Friday, 23 January 2015

Economics As If People Mattered

"The great majority of economists," Schumacher laments, "are still pursuing the absurd idea of making their 'science' as scientific and precise as physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God." He reminds us that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me - about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives. Again and again Schumacher insists that economics as it is practiced today - whether it is socialist or capitalistic economics - is a "derived body of thought." It is derived from dubious, "meta-economic" preconceptions regarding man and nature that are never questioned, that dare not be questioned if economic science is to be the science it purports to be rather than (as it should be) a humanistic social wisdom that trusts to experienced intuition, plays by ear, and risks a moral exhortation or two.

What, then, if those preconceptions are obsolete? What if they were never correct? What if there stir, in all those expertly quantified millions of living souls beneath the statistical surface, aspirations for creativity, generosity, brotherly and sisterly cooperation, natural harmony and self-transcendence which conventional economics, by virtue of a banal misanthropy it mistakes for "being realistic", only works to destroy? If that is so (and there is no doubt in my mind that it is), then it is no wonder the policies which stem from that economics must so often be made to work, must be forced down against resistance upon a confused and recalcitrant human material which none dare ever consult except by way of the phoney plebiscite of the marketplace, which always turns out as predicted because it is rigged up by cynics, voted by demoralised masses, and tabulated by opportunists. And what sort of science is it that must, for the sake of its predictive success hope and pray that people will never be their better selves, but always be greedy social idiots with nothing finer to do than getting and spending, getting and spending? It is as Schumacher tells us: "when the available 'spiritual space' is not filled by some higher motivations, then it will necessarily be filled by something lower - by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalised in the economic calculus."

If that is so, then we need a nobler economics that is not afraid to discuss spirit and conscience , moral purpose and the meaning of life, an economics that aims to educate and elevate people, not merely to measure their low-grade behaviour.

(Theodore Roszak in his introduction to E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful)

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