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Ideology And Economic Development

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Autor:  anton  28 November 2010
Tags:  Ideology,  Economic,  Development
Words: 1033   |   Pages: 5
Views: 256

Neoclassical economics begins with the premises of private property and self-interest. Whatever the structure and distribution of property rights, it assumes the right of owners—whether as owners of land, means of production or the capacity to perform labor—to follow their self-interest. In short, neither the interests of the community as such nor the development of human potential are the subject matter of neoclassical economics; its focus, rather, is upon the effects of decisions made by individuals with respect to their property.

Logically, then, the basic unit of analysis for this theory is the individual. This individual (whether a consumer, employer or worker) is assumed to be a rational computer, an automaton mechanically maximizing its benefit on the basis of given data. Change the data and this “lightning calculator of pleasures and pains” (in the words of the American economist Thorstein Veblen) quickly selects a new optimum position.1

Raise the price of a commodity, and the computer as consumer chooses less of it. Raise the wage, and the computer as capitalist chooses to substitute machinery for workers. Raise unemployment or welfare benefits, and the computer as worker chooses to stop working or to remain unemployed longer. Increase taxes on profits, and the computer as capitalist chooses to invest elsewhere. In every case, the question asked is, how will that individual, the rational calculator of pleasure and pain, react to a change in the data? And, the answer is always self-evident—avoid pain, seek pleasure. Also self-evident are the inferences to be drawn from this simple theory—if you want to have less unemployment, you should lower wages, reduce unemployment and welfare benefits, and cut taxes on capital.

But, how does this theory move from its basic unit of the isolated, atomistic computer to draw inferences for society as a whole? The essential proposition of the theory is that the whole is the sum of the individual isolated parts. So, if we know how individuals respond to various stimuli, we know how the society composed of those individuals will respond. (In the words of Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society—just individuals.) What is true for the individual is true for the economy as a whole. Further, since each economy can be considered as an individual—one who can compete and prosper internationally by driving down wages, intensifying work, removing social benefits that reduce the intensity of job searches, lowering the costs of government, and cutting taxes—it therefore follows that all economies can, too.

To move from the individual to the whole in this manner, though, involves a basic assumption. After all, those individual atomistic computers may work at cross-purposes; the result of individual rationality may be collective irrationality. Why isn’t that the conclusion of neoclassical economics? Because faith bars that path—the belief that when those automatons are moved in one direction or another by the change in given data, they necessarily find the most efficient solution for all. In its early versions the religious aspect was quite explicit— that instantaneous calculator of individual pleasure and pain was understood to be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”2 For Adam Smith it was clear whose hand that was—Nature, Providence, God—just as his physiocratic contemporary, Francois Quesnay, knew that “the Supreme Being” was the source of this “principle of economic harmony,” this “magic” being such that “each man works for others, while believing that he is working for himself.”3

But the Supreme Being is no longer acknowledged as the author of this magic. In his place stands the Market, whose commandments all must follow or face its wrath. The unfettered market, we are told, ensures that everyone benefits from a free exchange (or it would not occur) and that those trades chosen by rational individuals (from all possible exchanges) will produce the best possible outcomes. Accordingly, it follows that interference with the perfect market by the state must produce disaster—a negative-sum result in which the losses exceed the gains. So, the answer for all right-thinking people must be, remove these interferences. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s well-chosen words, the position of the fundamentalist preachers is that in a state of bliss, there is no need for a Ministry of Bliss.4

And, if force and compulsion are necessary to bring about that world of bliss (i.e., to make the world conform to the theory), this will simply be “short term pain for long-term gain.” As Friedrich von Hayek explained in an interview for Chile’s El Mercurio (April 12, 1981), dictatorship “may be a necessary system for a transition period. At times it is necessary for a country that there is some form of dictatorial power.” When you have the invisible hand on your side, destroying obstacles to the market is just helping Nature (in Adam Smith’s words) to remedy the “bad effects of the folly and injustice of man.”5

So, remove all restrictions on the movement of capital, remove all laws that strengthen workers, consumers, and citizens against capital, and reduce the power of the state to check capital (while increasing the power of the state to police on behalf of capital). In the end, the simple message of neoclassical economics (and the neoliberal policy it supports) is, Let capital be free!

Of course, it can be said (and, indeed, was said by Joseph Stiglitz at these meetings two years ago) that nobody believes this simple message anymore. After all, economists have demonstrated the very strict (and impossible) conditions necessary for this theory to be logically supportable, have exposed the simplistic theory of information it contains, and have revealed the many cases of “market failure” that call for an ameliorating role for government. Not the least of these common critiques stresses the interdependencies and externalities that are minimized by neoclassical theorists and which often lead them to commit fallacies of composition (the assumption that what is true for one is necessarily true for all). And, yet, as the close fit between the simple neoclassical model and neoliberal policies demonstrates, all these sophisticated partial critiques of the simple message don’t count for very much; in fact, that message (even if “defunct”) continues to be believed, and it functions as a weapon to be used on behalf of capital.

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