2076. If economics was a science.

Provocation 226.  Economics as science.

It is getting harder to write provocations. The general provocation of politics and in the media is hard to outpace. The question that remains on my mind is, given the state of the world, what is society’s best use of economics, or how can economics best respond to the crises – climate, oceans, automation, governance – food and population, inequality and the loss of the purpose of living. What about “why growth”??

The published criticism of economics – its formalism and avoidances of the impact of economics on climate, earth and humans – is rapidly accelerating.

The key to this provocation is the need to think theoretically about the deeper questions. Last night I went through ten years of abstracts in the Journal Of Economic Theory. Very disappointing. The articles are like a sports journal that would discuss baseballs, soccer balls, tennis balls, but never touch on footballs (Marx?) nor why balls are usually preferred round (purpose?).

My favorite approach –  If economics as to be more of a science it would think theoretically about key issues.

What is profit, why do we have ownership? How does society work to separate people from the land and, instead of commons, treat as separate  land labor and capital? How can a person move from one category to the other? What is the relationship between wealth harvested from the earth (farm, fishing, mining,  lumber..) and political power?

The greeks thought about the purpose of the economy and concluded it was to create leisure for participation in philosophy and politics. This view of purpose altered with the emergence of Christianity. The estate became god’s kingdom, and the writing of the church used the Greek word economia for this. Cicero translated it into latin as “disposition” and this made it easy for later generations to lose the idea of equal distribution that was part of the greek use of nomos, which arose as the division of land for the purpose of grazing among the owners of cattle. That Christianity use the word economy extensively was lost on later historians who read  latin but not the Greek.

The question remains to be reinvigorated: what is the purpose of an economy and how can humans be organized  for the production of necessities and more,   for the arts, enjoyment, reflective awareness, fairness, and the vexing problem of population?

If we drop a concern for purpose (values, intents),  as economy has, we are left with a soulless machine that is used by class interests, not for the good of a spiritual humanity.


A great source is Agamben’s The Power and the Glory for the Theological genealogy of economics and Government. If you also read Wendy Browns The ruins of Neoliberalism, the themes connect:  how the Greeks subordinated economics to politics, how the church subordinated politics to economics, and how the neoliberal agenda was to prevent the interference of politics and society in a privately held economics. 

Here are  quotes that show this christian use of economy.

I Timothy I :3-4 

I urged you to stay on at Ephesus. You were to command certain persons to give up teaching erroneous doctrines and studying those interminable myths and genealogies, which issue in mere speculation and cannot make known the oikonomia of God, which works through faith [oikonomian theou ten en piste] the good activity of administration that God entrusted to me. 

Ephesians  1 and 3 

God has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his benevolence, which he set forth [proetheto] in Christ for the oikonomia of the fullness of time, to unite all things in him . To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the oikonomia of the mystery hidden for ages in God 

One can feel the presence pf a culture that would later give Adam Smith the invisible hand of economy.


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