Economics grew out of philosophy. Early economists were usually men of financial substance with a philosophical and scientific education. Many could write in Latin as easily as English or whatever their native language. But morality always played a large role in their thinking.
Not so much today. Economics has produced the concepts of marginal utility, various classroom equivalences, efficiencies, comparative advantage. The new commandments. A so-called science now, our economics. Darwinian in the sense that economics will describe human activity as Darwin did: Economics describes human activity as Darwin does nature’s process of weeding out the weak to promote the strong.
The problem with all this is that we become forgetful of our own weaknesses. We ignore our remaining ignorance. And without moral guidance as substitute for what we do not yet know or understand, we often produce misery, unfairness and a callousness that mocks our humanity.
Consider what we face as we pursue science. From the book ‘Happy Accidents, Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs’ by Morton A. Meyers, M.D.
“There are more than ten thousand billion cells in the human body. In most tissues, cells are continually dying and being replaced, and control of the equilibrium is critical in maintaining the normal architecture. The complex biological blueprints for the behaviour of cells are controlled by their genes. Humans have 20,000 to 25,000 distinct individual genes, and genetic information is carried in DNA molecules. The human genome is estimated to include 3.08 billion units of DNA. The complexity of what the cell’s machinery can generate is indicated by the fact that a few thousand genes can make trillions of combinations of proteins. Cells multiply ten million billion times during the course of each human lifetime. Mutations, random changes in the design of a gene’s DNA structure, occur constantly, because there is an intrinsic error rate when DNA is copied. In extreme errors, the cell will self-destruct; otherwise, the aberrant cell survives.”
Faced with this complexity, this amount of unknown, a moral compass is absolutely necessary. Norbert Wiener, in his book “Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas,” put it this way. The approach is not “How can I solve this problem?” but “Now that I have come to a result, what problem have I solved?”
If economics describes a price drop, that is a result. But not so easy to answer is the question ’what problem have I solved?’ And the assumed corollary question, ‘what problem might I have created?’ The ‘benefit’ of a drop in price might be obvious. But what if this ‘benefit’ generates another result: Unemployment?
How do you insert morality here? Unemployment vs a more affordable product. Economics, in its current form, assumes those unemployed will eventually find employment elsewhere through various methods. And morality charges us with helping them in that transition.
But what if the unemployment is massive? Unwieldy. What if our moral sense requires us to spend billions of dollars over several years helping those who have become unemployed? Was the original result of a lower price sufficient to shoulder the huge costs of dealing with the unemployment created? And with so many people unemployed is it true that ‘more’ people could afford the cheaper product(s)?
And so on. These considerations, both in economics and in science, will be with us as long as we’re here. And as life is as complicated as Meyers describes above then what basic moral guides do we embed in all these endeavors?
One must be that we do not produce misery for people uninvolved in our research or experimentation. Examples of the misery we can produce without this moral guide are too numerous to mention. Thalidomide and Love Canal come easily to mind. Thalidomide was widely sold without proper vetting. Love Canal is the result of blithly ignoring what misery can be caused by polluting our natural environment.
Widespread unemployment is a misery we regularly create by too easily claiming ‘results’ as benefits. Offshoring manufacturing to regions where products can be made cheaper, often simply because of cheaper labor, create the misery of domestic unemployment. Financial ‘innovation’ that gives ‘results’ of more home ownership may create too much debt and encourage too much leverage which produces the additional ‘result’ of economic collapse.
The industrialization of agriculture, which produces the ‘result’ of less expensive food, can also produce a destruction of food diversity and the production of toxic food and huge swaths of ‘dead zones’ in our seas caused by the use of artificial fertilizers. Our weakened moral compass can too easily be overwhelmed by our new-found economic ‘commandments.’
With our new economics, unbound by moral sentiments, we’ve seen a steady decline in the living standards of the majority of working men and women in the United States. Called an ‘income shift,’ a larger and larger proportion of the nation’s income has steadily landed in the laps of fewer and fewer people atop the income scale.
It’s not as though this steady shift wasn’t noticed. It’s been remarked upon for decades, and it’s been pointed out such an income shift occurred in the mid to late 1920s, just prior to the Great Depression. But there was no moral sentiment available to re-direct income down, not up, the income ladder. The understandings learned from the Great Depression were eventually forgotten under the onslaught of economic ‘science’ that preached various efficiencies and then conflated those results as unalloyed ‘benefits.’
In a very complicated world that we very imperfectly comprehend, strong moral sentiments, a strong moral compass, is necessary to avoid producing huge amounts of misery on the innocent. Unfortunately, we may no longer have the modern equivalent of those original economists. They were as much philosophers as scientists and their ideas contained embedded, well understood moral arguments.
We need them back.