We need a critique of economic thinking that also accepts the necessity of markets, says Roger Scrutonby Roger Scruton / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
The last decades of the 20th century saw the triumph of market economics. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the weakness of socialist economies elsewhere gave added credibility to the economic policies of the “new right,” and even Labour climbed onto the bandwagon, dropping Clause IV from its Constitution and accepting that industry is no longer the direct responsibility of government. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, with people all around the world thrown into poverty while the apparent culprits—the bankers, financiers and speculators—escaped with their bonuses intact. As a result books critical of market economics are enjoying a new popularity, whether reminding us of the limits of economic thinking (Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy) or arguing that markets, in current conditions, cause a massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest (Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality).
Philip Roscoe’s I Spend Therefore I Am is the latest of these post-crisis critiques. He endorses the argument, familiar from Marx, that markets threaten to reduce human beings to instruments in each other’s eyes and to undermine social attachments. But the argument is far older than Marx, being rooted in a primordial hostility to money and exchange that sounds through the wisdom books of the Bible, through the Gospels and the Koran. The things that we really value, the prophets have always told us, are the things that we refuse to exchange, the things that cannot be priced. The market is a kind of Mephistophelian tempter, prompting us to put a price on everything, from heirlooms to body parts, from sex to life, so that at last, like Faust, we are prepared to sell our souls.
That is also the way that Roscoe sometimes puts it; and it is not surprising to learn that he came to economics and management science—he is an academic at the University of St Andrew’s—from a background in theology. Christ commanded his followers not to lay up for themselves treasures on earth. And he highlighted thereby two remarkable features of money: that it is a universal medium of exchange, and that it obeys the laws of arithmetic. You can count it, add it, divide it, multiply it, watch it accumulate, and shell it out in precise amounts. You can use it to assign a price to all objects of exchange, and so compare one good with another in a precise ranking of their monetary worth. Without money it is hard to see that economics could ever have acquired the scientific pretensions that have made it so loud a voice in modern politics. For money lifts desire from the messy terrain of human need into the clear sky of mathematics.