Markets, Politics and the Political

Can Economics solve Today’s most Pressing Problems?

by / 15 June 2020

“[T]he solution is essentially the transformation of the conflict from a political problem to an economic transaction. An economic transaction is a solved political problem. Economics has gained the title of queen of the social sciences by choosing solved political problems as its domain.”

— Abba P. Lerner (1972: 259)

Introduction*

Economics has long been perceived as an unattractively technocratic discipline. Recently, this trend seems to reverse, as economics becomes more popular among young people devoted to change the world for the better. Effective altruists, who seek to do the most good in the most efficient way, recommend that students acquire a PhD in economics, because “you have a high chance of landing an impactful research job” and it is “one of the most promising graduate study options for people who want to make a difference” (Duda 2015).

It is argued that tackling some of today’s pressing political problems such as climate change, income inequality or racism within the economical framework has the advantage of, unlike in less quantitative subjects such as history or sociology, dealing with such political issues with evidence, instead of ideology. But what exactly is the link between politics and economics? How do these two fields interact? And, can economics be trusted in taking care of the most pressing questions of today in a neutral and unideological way?

Looking at the relationship between economic thinking and politics, this essay suggests an answer.

1. Preliminary Definitions

At the outset of the present inquiry, certain clarifications are necessary: what do I mean by “economics” and “politics”?

By “economics”, I understand the worldview of economics, including its philosophical roots and aspects, but also its manifestation in the current work of scientists and policy makers. Hence, I mean more than the practice of being an economist. My definition of here denotes the cluster of ideas and concepts, the image of man and society underlying economic theory and a fortiori economic thinking. For example, the economic worldview is adopted frequently by economists, politicians and journalists. If I explore the relationship between economics and politics, I do not mean the intricate consequences of political regulation on the economy.

By “politics”, on the other hand, I do not merely understand the processes and mechanisms at work in current governments and their relations to other actors of society, such as the media or citizens. I also want to include the principles or values which unify different members of a society. This understanding presupposes that beyond the concrete political institutions there is something which ‘holds us together’ and transforms a set of individuals into a community. This “essence” of all politics (Critchley 1993: 74f.) has been given the name of “the political” (Schmitt 1932).

During the 20th century there have been numerous attempts at defining the political, i.e. fixating a common ground or foundation of society in terms of shared “racial, biological, or territorial” features (Badiou 1994: 124) as with Nazism and other forms of fascism or, as in the case of Marxism, through a predetermined historical role as part of a class (Lefort 1988). In the aftermath of the Holocaust and later the uncovering of the Stalinist’ atrocities, Hannah Arendt and other political theorists[1] coined an intellectual paradigm where the political remains undefined. On this account, the political is not understood as a fixed entity which can be demarcated, formulated and defined, but rather it is conceived as an arena where humans debate and discuss what it is that unites them. Accordingly, the political has been characterized as “the idea that a free society composed of diversities can nonetheless enjoy moments of commonality” (Wolin 1996: 31) and as “the site where what it means to be in common is open to definition” (Fynsk 1991: x).

By looking at the relationship between economics and politics I thus seek to examine the connections that economic thinking entertains to the sphere of conflicting values and open discussion which lies at the heart of politics.

2. Economic Politics – Arendt and Political Economy

Among other things, the economic worldview manifests itself in two spheres: first in the science of economics and second in neoliberal politics such as represented by the European “liberal” parties of the centre right. I will consider neoliberal thought in the next section. Here, I am concerned with showing that certain assumptions embedded in economics pave the way for specific political conclusions.

In economic theory the following four assumptions are commonly accepted: first, one of the main aims of politics consist in guaranteeing an efficient functioning of society, i.e. to remedy market failures where necessary and to foster economic growth (Arrow 1973; Hayek 1979). Second, an equally important goal of politics is to aggregate pre-existing preferences of citizens into a social welfare-function which represent the whole population (Arrow 1951). Third, citizens and political actors behave as if they are utility-maximizing agents (e.g. Posner 2008). And fourth, economics is the study of decisions under scarcity (Robbins 1932).

