Sunday, September 9, 2012

Economism: A Primer

            Here I will first lay out a basic definition of ‘economism,’ summarizing material from the book, The Golden Calf: Economism and American Policy. [1] I will then list some other terms for economism and explain what’s significant about the use of multiple terms for what’s basically the same idea. Finally I’ll address whether economism is actually economics, as it claims to be, or warmed-over religion.
            In defining ‘economism,’ we run into several problems. The first is that most of the people who have offered definitions are critics and not defenders of economism. There’s a reason for this. I talk about economism as a set of beliefs, as a way of thinking. But for a true defender of economism, this won’t do. If we think of economism as a set of beliefs, that leaves the door open for alternative sets of beliefs. But the die-hard economism advocate wants to deny this very possibility. To that advocate, economism is simply the truth about the way the world operates. Either you accept economism as truth, or else you’re deluded.

The Basic Ideas of Economism
            Economism’s core beliefs fall into roughly three clusters: the economy obeys God-given laws; the economy is everything; and the economy is self-regulating.[2] Let’s look at each cluster.
The Economy Obeys God-Given Laws: Economism takes off from one particular school of economics, neoclassical economics.[3] The founder of this school, William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) was a great admirer of the physics of Isaac Newton. Jevons believed that Newton’s laws of physics were the model of what a science ought to look like, so if economics were to be a science, it had to look just like physics. That meant, in turn, that economics had to be governed by precise mathematical laws that applied everywhere and at all times.
            Economism is therefore the belief that economics is governed by laws that are as universal and without exception as the law of gravity. You could look at this as a scientific state or as a religious statement, or both. Seen one way, economism simply describes the way the world is according to firm, irrefutable scientific evidence. Seen the other way, economism reveals to us God’s plan for the world. It is unscientific or heretical, or both, to deny these truths.
The Economy Is Everything: Since we possess such elegant, mathematically precise laws to tell us how the economy works, economism then tells us that the best way to understand every aspect of our lives is to view it as economic. Everything in life is a commodity for sale. All encounters with other people are market exchanges governed by contracts.
This aspect of economism requires that we view human beings in a particular way. The traditional term for this view of the human is Homo economicus, or “Economic Human.” For our purposes we can translate this somewhat freely as the Selfish Calculator. The Selfish Calculator sees himself as an isolated individual responsible only to himself, and out to advance solely his own interests. He approaches everything in life with the question: can I gain more of what I want by doing whatever is on offer? If I want something, will I get more of what I want by paying the going market price for it, or would I be better off by saving my money for something else instead?
The Economy Is Self-Regulating:  Since the economy is governed by precise, irrefutable laws, that means that the best possible thing we can do is to leave it alone and let it run itself. To the extent that the economy needs any management at all, we must turn over that management to people specifically trained as technical economic experts. The worst possible thing that could happen would be for politicians to intrude into this area where they’re not competent to govern and where they could only muck things up. Equally as bad would be for moralists to declare that some goals in society—let’s say, a clean, unpolluted environment--are more worthy than others, and that we should regulate the economy so as to bring about those goals. Economism teaches us that if an unpolluted environment is really a good thing, the unregulated free market will bring it about. If the market fails to produce that outcome, that simply means it’s not a good thing after all.
When governments impose taxes, we end up with a pot of money raised by taxation. Economism agrees that we need to spend a bit of tax money on the basic machinery of society such as police and national defense, which are needed for the economy to function at all. But as soon as the pot of money grows beyond those minimal needs, then politicians are faced with a huge temptation. Instead of allowing the free market to decide what happens in society, who gains and who loses, the politicians will almost certainly decide that some people in society are being unfairly treated and need more resources. As soon as government starts to mess with the economy in that way, bad things are sure to happen, says economism. So it’s no great stretch from the basic ideas of economism to the related idea that taxes should be kept as low as possible. The only trustworthy and competent politicians are those who swear an oath to cut taxes to the bone.
            In listing these three clusters of beliefs, I have described how economism looks to its advocates (who, as you’ll recall, usually don’t bother to define it at all). Virtually every critic of economism states that one of its core features is its internal contradictions. Advocates for economism typically say one thing while doing another—for example, they demand smaller government but then increase government power when that power can be used to defend the interests of large corporations. These contradictions are not accidental; they are in fact built in to the very ideas of economism. The above list of belief clusters is an accurate statement of economism, even if people who claim to be guided by economism all too often act in ways opposite of what these ideas would seem to dictate.

