During the Summer Institute this year we heard elequent presentations on natural law from Hadley Arkes, J. Budziszewski, and Robert George. A presentation by John Mueller, on his new book Redeeming Economics and how the founders of modern economics got the discipline off on the wrong foot, got me thinking about how various theories of natural law--and of political science in general--likewise get off on the wrong foot.
So, what went wrong? Joseph Schumpeter, the great economic historian of the 20th century, wrote of Adam Smith in his History of Economic Analysis (1954) that “the Wealth of Nations does not contain a single analytic idea, principle or method that was entirely new in 1776.” John Mueller goes a step further to say not only that Smith does not add anything to economics, but that his theory actually leaves out both distribution and utility.
The elimination of these two aspects should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the debates in philosophy and political theory over the so-called “modernity project.” Consider how a Scholastic such as Aquinas understood various sciences. At the heart of Aquinas’s social thinking was a recognition that order exists on four irreducible planes, distinguished by how they relate to our mind and will: the order that exists in nature, independent of human thought and choice; the order that we bring into our thinking itself; the order that we bring into our thinking about what to do; and the order that we bring into our thinking about how to do it. These four orders give rise to four irreducible sciences: first, metaphysics and natural science to study what is, what exists independently of human choice; second, logic to study the relations of concepts; third, ethics and practical philosophy to study what is to be, the ends of human choice; and finally, the applied arts and sciences to study how to achieve those ends, the means.
Yet much of modern social thinking rests on the explicit rejection of this third order, and thus of this third science. Machiavelli announced the ambitions of this new political science in Chapter 15 of The Prince (1513): “Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.” In a thinly veiled assault on Plato’s Republic and Augustine’s City of God as the imagined republics and principalities that argued for how one should live, Machiavelli set out to reveal the “effectual truth” of how successful people do live. Implicit here was a reduction of political thought to the first and fourth orders. Investigate how people are (first order), and then reason about the means (fourth order), in this case, to staying in power, without any concern for how people ought to be, quite apart from how they might serve our interests (third order).
Thomas Hobbes and David Hume make this reduction even more explicit. In the Leviathan (1651), Hobbes writes that “the thoughts are to the desires, as scouts, and spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things desired.” And in A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Hume argues that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” The third-order science that considered which ends one should act for has been eliminated. It is now for political science to study man’s passions as they are given (first order), and then to devise the best way to secure those ends (fourth order). If this is how one understands human action, then, of course, distribution (deciding which people should be the ends of one’s economic acts) will be eliminated from consideration.
Yet Adam Smith went even further. Smith was, of course, taught by David Hume and Francis Hutcheson (the famous Scottish Enlightenment moral sense/sentiment theorists). Mueller argues that Smith, in his quest for a Newtonian science of economics and under the influence of Stoic pantheism, went further than Hume to deny reason a role in selecting either the ends or the means. Smith thought that the sentiments fully determine human action, so that the only variables to explain are production and exchange: a streamlined science with fewer moving parts. (And, it should be noted, this theory of production and exchange logically leads to Karl Marx’s criticisms, based on Smith’s faulty “labor theory of value” of modern capitalism.)
With time, economists came to understand just how thin this theory really was and reintroduced the concept of consumption based on utility (helpfully refining the idea into one of marginal utility). This reintroduction of the Augustinian understanding of consumption based on utility corrected for the problems in both Smith and Marx. Rather than viewing the worth of objects for human consumption as intrinsic to the object (or the labor that produced the object), the theory of utility saw that an actor’s preference for an object, based in the utility it brought, explained the value in and the choice for the object. But this still left unexplained the choice of which person(s)—self, other(s)—would obtain the object. That is, it left out distribution. And rediscovering that element of economic science is at the heart of Redeeming Economics.