A Method, Not a Subject: Liberal Economics and the Classics

Now that we have gone over Works and Days and the Estate Manager, we can discuss why reading these texts—and by extension other ancient texts—from a wealth-and-welfare perspective fails to do them justice.  The greatest indictment is that such readings are parochial.  They fail to enter into the texts and take the authors’ concerns seriously.  If the only reason we, as contemporary economists, read ancient texts is to compose a litany of what they ‘got wrong,’ then we do not have open minds.  Reading should be a conversation, one that transcends time and place.  The difference between a wealth-and-welfare reading and a liberal reading is the difference between conversing and haranguing.

Just look at what we have to show for our wealth-and-welfare readings of Hesiod and Xenophon.  On topics of concern to contemporary economists, the classical mind appears jejune.  There are cursory arguments for why agriculture, politics, and military pursuits are good, whereas craftsmanship and commerce are bad.  Additionally, there are discussions of ancient institutions that contemporary economists will find unsatisfying.  The sections on virtue and its importance to all aspects of life, including the production and distribution of goods, are downright impenetrable.  The wealth-and-welfare hermeneutic trivializes the texts.  If our analysis suggests texts that have been read almost continuously for 2,500-plus years are silly, we should seriously consider taking Cromwell’s advice: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible you may be mistaken.”

It is true that a contemporary economics curriculum would not give Hesiod and Xenophon a hearing.  Perhaps if students were reading them anyway, to satisfy a literature or humanities requirement, economists could point to some of the previously discussed examples as crude illustrations of economics.  This is not a ringing endorsement.  If we accept the wealth-and-welfare paradigm, there simply appears to be little reason for the modern mind to engage the classical mind.

In fact, this is precisely the argument made by those who denigrate economics.  It is also why they deny economics is, or can be, a liberal art.  In fact, some economists themselves have tried to overcome this by arguing that economic analysis has limited use outside of developed market economies.  Ancient societies, for example, had their own allocation schemes, which were much more heavily reliant on norms, customs, and moral judgments.  These economists seem to respond to the econo-skeptics by limiting the bounds of economics.  If we restrict the realm of calculation, perhaps we can correspondingly expand the realm of imagination.

For those committed to a dialogue between economics and the classics, the above is disheartening.  The only way such a conversation is possible is for the economists to stop being economists, at least temporarily.  If we accept wealth-and-welfare premises, including the proper bounds of the discipline, we appear to have no choice.  But as I asserted previously, this is a poor and artificially limited conception of economics.  There is no reason to place ourselves on the horns of this dilemma.  We can avoid it entirely by embracing the liberality of the rationality postulate.  In other words, economics can be liberal if we conceive it as a method, rather than a subject.    

Applied consistently, liberal economics means walking a mile in the shoes of ancient authors.  What are their goals and motivations?  What do their institutions look like, and what outcomes do they select for?  In other words, what is the hidden logic to their social organization?  Failing to discover the covert rationality in the denigration of commerce, for example, is just another version of presentist chauvinism.  In a society where the cohesion of social groups, from the family to the polis, was essential to survival, practices that weaken the bonds between group members—long-distance voyages for maritime commerce, for example—can justly be viewed with skepticism.  Perhaps these are not the norms that get us to market economies, liberal democracy, and the other nice, comfortable institutions that characterize the ‘end of history.’  But why assume that is the goal?  Would ancient authors view this as desirable?  It is hard to understand someone if you are busy condemning them.

We can say something similar about ancient imaginative literature, such as epic poetry.  The economic way of thinking is valuable here, too.  Economics can help us appreciate characters, themes, and ultimately the way the world is portrayed in these works.  The interpretive act is obviously not identical for, say, the Odyssey as it is for the Republic, because the texts have fundamentally different purposes.  That we cannot apply the economic way of thinking in precisely the same way does not mean we must abandon it.  We simply have to tailor our application to the text, given its purposes.  Outsourcing textual interpretation to some automatic procedure, like a computer algorithm, is not an option.  Understanding a text means arriving at a human judgment about what the text means and how it speaks to us.  The purpose of applying economics to imaginative literature is to prepare our minds to grapple with them more capably, not put our minds on autopilot.

A liberal curriculum can and should include liberal economics.  Both make sense only if we refuse to interpret the past under the assumption that our ancestors were morons.  Committing to rational choice, which in my framework is synonymous with liberal economics, is how we treat the Great Books with the respect they deserve.



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