Corey Robin has contributed an interesting essay to the Boston Review’s forum ‘Economics After Neoliberalism’. I am reluctant to enter into debates on, “Neoliberalism”, a term so nebulous and variegated in its usage as to render it useless as anything other than an all-purpose cudgel with which to browbeat others in middlebrow magazines (See Phil Magness on its pejorative origins). Robin’s contribution, ‘Uninstalling Hayek’, however, makes a bold case for removing economics from our moral and political discourse.
Robin argues that Hayek was instrumental in turning free market advocacy away from technical economic arguments and towards moral and political ones:
Far from resting neoliberalism on the authority of the natural sciences or mathematics (forms of inquiry Hayek and Mises sought to distance their work from) or on the technical knowledge of economists (as Naidu and his co-authors claim), Hayek recognized that the argument for capitalism had to be won on moral and political grounds through the political arts of persuasion.
I would submit that economics itself arose as a discipline out of a tradition of moral and theological reflection on the institutions, ethics, and law of early modern Europe (See Alejandro Chafuen’s Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics or any of the volumes in the first or second series of Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law). Lord Acton argues similarly in his inaugural lecture of the liberal political tradition as a whole,
“[T]he greater part of the political ideas of Milton, Lock, and Rousseau, may be found in the ponderous Latin of Jesuits who were subjects of the Spanish Crown, of Lessius, Molina, Mariana, and Suarez.”
Hume began his inquiry into economics within the context of institutions of private property, contract, and consent. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was himself a moral philosopher. Hayek’s interest in moral and political arguments was not, as Robin supposes, something new for economists or advocates for the free society but deeply rooted in the traditions of both.
Robin also sees Hayek as innovative in his view of the relationship between morals and the material,
“Morals are not really morals if they are not material, Hayek believed. Outside the constraining circumstance of the economy, our moral claims are so much wind. Inside the economy, they assume force and depth, achieving a revelatory clarity and profundity.”
This seems to me another way of saying that, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17) This means that an integral part of moral action is the virtue of prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas approvingly cites St. Isidore of Seville in the Summa Theologiae saying, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he forsees the event of uncertainties.” Prudence is the ability to see, as Bastiat might say, ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen’. This is the central task of economics.
These prudential concerns, put forward by both Hayek and the long tradition of economic thinking, constrain our political discourse in ways that trouble Robin,
“Hayek translated moral and political problems into an economic idiom. What we need now, I would argue, is a way to uninstall or reverse that translation.”
Robin is no stranger to chaffing at constraints, but they cannot merely be wished away. Paul Heyne in his essay, ‘Christian Theological Perspectives on the Economy’, put it best:
I do not know all that Christian love requires. But if it should require that we cooperate, through an extensive division of labor, in producing for one another food, clothing, shelter, medical care, prayer books, kneeling cushions, and other such material goods—then love requires that we interact extensively with one another on the basis of impersonal, monetary criteria. If we were all god-like, both in knowledge and impartial benevolence, we could do directly and personally for one another all that love requires. It is irresponsible, however, to argue on behalf of a moral vision that denies our humanity by insisting that we be gods. Until we have transcended the human condition, we had better learn to cherish “the economy” and to nurture the conditions that are prerequisites for its successful functioning.
Economics does not replace the need for moral reflection but is rather an essential tool for acting prudentially in the world. Questions of costs and constraints cannot be divorced from questions of human action. There can be no morality or politics divorced from economics. Faith without works is dead.