such as system – where most private property and trade are abolished – would face huge problems and it would slide towards totalitarianism. Twentieth-century experiences have amply confirmed these arguments.
With its wholesale abolition of non-state property and markets, Marxism blocked the road towards an alternative collectivist system involving worker cooperatives trading on markets. Marxism not only failed; it also ruled out more viable alternatives to capitalism.”