At this point in our investigation we have discovered what seems at first to be a startling phenomenon. The obstacles which now stand in the way of a reorientation of the industrial economy relate more to the psychology and sociology of human behaviour than to technical considerations or physical constraints. The orthodox economist might argue that these psychological facets of human behaviour are themselves akin to physical and technical constraints. Classical economics was founded with the very precise aim of mirroring for moral behaviour what deterministic mechanics had provided for the natural world. Adam Smith was a fervent admirer of Sir Isaac Newton. Nassau Senior, a follower of Smith, described the maximisation of wealth as a law of nature 'like gravity in physics', and in 1760 Helvetius wrote: 'as the physical world is ruled by the laws of movement, so the moral universe is ruled by the laws of interest.'2
In the eighteenth century, Newton's classical mechanics represented the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, and its deterministic view of the universe reigned supreme. In the late twentieth century, this view of the world has been radically overturned by the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos. Even the physical world in which we must survive or perish is not really a mechanistic one. Uncertainty, relativity and irreversibility are its underlying characteristics. There is no simple determinism in the classical sense. What we learned from Newtonian physics has been valuable in many contexts, but it is not the whole truth.
So the first thing we can say about the economic 'quest' of the eighteenth-century classicists to provide a science of human behaviour is that it needs to be re-examined. We have learned a new understanding of the principles of classical mechanics. We need a new understanding of the principles of economics.
In fact, we could be considerably harsher about the entire economic enterprise. Even at the time, it was fundamentally flawed. The idea that you could create a science of transient human behaviour by analogy with the science of reversible physical motions would be laughable had it not turned out to be so disastrous. It is like supposing that you can develop a science of chess by studying the game of billiards. The rules of the game are fundamentally different. The analogy is empty.
Nevertheless, the economic construction which was built on the back of this attempt has endured for over two centuries. It has survived intact the revolutions which transformed physics, persisted through the explosive developments of modern psychology and sociology, and ignored the continuing censure of religious and spiritual leaders. The orthodox economist might argue3 that here, if we needed it, was proof of the timelessness of the principle of economic self-interest. But this defence is a spurious one. Greed, avarice and vanity may be timeless enough. But the wholescale institutionalisation of the profit motive is not an immortal phenomenon. Its history can be traced. It belongs within the time-span of industrialisation in the modern world. It is part and parcel of a very specific development paradigm which has emerged only within the last two to three hundred years of a very long human history. It is virtually absent from the historical records of earlier societies, and is condemned by the surviving members of indigenous peoples to this day.
In any case, there is something more important to say about history than this. At the end of the twentieth century we face a point of critical decision. Confronted by economic and social instability on the one side and escalating environmental degradation on the other, our paradigm of development is itself in crisis. The roots of that development are all inextricably entwined around the principles of economics. Unless we are prepared to revisit and reassess those principles, we are unlikely to solve our environmental and social problems.
Was this article helpful?