These assumptions are encountered frequently in the economic worldview’s response to a plethora of topics, where they are used to justify statements, which are of a fundamentally political nature. Because they are based on the body of scientific assumptions such statementsare often presented as factual and non-ideological claims. However, this alleged neutrality is questionable. Of this, I will give four examples, but numerous more could be mentioned:

1) If it is asked whether the exorbitant salaries of some managers are justified, economic voices take retort in the theory of ownership and control (e.g. Fehr 2013; Schwartz 2013). This theory states that paying wages above the market price is an important instrument to align incentives of the CEOs with those of the owners of the firm, i.e. the shareholders in order to prevent inefficient mismanagement (Jensen and Meckling 1976; Fama and Jensen 1983). Insisting on the primacy of the economic aspects of this question means to absorb them entirely into the realm of the market and to neglect its deeply political element (Singer 2018: 13). This response ignores the genuinely political question which salaries do we want managers to enjoy.

2) If, furthermore, it is discussed how judges should react to the financial crisis of 2008 it has been voiced that litigations against banks should be avoided, because of their systemic relevance for economic transactions (e.g. Arruñada and Arce 2016). Among other things this is grounded on central claims from law and economics, such that the law ought to be efficient and guarantee low transaction costs (Posner 1973). However, whether or not banks should be held legally accountable for the financial crisis is a political question. Favouring one legal principle—special social responsibility of banks—over the other—possible efficiency, certainty of legal institutions—is a political question as well. Dworkin notes that in judicial decisions there is genuine disagreement, as there is in science, history or literary criticism (1977: 9). In the economic worldview, there seems to be no space for such dispute.

3) Recently, economists and free-market politicians argued that the measures taken by governments as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak were imposing too many restrictions on the economy and that the lives of vulnerable people were overweighted with respect to the consequences of an economic crisis induced by the lockdown (Rühli 2020; Voth 2020). Clearly, an economic crisis has morally significant consequences. Nonetheless, the current dilemma faced by governments is inherently a political dilemma. How high can the economic losses be in order to justify endangering people’s lives? There is no factual answer to this. Multiple political views are possible.

4) Above all, in economics it is often enough to justify the fixation on economic growth as the ultimate goal of politics with a few slides showing the correlation between GDP and other development indices such as education or health. It is thereby frequently forgotten that narrowly focussing on GDP neglects aspects of distributive justice (Milanovic 2016; Picketty 2020) and can only capture those activities which are classified as productive in the definition of GDP (cf. Warring 1988). Furthermore, to contend that some people hold political convictions which are not prioritizing GDP growth strikes a lot of economists as completely strange. Nonetheless, it is a fact that some citizens are willing to give up potential economic growth or efficiency for other things such as fairness, sustainability, etc.. The sole idea of disagreement on this issue seems to be an offense.

In all these cases, the assumption of utility maximizing agents and the general contention that politics ought to generate efficient transactions and growth appears to leave no room for those aspects, which we would ordinarily call “political” or “ethical”. Economic thinking seems to be silent on questions such as “What do we want to do?” and “Which society do we want to live in?”. Rather, economics appears to be primarily concerned with what should or must be done, as if it would be already determined by necessity which decision society should take. Put differently, the economic worldview seems unable to capture disagreement, based on differences in political views, values and ideologies. One of the most important political theorists of the 20th century proposed a theoretical framework to make sense of this impression.

