Economics vs. Political Philosophy

One of my great bugaboos in conversing with my sometime allies in the American conservative movement is their all too frequent infatuation with, and deference toward, free market economic theory.

Let me state this as clearly as possible. Economics in the modern form — the form into which it has evolved since, like its sisters among the “social sciences,” it detached itself from its mother, philosophy — is largely a fake science, based on ungrounded (and untenable) assumptions, and also lacking the deeper moral sense or directedness of a proper source of social policy. Its better practitioners are merely clever at reverse-engineering certain types of practically efficacious behavior with a view to concocting plausible-sounding explanations of how it “worked” — although they are, of necessity, uniformly dreadful and superficial in attempting to explain why it worked, i.e., in analyzing human motives.

Let us consider the supreme exemplar of this art, from the contemporary “right-wing” point of view: Milton Friedman.

Friedman is eloquent in explaining how “capitalism” (seemingly his preferred term, which is telling) is best at producing inexpensive conveniences for mass-consumption. Where he falls flat is in explaining why mass-produced and inexpensive conveniences are proper or even ultimate goals for a society or an individual, such that the economy that is best at producing them is by definition the best society for the individual.

And my emphasis on the question of whether and why this economic or societal structure is best for the individual is deliberate. For the social sciences, by their nature, are essentially dismissive of individuals as such — except, sometimes, in the kind of blurry romantic sense that economists of both the capitalist and socialist variety use to evade the need for the rational arguments they are so ill-equipped to offer, but without which their “science” is worthless as anything but an academic exercise, namely arguments about the human good.

On this ultimate question, without which the rest is of little use, the most that can be gleaned from Friedman’s clever explanations of capitalist productivity is pure utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number. (Friedman is sometimes quite direct about this, in fact.) The problem is that utilitarianism itself, even in its most developed iterations, is an abstract theory without any sufficient account of what “the greatest good” is. “Happiness,” as utilitarians use it, is almost an empty label meaning “whatever humans ought to have” — where, in utilitarian practice, that “whatever” usually means nothing but “material comfort,” surely not a very satisfying conception of human nature or the good life.

It is not surprising, then, that most of the utilitarians of note, from Bentham to Mill and beyond, have been spiritual statists, in the sense of believing that all political structure is an instrument of micromanaging lives from above to “produce” a desired result for the masses — indeed, utilitarianism was one of the intellectual sources of progressivism, and during its heyday in the nineteenth century was closely allied with progressivism’s philosophical founders, the German idealists. 

Milton Friedman, if one listens to his arguments carefully, is also allied with this kind of thinking, through and through. He is a progressive utilitarian who happens to believe capitalism, rather than socialism, is the most efficient means of achieving the palliation of the masses.

I offer this as a reminder to American conservatives who often fall too easily into the convenient rhetorical assumption that progressivism is exclusively a phenomenon of “the left.” No, progressivism is a political attitude — not really a theory — of viewing societies so essentially as collectives with collective goods that one loses the individual, and thus the true search for the human good, in the process of seeking one or another variant of “the greatest good of the greatest number.”

(See also my “The Profit Motive, Greed, and Tyranny.”)

You may also like...