How Economics Lost Sight of Its Goal

Back in Ancient Greece, when Xenophon first came up with the term economics, he described the practice of household management as an art. Following his lead, Aristotle distinguished economics from chrematistics, the art of acquiring wealth—in a distinction that seems to have been all but lost today. The idea of economics, and even chrematistics, as an art may have suited Xenophon, Aristotle and their time, but two thousand years later, when Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion, the allure of scientific status became far greater. Perhaps this is why, in 1767—just 40 years after Newton’s death—when the Scottish lawyer James Steuart first proposed the concept of ‘political economy’, he defined it no longer as an art but as ‘the science of domestic policy in free nations’. But naming it as a science still didn’t stop him from spelling out its purpose (Raworth 2017, 28-29, Kindle Edition):

The principal object of this science is to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious; to provide every thing necessary for supplying the wants of the society, and to employ the inhabitants (supposing them to be free-men) in such a manner as naturally to create reciprocal relations and dependencies between them, so as to make their several interests lead them to supply one another with their reciprocal wants (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

A secure living and jobs for all in a mutually thriving community: not bad for a first stab at defining the goal (despite the tacit disregard of women and slaves that came with the times). A decade later, Adam Smith had a go at his own definition but followed Steuart’s lead in considering political economy to be a goal-oriented science. It had, he wrote, ‘two distinct objects: to supply a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services’. This definition not only defies Smith’s ill-deserved modern reputation as a free-marketeer but also keeps its eyes firmly on the prize by articulating a goal for economic thought. But it was an approach that would not last (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

Seventy years after Smith, John Stuart Mill’s definition of political economy started the shift in focus by recasting it as ‘a science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth’. With this, Mill began a trend that others would further: turning attention away from naming the economy’s goals and towards discovering its apparent laws. Mill’s definition came to be used widely but by no means exclusively. In fact for nearly a century, the emerging science of economics was defined rather imprecisely, leading the early Chicago School economist Jacob Viner, in the 1930s, to quip simply that ‘Economics is what economists do.’ (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition)

Not everyone found that a satisfactory answer. In 1932, Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics stepped in with intent to clarify the matter, clearly irritated that ‘We all talk about the same things, but we have not yet agreed what it is we are talking about.’ He claimed to have a definitive answer. ‘Economics,’ he declared, ‘is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’ Despite its contortions, that definition seemed to close the debate, and it stuck: many mainstream textbooks still start with something very similar today. But although it frames economics as a science of human behaviour, it spends little time enquiring into those ends, let alone into the nature of the scarce means involved. In Gregory Mankiw’s widely used contemporary textbook, Principles of Economics, the definition has become even more concise. ‘Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources,’ it declares—erasing the question of ends or goals from the page altogether (Raworth 2017, 29-30, Kindle Edition).

It is more than a little ironic that twentieth-century economics decided to define itself as a science of human behaviour and then adopted a theory of behaviour—summed up in rational economic man—which, for decades, eclipsed any real study of humans, as we will see in Chapter 3. But, more crucially, during that process, the discussion of the economy’s goals simply disappeared from view. Some influential economists, led by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, claimed this was an important step forwards, a demonstration that economics had become a value-free zone, shaking off any normative claims of what ought to be and emerging at last as a ‘positive’ science focused on describing simply what is. But this created a vacuum of goals and values, leaving an unguarded nest at the heart of the economic project. And, as every cuckoo knows, such a nest must be filled (Raworth 2017, 30, Kindle Edition).

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