3. Economic Analysis as a Neutralization of the Political

In the Human Condition ([1958] 1998), Hannah Arendt argues that modernity is fundamentally different from antiquity in its treatment of the political (ibid.: 33 ff.). In classical Greek thinking, politics was considered an autonomous and independent activity, distinct and primary to all other aspects of social life (ibid.: 37). Indeed, politics was deemed so important that Aristotle defined man as a zoon politikon, a political animal (Aristotle, Politics: 1253a1-11). In modern times, Arendt argues, politics is no longer an autonomous sphere, but nothing more than a subsystem of society. Modern thinking manifests itself in the conviction that “politics is nothing but a function of society, that action, speech, and thought are primarily superstructures upon social interest” (Arendt [1958] 1998: 33). As opposed to the Greek agora where disagreement and dispute were essential ingredients of political life, in modernity, society behaves as if it were “one enormous family, which has only one opinion and one interest” (ibid.: 40). Arendt claims that the concept of a single interest originates in a “communist fiction” (ibid.: 44) which consists in the idea that we “administer our collective affairs centrally through a corps of experts to whom we defer because we assume that there is—and that they know and serve—an objectively ascertainable ‘interest of society as a whole’” (Pitkin 1998: 15).

This assumption is what has been called the “neutralization of politics” (Marchart 2007: 44ff.). If the political is neutralized it means that autonomous political activity—collective reasoning about which policies to implement, which values to prioritize and which procedures to accept, etc.—is reduced to bureaucratical questions of social needs and interests, resources and constraints. Now, as a chief proponent of this modern idea Arendt explicitly mentions economics (Arendt [1958] 1998: 28 f., 40ff., 208, 306; cf. Canovan 1974).

This can be interpreted as follows: Firstly, by restricting economic analysis to the study of decisions under scarcity (Robbins 1932), economics becomes the study of public management of scarce resources, which amounts to a reduction of politics to the provision of the biologically and economically necessary (Pitkin 1998: 11). The question of how limited assets should be spent, presupposes that it is settled what goals these resources shouldbe used for (cf. Nussbaum 2015: 23ff.).

Secondly, with reference to the second book of economist Gunnar Myrdal, The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory ([1954] 2017) Arendt argues that economics can only achieve scientific status if it assumes that society behaves as if it were one individual, and thus necessarily falls prey to the “communist fiction” (ibid.: 54, 150).[2] If preferences merely need to be aggregated correctly, there is no room for collective bargaining or deliberation as to what should be pursued as a community. In this case, the ‘will of the people’ would already be determined, as the individual preferences are unaffected by the political sphere (cf. Laclau 2005: 161 ff. for a critique).

It has been argued that aggregating diverse preferences through a social welfare function is exactly a measure to grapple with disagreement and still be able to draw conclusions representative of the whole society (Kaplow and Shavell 2001). The initial quote by Lerner (1972: 259) nicely exemplifies this idea that through an economic transaction a political conflict can be solved. This has been called the “strategy of incorporation” (Kornhauser 2017) because it assumes that moral and political differences can be incorporated into a one-dimensional utility framework. However, such an approach confuses the nature of disagreement. As the legal scholar Lewis Kornhauser puts it:

Moral disagreements, however, reflect not conflicts of interest but a dispute over how such conflicts should be resolved. The resolution of a moral conflict determines whose well-being counts not how much well-being the agent has.

Hence, the strategy of incorporation is doomed to fail, because, although economic transactions represent one way of solving conflict of interests, moral disagreement usually takes places on a higher level. In moral disagreement it is debated how a conflict of interests should be solved. To presuppose a market solution as the way to resolve conflicts, misses the fundamental nature of moral disagreement.

If the political is denoting the collective bargaining process of determining which individuals’ welfare counts and which aims should be pursued, it seems clear that economic analysis operates on different terms. Looking at politics merely through the lens of economics neutralizes the political, because it provides no space for such discussions based on values and opinions with an open end.

4. Political Economics – The non-existent Myrdal-Hayek Debate Revisited

In a recent book, development economist William Easterly (2013) frames the debate about the right type of economic development in terms of two Nobel laureates, who received their prizes on the same day, but held very opposing views: Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal. While Hayek is a major defendant of individual rights, Myrdal grants them no special place in his theory. Where Hayek argued that the market can produce knowledge better than any type of planned decision, Myrdal spoke out in favour of far reaching regulations. Even though the two laureates were awarded simultaneously, their diverging views did never clash in a public discussion. Easterly reconstructs this non-existing debate and contrasts their ideas on the topic of development (ibid.: 17ff.).