Economism and the Terminology Muddle
            I call this set of beliefs economism because I was first introduced to the idea by authors addressing the ethics of international development, who prefer that term for what they are talking about. As I tried to find out more about this way of thinking, I became aware that other authors employed many different terms for the same set of beliefs:
  • Neoliberalism (the term probably most favored by historians and social scientists critical of economism) [4]
  • Economic liberalism (the term used in 1944 by Karl Polanyi, one of the first to identify and criticize economism)[5]
  • Market fundamentalism (a term first offered by billionaire George Soros in 1998)[6]
  • Market populism [7]
  • Market triumphalism [8]
  • Economics or neoclassical economics (for those who argue that all of neoclassical economics, or indeed economics in general, shares the core features I have identified with economism) [9]

            Given all these options, let me first explain why I prefer the term economism. The word scientism has been used in the past as a label for a set of beliefs about science. Science, properly understood, is an evolving and ideally self-correcting system. Any discoveries made by science are in some sense temporary, and might be replaced by new discoveries at a future date—just as Newton’s laws of physics, so beloved by Jevons and others in neoclassical economics, have been supplanted by theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. And scientists understand that science has limits—it is very good for understanding certain aspects of our world, but essentially powerless to explain other things that are very important to us.
            Some people, however, don’t get these things about science. They imagine that science reveals eternal and universal truths, and suffices to address everything of concern to humans. In effect, these people don’t understand science, but instead worship it.
            Let’s take as an example so-called paranormal phenomena. The person with a proper scientific attitude, I suggest, would agree that to date there is very little scientific evidence to support the existence of most such phenomena. But that person would also be open-minded and admit that there may be things beyond the reach of science, at least as science is practiced today. The believer in scientism, by contrast, as soon as she hears that “there’s no scientific proof,” decides that paranormal phenomenon simply cannot exist, and that anyone claiming otherwise is a fraud.
            I argue for a parallel between the relationship of scientism to science, and of economism to (legitimate) economics. Economics is supposed to be a branch of (social) science. As such, when approached with a proper scientific attitude, its limitations ought to be accepted and stated forthrightly. The believer in economism, by contrast, admits no limitations or weaknesses. Her favored theory of economics is always right, and suffices to explain every aspect of human life.

What the Terminology Muddle Reveals
            I have explained why, of all the possible terms (and I have no doubt missed some others), I prefer to call this set of beliefs economism. The next question is whether the existence of all these different terms holds a message that could be useful for our inquiry.
            The first message is a repeat of what I said earlier. Believers in economism don’t need a word for it, any more that the proverbial fish needs a word for water. So the only people who need to say “economism” are those who wish to hold it up to possible critique. As these people come from many different disciplines and have different agendas, it’s no surprise that they have used different terminology.
            But there’s also a deeper message. The terminology muddle that I’ve described is itself a sign of the success of the economism belief system. If the critics of economism had made serious headway, and had succeeded in raising questions about economism that had gained traction in the American public conversation, then I suspect that by now we’d have an agreed-upon term for it as well as for the various positions critical of it. The fact that there’s been no agreement about a term indicates how successful economism has been in hijacking that public conversation and turning it to its own ends. It is simply not possible today to seriously critique economism within that conversation. Economism has set the rules for what gets said and what makes sense, so that if you try to propose ideas that differ substantially with economism’s world view, you seem to be talking nonsense, or a foreign language. To use a word that Republicans today like to hang on President Obama and the Democrats, you must be a “socialist” (despite the fact that if you look up socialist in the dictionary, you’ll see immediately that Obama is nothing of the sort).

