The Secular Religions of Progress

By Robert H Nelson, The New Atlantis

Economics has never been, nor could it ever be, free of value judgments. The economy is not isolated from the rest of society, cordoned off from the lively world of competing beliefs. Rather, questions of the organization of the economy, and of the economic policies to be pursued, are interwoven with other social concerns and public policy in general. Economists often lose sight of the altogether interconnected nature of the economic and the non-economic. The illusion of neutrality is reinforced by the radical simplification that often characterizes economic methods; in striving to make economic problems tractable for mathematical representation, inherent ethical considerations are obscured.

Some of the greatest economists of earlier eras, like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, regarded themselves as moral philosophers, as analysts of the moral foundations of society. Few contemporary economists see themselves in such a light. If they do take moral considerations into account, it is typically as parameters for subsequent economic analysis.

As a result, the powerful normative elements of economics tend to be driven underground. Economists today become implicit moral philosophers, a point the University of Illinois economist Deirdre McCloskey often emphasizes. Most economists, for example, regard economic growth as a main goal of the economic system, and seek to assess the desirability of public policies by the extent to which they are efficient or inefficient toward that end. Whether growth should itself be a paramount objective, and whether efficiency should therefore play such a critical role in distinguishing between good and bad policy, typically receives little sustained attention among mainstream economists, with few exceptions (such as Herman Daly in his 1996 book Beyond Growth). Full essay