Doing so, Easterly’s treatment of Hayek seems highly accurate and as a fervent defender of a free-market economy himself, his own views are clearly influenced by the Austrian economist. However, his discussion of Myrdal appears incomplete.[3] It is remarkable that Myrdal’s methodological work The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory—which served as a reference for Arendt and, according to Myrdal himself, remains his most important scientific contribution (Anderson 1986: 75f.)— is not cited even once in Easterly’s book.

It is interesting to look at The Political Element, in which Myrdal tries to show that economics cannot evade advancing political claims. He argues that economists historically and presently mix up economics and politics and draw conclusions from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ ([1954] 2017: 5). One way in which this happens is through the conjecture that means are neutral, whereas ends are not. Myrdal, on the other hand, claims that also means can contain political elements (1958: 206-230). In later works, he continues to examine the problem of value and objectivity in the social sciences and concludes that

a ‘disinterested social science’ is impossible, and, indeed, on logical grounds unthinkable. Valuations enter into social analysis, not only when conclusions concerning policy are drawn, but already in the theoretical endeavour to establish what is objectively true – in the choice of a field of inquiry, the selection of assumptions, even the decision as to what is a fact and what is a value. Our concepts are therefore ‘value-loaded’ (1961: 274).

Hence, Myrdal regarded it as an undisputable fact that the social sciences, including economics, are influenced by ethical and political values. Instead of masking them behind scientific statements, he supported the view that economics should return to its original status as a “moral science” (Swedberg 2017: xxix).[4]

However, it was not just Myrdal who was critical of the economic mainstream of his time. Also, Hayek turned away from economics, although for entirely different reasons. After the financial crises of the 1930s Hayek came to the realization that the world economy was essentially an unknowable entity (Slobodian 2018: 18). This presents an extension of his theory that decentralized knowledge embedded in the price system of a free market was exceeding the amount of information which could possibly be handled by specific individuals (Hayek 1945). Hayek conceives of attempts at completely understanding the spontaneous order of the world economy as the “hubris of reason” (1973: 33) or the “pretence of knowledge” (1978). For political reasons, he saw the world economy as nonetheless worthy of protection. Hayek believed that besides the democracy of the political system, there exists another sense of the word “democratic”: the democracy of the free market, where all individual liberties (Hayek 1960: 11ff.) are respected and all preferences are represented perfectly (Hayek 1979). Such a vision of democracy can be implemented only in a free world market “encased” (Slobodian 2018: 13) by strong supra-national institutions. Crucially, these institutions must be located at a higher level than the nation-state, i.e. above what normal democratic institutions or procedures could control (ibid.: 19). 

Regarding the fact that Myrdal over the whole length of his career worked on the question of political beliefs and values in economics, the contrast with Hayek, who was explicitly an economist and a political philosopher, can be seen in a different light. The non-existent Hayek-Myrdal debate (Easterly 2013: 17 ff.) can be reformulated in the context of the relation between politics and economics. Then it becomes clear that the crucial difference between Myrdal and Hayek does not lie in their differing visions of how to foster economic development, but their opposing views on the hierarchy between economics and politics.

When Myrdal calls for an open declaration of an economist’s moral and political views, he positions politics as preceding and prior to economic analysis. His concern is that research in the social sciences is entrenched in values and therefore cannot free itself from taking part in the political discussions of its time. Economics, on this view, is embedded in politics.

Hayek instead reverses this order and places economics above politics. If Hayek’s goal of a free world economy protected by supra-national institutions would be realized, there is no need for genuine politics anymore, since every relevant conflict of interest is resolved through the market and everyone’s preferences are represented perfectly. Accordingly, Hayek equates his endeavour with a “dethronement of politics” (Hayek 1979: 149). In this sense, it can be said that Hayek’s economic theory is an anti-political theory because the answer to the fundamental question of any political theory, namely “how to organize human co-existence” (Mouffe 2000: 5), is not found in any of the spheres associated with politics, but instead within the realm of the oikos, the household, a place of necessities and market dynamics.

