Toward a Truly Humanistic Economics

January 17, 2018

When I was a pale young graduate student I drifted by a peculiar path into the study of economics, or rather into the study of ways of thinking about economics and describing economic realities and relationships. I didn’t really study those phenomena, I simply studied how to study them, and in particular, how to think about them, leading into ideas about how to measure them.

This led me into many a merry adventure, the stories of which I may tell some day. Most recently, through an intensive immersion in the ideas of Stephen Leacock even as I watch carefully what is going on in the world around me, I have come to the conclusion that the field of economics needs thorough overhaul in its ways of thinking. This is not a new idea. Stephen Leacock had the same one back in the 1930’s.

I have come to believe that economics, properly conceived, is a field of the humanities, quite possibly the most important one. It’s as if the world today has become an extraordinarily complex work of art — verbal, literary, visual, sonorous — that needs to be examined and understood by methods appropriate to its nature. Economics are not rational, although they contain some rational elements, nor are they natural, although they contain elements that science can illuminate. They are human, and thus potentially within the embrace of the humanities.

This work of art is of course not an artifact in the usual sense, however. It is organic. Perhaps the best analogy is a garden. If we could imagine a garden, a work of art, that is at the same time partly wild and partly cultivated, that includes not only all the plants contained therein but all the creatures that live among them and the natural forces at work on them which are also built into the work of art — if we had a rigorous way to think about that work of art then we might have begun to find a way to think about economics. I put no limits on the potential of the human intellect. I think we can do it. But we have to think properly about the job, and not underestimate it, or pretend that by taking on only part of it — inevitably the easy part — and treating it as if it were the whole wonderful creation we can properly understand it.

Stephen Leacock never wrote a book called The Unsolved Riddle of Economics, although he certainly said much on the subject. He did write one called The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I think that economics are about the Unsolved Riddle of Individual and Social Justice, the Unsolved Riddle of how to pursue both at the same time and with the same energy, and the myriad sub-riddles all unsolved that constitute the whole.

I have a lot of reading to do, and as I do it I will talk about it here. Thank you for paying attention, and please stay tuned.

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