THE NEW ALCHEMY
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // email@example.com
Democratic Underground, January 22, 2002
Adapted for inclusion in
Chapter Nine of Conscience of
When an intelligent man [in the past] expresses a view which
[today] seems to us obviously absurd, we should try to understand how
it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and
psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking,
and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished
prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.
All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age
of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
In the Middle Ages, holy thought had to be expressed in Latin; today
it must be expressed in numbers.
Suppose the model for our public policy-making and the foundation of our
dominant political philosophy were an admittedly imaginary creature
inhabiting an admittedly mythical environment.
Unfortunately, this approximately describes the condition of contemporary
policy-making and politics in the United States. The imaginary creature is
so-called "economic man," and the mythical environment is "the perfect
market." The model for public policy is "cost-benefit analysis," a
conceptual device that "commensurates" all values into the common
denominator of "cash," thus rendering policy-analysis an applied extension
The political philosophy calls itself "conservatism" which, while it has
captured the Republican Party, also holds a strong influence upon the
Democratic Party. This philosophy all but asserts that whatever government
can do, "the free market" can do better -- as Ronald Reagan put it in his
first inaugural address, "government is not the solution, government is the
problem." Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman concurs: "There is
nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller and less
intrusive government would not cure." With the body-politic reduced to a
market-place, this line of thinking leads to a dead end bluntly expressed by
Reagan's dear friend, Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society,
there are individual men and women and there are families."
"Economic man" (homo economicus) is a rather weird critter. He is
a complete egoist, motivated solely by the self-interested desire to
"maximize his utility" – a concept variously described as "want-" or
"preference satisfaction." This motivation is manifested and measured by
"economic man's" willingness-to-pay for these "satisfactions" in a free
market. (Given the disagreeable nature of homo economicus, feminists
should take no offense at this gender-specific language). Clearly, this is
not the sort of an individual that one would want as a next-door neighbor.
Homo Econ's bailiwick is a conceptual space called "the perfect
market"-- a "conceptual space," since it need not be any particular physical
"place" at all. Instead, "the perfect market" of formal economic theory is
defined by the following conditions: the participants (all "economic men" of
course) must be numerous and completely informed, and their transactions
must be voluntary, mutually beneficial, open, without collusion, and their
exchanges free of transaction costs and externalities (such as pollution of
others' air and water). This model of social organization, we are told, is
far superior to an established and familiar alternative arrangement; namely
popular government. To the "free-market" enthusiasts, "Big Government"
As a moment's reflection will tell us, "the perfect market" does not
exist – not even remotely. Furthermore, history teaches us that "cowboy
capitalists" do not really approve of free markets for themselves – only for
their rivals. Driven, as economic beings, by "self-interested utility
maximization," the capitalist much prefers monopoly – his monopoly.
And since the "front runner" enjoys decisive advantages over the rest of the
field, the natural result of "the free market" is monopoly. In a sort of
inner logic that Hegel would admire, "the free market" contains within
itself, the seeds of its own destruction. Evidence? Look again to history:
then it was J. D. Rockefeller; now it is Bill Gates.
The remedy? Now, as before, the remedy is anti-trust legislation, which
is to say "Big Government," of course! What else could it be? The (approximately) free
market is, in fact, a very fragile institution that can only survive if
carefully monitored and managed. (See our "Kill the
Umpire!" and "Mr. Delay Goes to Washington").
"Neo-Classical economic theory," which has put the concepts of "economic
man" and "the perfect market" into the center of public policy making and
political debate, claims to be a "value-free" discipline. Yet the preferred
terminology of this discipline is freighted with value connotations. For
example, the behavior of "economic man" (i.e., self-interested utility
maximization) is described as "rational." By implication, then, the behavior
of such saints and heroes as Gandhi, King, Sakharov and Mandela is
"irrational." Furthermore, transactions that leave both parties "better off"
are described as "efficient" and a society in which there can be no further
transactions without someone being disadvantaged is described as "(Pareto)
optimal." How many notice that by this account, a slave society might be
"optimal" (since one cannot free the slaves without making the slave-holder
"worse off"). A system requiring the well-to-do to share their wealth with
the less fortunate is, by definition, "inefficient." The question of the
"just distribution" of a society's resources is simply not a part of
Clearly, "economic man" and "the perfect market" are severely truncated
accounts of human nature and society, and thus very poor foundations for
public policy-making, for practical politics, and for just provision for
future generations. (Or so I argued in my paper,
"In Search of Sustainable Values."
included at this site. Our brief sketch above of the make-believe
"economic man" and "perfect market," along with our our contention that this
view of man and society is unduly influential in our political institutions,
are drawn with very broad strokes and lack the benefit of elaboration,
documentation and argument. I indulge in these bold simplifications, mindful
that my justifications thereof may be found elsewhere at this
Even with elaboration at hand
at this site,
I would be well-advised to qualify my rhetoric just a bit.
First of all, I am not "anti-markets." The failed economic experiment in
the Soviet Union proved conclusively that a centralized command economy is
vastly inferior to a market-based system of pricing, distribution,
innovation and quality control. Having "shopped" in both the Soviet Union
and the United States, I know this from personal experience. Furthermore,
because human beings in significant aspects of their lives, do, in fact, act
upon economic motives, a scholarly examination of market behavior has
valuable implications for numerous disciplines, including environmental
studies and political science.
