Do markets foster cooperation and individual autonomy, or are they at best amoral, and at worst immoral? Does economic theory justify selfishness? Does the state have an obligation to promote the general welfare and to correct market failures, or are such efforts counterproductive? And how do economists address these questions? Do they speak with a distinctive voice in comparison to other scholars in the social sciences or the humanities?
Although there is an obvious risk here of overgeneralizing and of ignoring important nuances, examining these questions matters because a) economists are still considered to be the most reliable experts on what makes market work “efficiently,” and b) no viable and compelling alternative to a market economy has been fully worked out yet, in spite of a torrent of critiques of “neoliberalism.” But does this mean that the status quo, with which more and more people are increasingly dissatisfied, must be maintained? If not, what can be done, in both practical terms and in terms of generating innovative ideas that would be inspiring and yet pragmatic? And how do economists, on their own, or increasingly by engaging with a broader community of scholars and practitioners, contribute to this debate?
I provide an account of these debates in my two recently published books (Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought and Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists' Dilemma). This account incidentally is, I hope, fair and balanced insofar as the (philosophically) pragmatic perspective to which I adhere implies that I am skeptical of overtly dogmatic positions. But, as I explain below, I do eventually come off the proverbial fence.
If one takes a very long view of the history of economic theory—as I do in Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought—the prominence of these fundamental normative questions has waxed and waned in economic theory. In more recent years, after a period of triumphalism for the neoclassical critics of “government failures,” which has come to as a result of the “Great Recession” and the pandemic, there are signs that a promising intellectual renewal is under way at the crossroads of economics, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.
The contours of this emerging paradigm are still fuzzy, but the “big idea” here is the displacement of the figure of the utility-maximizing homo economicus by a less self-regarding homo reciprocans (Bowles and Gintis 2002), motivated by a search for fair reciprocity. Altruism has not replaced selfishness in these new socio-economic approaches. But self-interest is being redefined as an “enlightened” form of self-interest in which the “self” is constituted by a plurality of mutually dependent interests. Conversely, the rationality of the maximization calculus gives way to a more open-ended reasoning which factors in changing circumstances and adjusting preferences. Fair reciprocity is the key to unraveling complex socio-economic dilemmas. The perceived lack of concern for this deeply seated expectation of fairness is arguably one of the main causes of the current rise of reactionary populism. But this concept can also inform a rethinking of political economy.
In a sense, this is a rediscovery of the concept of “sympathy” which was central to Adam Smith’s works and most classical political economists, including other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as some early French ans Italian pioneers of the discipline (such as Condillac and Genovesi, respectively). This is a profound insight that draws attention to the considerable extent to which most people care about others but also what others think of them—and this includes the political economists themselves whose theories who were not indifferent toward the human subjects of their analyses. Their advocacy of free markets was unmistakable, but it was tempered by this awareness and was conducive to a reformist/perfectionist approach. John Stuart Mill exemplified the latter; classical political economy, however, was displaced by modern scientific economics at the turn of the last century. Although many neoclassical economists were individually concerned with social problems, as Alfred Marshall certainly was, their methodological commitment to economic “efficiency”—that is, reaching an optimal equilibrium—meant that if there was a tension between “efficiency” and “equity,” they tended to err on the side of efficiency. Economic agents became lifeless automata following the instructions of a maximizing algorithm.
John Maynard Keynes challenged this perspective, but his moral intuitions were diluted in the mathematical models formulated by the architects of post-war Keynesianism. In any event, Keynesianism reached a dead-end in the 1970s. For several decades thereafter until the Great Recession of 2008-2010, neoclassical models reigned largely unopposed within mainstream economics. Of course, critical counteroffensives, mostly from outside of the discipline of economics, were launched by proponents of “social justice.” But their efforts have had relatively little impact on public policy, with the possible exception of environmental regulations. The neoclassical orthodoxy suffered a serious blow as a result of the Great Recession (followed in turn by the COVID-19 pandemic), when a new methodological pluralism came into effect. But within this (relatively) pluralistic context, behavioural/experimental models occupy a central place. They bring to light the complex ways in which people make decisions about their own welfare, sometimes creatively (often being guided by notion of fair reciprocity), and sometimes in naively “irrational” ways.
This paradigmatic shift at the empirical level opens up intriguing normative perspectives. If there is no good reason for limiting one’s horizon to self-interested motivations and narrowly “rational” calculations as the only “realistic” hypothesis for modeling socio-economic problems, it follows that there is no good reason for reformers not taking advantage of this quasi-natural disposition to act cooperatively. The policy instruments I emphasize in Growth and Economic Inequality follow from a shift from traditional redistributive programs to asset-based interventions (or predistribution). Injustices are not caused merely by the unfair distribution of incomes, but more fundamentally by an unfair allocation of capital resources (i.e., wealth). Predistribution would enable individuals and households to acquire capital and/or offer them opportunities to have some say about how capital is used by those who own most of it. Some examples include: a “stake-holder” grant (a lump-sum provided to young adults to invest as they wish) or a basic income guarantee; facilitating access to home ownership; and a generalization of the German codetermination system which empowers employees of large corporation by giving them seats on the boards of these corporations. The overall outcome would be what some Italian economists (such as Luigino Bruni) call a “civil economy.”
Wrapping up this post, I would like to draw a parallel between my intellectual journey and that of theorists such as Vernon Smith (Smith and Wilson 2019) and Deidre McCloskey (2021), who see recent developments as an invitation to revisit Smithian sympathy in an effort to “humanize” economics while remaining faithful to the core tenets of classical liberalism. But in my case, I’ve gone one step further by (tentatively) siding with the Italian civil economy tradition (Bruni 2006; Bruni and Zamagni 2016; Calvo 2018) which insists, albeit perhaps a little too naively (Martino and Müller 2018), on responsibilizing decision-makers and on mobilizing civil society in the development and implementation of predistributive initiatives.
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LAURENT DOBUZINSKIS teaches political Science at Simon Fraser University (Canada). His research interests include the history of political and economic ideas, the philosophy of social science (e.g., complexity theory), and public policy. Although leaning toward classical liberalism, his works reflect a preference for “nonideal theory” as a framework for achieving a pragmatic synthesis of complementary perspectives on civil society, markets, and political institutions. He is the author of The Self-Organizing Polity: An Epistemological Analysis of Political Life (1987), Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought (2022), and Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists’ Dilemma (2023), as well as of articles and book chapters on an eclectic range of issues concerning practical and theoretical developments in political economy, from the role of think tanks to a basic income guarantee to the uses of game theory.
Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2002. “Homo Reciprocans.” Nature 155 (January): 125-128.
Bruni, Luigino. 2006. Civil Happiness: Economics and Human Flourishing in Historical Perspective. London: Routledge.
Bruni, Luigino and Stefano Zamagni. 2016. Civil Economy: Another Idea of the Market. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.
Calvo, Patrick. 2018. The Cordial Economy: Ethics, Recognition and Reciprocity. Cham: Springer Nature.
Dobuzinskis, Laurent. 2022. Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought. London: Routledge.
Dobuzinskis, Laurent. 2023. Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists' Dilemma. London: Routledge.
McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2021. Bettering Humanomics: A New, and Old, Approach to Economic Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Martino, Maria Guadalupe and Christian Müller. 2018. “Reciprocity in the Civil Economy: A Critical Assessment.” Journal for Markets and Ethics 6, No. 1: 63-74.
Smith, Vernon and Bart J. Wilson. 2019. Humanomics: Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.