Economism: Religion, not Economics
            The Golden Calf is primarily about how economism takes the logical form of a religious belief system, not of the science that it claims to be; and that it inherited its religious content from two sources, the Calvinist-Puritan tradition in America and evangelicalism as it appeared in England in the early nineteenth century. [1] Here’s a brief summary.
            John Calvin (1509-1564) taught that God was both all-powerful and all-knowing, so logically, the plan for the world, including every individual human life, down to the smallest detail, was determined by God at the first moment of the existence of the universe. It followed from this that no human being could be saved and go to Heaven based on his or her own voluntary actions; the doctrine of predestination taught that all such things were predetermined before one was born. Calvin also taught that only a relatively few souls, the Elect, were destined by God’s plan for salvation, and the majority would be consigned to everlasting hellfire.
            It became therefore a matter of great concern to Calvinists and (later) Puritans how you could tell if you were among the Elect. Since you had no choice but to follow God’s plan for your life, it was assumed that if you were one of the Elect, God’s irresistible grace would show itself in your life in a variety of ways. The Puritans also thought that your worldly occupation was a divine calling and that your success at that calling, whether as a banker or general or streetsweeper, was one way that God’s glory was enhanced in this world. The idea developed that if you were favored with wealth as a result of your work, then that was a sign of being among the Elect.
            English nineteenth-century evangelicalism had a different take on salvation; it taught that while we are all sinners from birth, all could be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. But that religious doctrine also held that everything that happened in the world was a part of God’s plan. Suffering in the world was one way of pricking one’s conscience and making it more likely that one would develop faith in Christ, so it seemed natural to conclude that God made the world in such a way that sinful humanity would suffer and therefore find faith. One might even imagine that the more sinful the person, the worse the suffering that a kind God had arranged for that individual. This led to the belief that the poor were poor because of their own sinfulness, and had to suffer because otherwise they would not be saved in the next world. Anything one did to aid the poor or to lighten their load would backfire. It would threaten their eternal salvation, and it was blasphemous anyway because it suggested that one was going against God’s plan.
            If you combine these two religious traditions, you get the belief system that the rich are rich because they have found special favor in the eyes of God, and the rest of us should treat them with due deference. The poor are poor because it is part of God’s plan for them, and anything we might do to aid their plight would be both ineffective and irreligious. If we are rich in such a world, and many people around us are poor, this religious belief system absolves us of any sense of guilt or responsibility for this disparity in worldly fate. We can look with complete equanimity upon a world where obscene wealth for the few coexists with grinding poverty for the masses.
            The literary historian Gordon Bigelow argues that evangelicalism in England was very influential among prominent politicians of the time.[10] The “political economy,” as it was then called, that emerged in England during those years was largely a product of evangelical beliefs. That political economy then created the raw material out of which such thinkers as William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) later developed neoclassical economics. Thus there is a direct line from a part of this religious tradition to the theoretical basis of economism. The influence of the Protestant (Puritan) Ethic in American thought made it very likely that thinking of the wealthy as especially favored by God and deserving of their riches would become a part of economism as soon as it took root this side of the Atlantic.[11]
            As these religious thought traditions became intermingled with neoclassical economics, a subtle segue occurred. Religious thinkers viewed the teachings of Puritanism and of evangelicalism as being dictated by the immutable laws of God. The world was a certain way, where the rich thrived and the poor suffered, because God had designed it thusly. Anyone seeking to resolve any lingering doubt about the justice of the world could therefore appeal to divine law for absolute certainty that this was the way things should be. As neoclassical economics developed, and tried to fashion itself after Newtonian physics to develop mathematically precise laws and models, its practitioners may have imagined themselves no longer to be bound by religious doctrines, and to have become thoroughly secular. But, in sociologist Max Weber’s (1864-1920) phrase, they were still haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs.[11, p. 182] They could have the same absolute certainty that the world was the only way that it possibly could be. But now the supposed source of that certainty was the scientific, mathematical truth represented by neoclassical economics. The internal logic of the belief system did not change at all; God simply moved to one side and Science occupied his throne.

            This quick review of economism shows why there has to be something devious about this belief system. Economism tells the world that it’s one thing—economic science--but actually is another—a set of repackaged religious beliefs. That’s just one of the many inconsistencies that characterize economism, but it shows how wary we ought to be before we take anything that economism argues for at face value.


  1. Howard Brody, The Golden Calf: Economism and American Policy (CreateSpace, 2011).
  2. The single best-organized definition of economism that I have discovered is offered by Des Gasper, The Ethics of Development, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 80-81.  An even more detailed definition is provided by Margaret Somers in (though she uses the term market fundamentalism instead): Margaret R. Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), especially pp. 2-5, 38-39 and 73-82.
  3. On Jevons, neoclassical economics, and their relation to economism, see Chapter 4 of The Golden Calf.
  4. See for example David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Totnes, Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011).
  5. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
  6. George Soros, The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (Boston, Little, Brown, 1998), pp. 126-28; Margaret R. Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  7. Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Anchor, 2000).
  8. Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York:Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).
  9. See for example Duncan K. Foley, Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), and Steve Keen, Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences (New York: Zed Books, 2004).
  10. Gordon Bigelow, “Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics,” Harpers Magazine 310 (no. 1860), May 2005, pp. 33-38
  11. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans T. Parsons (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003).

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