Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On the subject of economists, more right than wrong

Here is Deidre McCloskey on Joseph Schumpeter (via Greg Mankiw), following Robert Solow's take here.

I realize that this blog has been densely packed with economics posts (and not enough trading and sports) lately. Well, economics--as it pertains to healthy markets--matters to acolytes of trading and sports, even. I hope you can celebrate the goodness of true economics and free markets, as they provide you your profit opportunities.

McCloskey writes:

Galbraith, like many other economists of his generation, worried about private monopoly, though embracing public monopolies. Schumpeter never had such worries. Creative destruction, he argued, would take care of the trusts and pools and over-big corporations. In truth the list of companies that Galbraith held in awe as great forces in 1967 looks quaint now. U.S. Steel, AT&T, and General Motors belie his assertion “of great stability in [a great corporation’s] position in the planning system.” Eight years after the first publication of The New Industrial State, Bill Gates founded Microsoft. Let creative destruction rip.

McCraw himself italicizes a very unripping assertion of his own that “the two pillars that support all successful business systems [are] a modern concept of private property and a framework for the rule of law.” That’s nothing like Schumpeter’s idea. Laws are necessary, of course, but so are road mending and brick making. Private property and a framework for the rule of law have existed in written form since ancient Mesopotamia, and in every substantial civilization from third-century B.C. China to 12th-century A.D. Timbuktu. Roman law, with its detailed concept of private property, was worshipped in Europe for two millennia. Yet those civilizations, Schumpeter emphasized, never reached the standard of economic production and progress the modern West has. Not even close.

What was missing was the thing Schumpeter emphasized and Galbraith attacked, a thing unique about Europe since the Netherlands in 1600 and England in 1715: a business-dominated civilization. “Capitalism does not merely mean that the housewife may influence production by her choice between peas and beans,” Schumpeter wrote in his swan song, a 1950 essay grimly entitled “The March Into Socialism.” Capitalism also “means a scheme of values, an attitude toward life, a civilization—the civilization of inequality and of the family fortune.” The last touch, incidentally, is pure Schumpeter: “The civilization of inequality” makes the socialists’ case by adopting their words, yet Schumpeter politely disagrees on how we should judge the outcome.

What’s finally missing in both Schumpeter and Galbraith’s grim prognoses is a theory of language. Human beings swim in words. We’re just realizing this, after a long, long enchantment with Marxist or Freudian or behaviorist claims that secret or not-so-secret material interests rule everything, that the makers of the U.S. Constitution were driven by their property values, or that slavery was abolished to strengthen manufacturing. One quarter of national income is earned from sweet talk—that is, the persuasion a manager or teacher or salesperson or foreman exercises on the job.

“About the end of the seventeenth century,” Schumpeter wrote in his great 1939 tome Business Cycles, the English political world “dropped all systematic hostility to invention. So did public opinion and the scribes.” That’s exactly right. And it’s what is wrong with the materialist conviction since Marx that ideas are froth on deeper currents. Ideas, words, rhetoric, “reason”: the world is governed, another economist said, by little else.

McCraw argues that Schumpeter invented what business schools now call “strategy,” “an attempt by firms to keep on their feet,” as Schumpeter put it, “on ground that is slipping away under them.” It’s practical business stuff. And of what is the “attempt” constituted? Plans, words, sweet talk. An economics that doesn’t acknowledge talk and its creativity may be in some pointless sense “exact,” but it doesn’t illuminate the world we have, the world admired by Schumpeter and zinged by Galbraith, of entrepreneurs—in the market, the corporation, the government, the laboratory, the street. Capitalism, like democracy, is talk, talk, talk all the way down.

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