In Hayek’s theory, we again recognize the neutralization of the political. Even though neo-liberal economic thinking is one of the forces in global politics and thus must be understood as a political project, it is not a project of the political. Rather, it must be conceived as an anti-political worldview, where genuine politics in Arendt’s sense plays a secondary role, if any at all.

Conclusion

Under the condition that genuine politics is conceptualised as an open debate about which values are desirable and which type of well-being is sought after in a community, I have attempted to show two things: (i) certain assumptions common in economic analysis, which are perpetuated in the economic worldview, leave no room for such deliberation and (ii) if economics is understood in the aftermath of Hayek’s neoliberal thought, the political is neutralized, because the primary mechanisms organizing human co-existence are to be found outside of the political field, in the functioning of the perfect world market.

Now clearly, the economic worldview and current economics are to a large extent not in the footsteps of Hayek. Also, they are not in total neoliberal (cf. Naidu, Rodrick and Zucmann 2019; CORE Team 2017). Moreover, it is not true that everyone concerned with the economic analysis of political phenomena necessarily shares the assumptions outlined in section three—especially the claim that institutions should primarily foster efficiency is controversial among economist and policy makers.

Nonetheless, these assumptions are still influential in current economics and beyond. Thus, one key project will be to separate the political element in any kind of economic analysis from the clearly political project of the neoliberal-economic world view manifesting itself in economics. Whether or not this is possible and under which conditions, remains to be explored.[5]

Regarding the initial question of whether economics can contribute or even solve the political questions of the 21st century the answer suggested here must be negative. To the extent that economic thinking and practice is influenced by the theories discussed, it will contain anti-political tendencies. As long as it is nonetheless upheld that viable answers to the pressing political questions of today can only be found in a political process, where opposing aims and values are allowed to clash and conflict, economics seems to be unable to provide a suitable framework for formulating them.


* I am grateful to Magnús Ásmundsson, Elia Benveniste, Rhea Blem and Yongjoon Youn for their generous and helpful comments on previous versions of this paper. Also, I want to thank Anne-Christine Schindler and Mark Isler for the crucial hint to Quinn Slobodian’s history of neoliberalism.

[1] Such as Jacques Rancière, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Claude Lefort, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy, see Marchart (2007) for an excellent study on these authors.

[2] Inevitably, one has to think of the assumptions of the “representative household” in macroeconomics.

[3] Easterly admits that he cited a lot of quotes from Myrdal from another book, Dissent on Development (1971) by P.T. Bauer, a neoliberal economist and member of Hayek’s Mont Pelérin Society (Easterly 2017: 35).

[4] Interdisciplinary economist and former president of the American Economic Association Kenneth E. Boulding takes a similar stance when he argues that economics is infused with a “calculating ethic” and contrasts this with a “heroic ethic” (Boulding 1969: 9f.). Interestingly, Boulding acknowledges the existence and importance of an ethic contrary to economic thinking. In the current framework, such an approach would not be a neutralization of the political.

[5] My contention is that it is possible to be a mainstream neoclassical economist and not endorsing neoliberal views, but that it is not possible to be a mainstream economist and not endorse liberal views at all. I would guess so because of the consequentialist and individualistic assumptions in the microeconomic foundations of neoclassical economics, which favor liberal political theory emphasising individual rights and negative liberty over positive theories of liberty which would lead to more “socialist” positions (cf. Berlin 1969).

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Pablo Hubacher Haerle is a student of philosophy and economics. Born in Zurich, he is currently based in Barcelona. He is interested in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (especially Psychology and Economics), Political Theory (especially Post-Foundationalism), Wittgenstein and Epistemology. Besides that he likes Literature and Swiss Rap music.

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