In short, I do not assert that a study of markets and economic theory
should count for nothing. Instead, I protest that they should not count for
everything. Homo economicus is an ingredient of our nature that we
would be well advised to study. But our lives consist of much more than
buying and selling. We also love and we sacrifice, and we have goals and
concerns that transcend our self-interest. And we seek, both personally and
collectively, truth, justice, and personal excellence -- none
of which can appropriately be bought or sold in markets.
Economic theory, in short, can be an invaluable servant -- and a fearful
Among the severest critics of neoclassical economics are economists.
These include Herman Daly, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Kenneth Boulding and
Amartya Sen, all of whom possess a clear view of the limitations of their
discipline. To that list I would add Talbott Page (Brown University),
Richard Howarth (Dartmouth), and Stefan Bayer (Tubingen University), who
greatly impressed me in May, 1999 at the "discounting" conference in
Germany. Indeed, my quarrel is less with economists than with politicians
and policy-makers who have skimmed easy formulas and simplistic
generalizations off the top of the neo-classical economist theory, and put
them to work in behalf of their special political and economic interests.
Even so, my dissenting economist friends, whom I admire enormously,
report that there is in fact a dominating "orthodoxy" of neo-classical
thought in the discipline of theoretical economics, and that this orthodoxy
has had enormous influence upon both public policy and politics. (See my
"The State Religion").
I can validate their report with my own experience. Often, when I have
mentioned the names of such mavericks as Boulding, Georgescu-Roegen and Daly
to economist colleagues, I find that I have evoked stares of disbelief or
even condescension, such as one might expect from Jerry Falwell upon hearing
the name of Charles Darwin. The chief offense of these heretics, its seems,
is that they have allowed the elegance of their formal theories to become
contaminated by compelling facts of biology and physics. Meanwhile, the true
believers read with admiration the pronouncements of economists such as
Julian Simon, who confidently assert that the omnipotence of the free-market
and the omniscience of future entrepreneurs can overcome trivial physical
constraints such as the second law of thermodynamics. (See my
I once heard Paul Ehrlich remark that if an engineer proposed to design an
aircraft for an exponentially expanding crew, he would rightly be regarded
as mad. Yet when an economist proposes an economic model that posits
perpetually expanding population and resource consumption, he is regarded as
eligible for the Nobel Prize for economics.
So why is neo-classical economics so influential?
Not, I submit, because of supporting evidence, experimental validation,
or clear and verifiable application to "the real world." The dominance of
"neo-class," I believe, is due far more to "the sociology of belief."
First of all, neo-classical economics is what Nietzsche called a
"master morality." It is an ideology that is nurtured, sponsored, and in the
service of, wealth and power. Thus the hostility to government of neo-class
economics, and the neo-conservative politics which embraces it, is no
mystery. Popular government , by enforcing "equal justice under law," is
empowered to protect the weak from the strong. (Read your Constitution!) .
Such solicitude toward the weak and the poor has no place in a "master
To the contrary, wealth and power prefer to regard society as a
market-place of "customers" with consumer preferences, rather than a polity
of citizens with inalienable rights. The privileged believe it far better to
apportion power to wealth (i.e., the willingness and ability to pay -- "let
the market decide"), than to relinquish power to a principle of "one-person,
one-vote." (Cf. my "Modest
Proposal" and "Consumer or Citizen?"
With government "off our backs," writes Milton Friedman, free-market
conservatism leaves us "free to choose." But this is a "freedom" apportioned
to wealth and power -- a "liberty" (for some) obtained at the price of lost
equality and fraternity (for the rest of us). (See
"With Liberty for
Some" at this site).
Secondly, "neo-classical economics" proves, once again, the rule that
"nothing succeeds like success." Senior professors, pundits, and "think-tank
scholars," the High Priests of the reigning ideology, edit the scholarly
journals, and determine appointments, promotions and tenure (on the basis,
largely, of publications in the self-same journals). And how did these
elites obtain their seniority? Return to the beginning of the paragraph --
da capo, perpetuo moto. As the careers of such courageous dissenters
as Herman Daly and William Black will testify, the punishment meted out by the priesthood upon
the heretics can be brutal.
Finally, "neo-class" suggests a seductive simplicity, clarity and
determinateness for politicians and policy-makers seeking answer and
disinclined to ponder disquieting "philosophical" questions, or even basic
economic principles. (See "Flunking Econ.
101," and the first
section of "... Sustainable Values").
Looking back through history, we might wonder how it is possible that intelligent
and educated people once accepted uncritically such notions as astrology,
judicial trial-by-combat, the demon-possession theory of disease, and
alchemy. Today, more and more sophisticated observers of society and
politics are wondering how homo economicus, a creature bereft of
sympathy, humanity, and noble aspiration, and "the perfect market," a
"place" devoid of any social contacts more elevated than market transactions
-- has come to be regarded by our political elites as the foundation of a
just political order.
I suspect, and devoutly hope, that in the near-future neo-classical
economic theory will be regarded as the "alchemy" of our century. And
intelligent men and women will wonder how it was possible that anyone could
ever have believed such nonsense.
Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge