Economics is not a stand-alone science, as disciples of the Enlightenment claim, but a branch of philosophy. In short, economics is one of the liberal arts…

economics joseph pearce

My recent essay seeking an adequate definition of capitalism prompted an intriguing comment from a usually eloquent interlocutor, who wondered how those who “have no economic training… think that their opinions on something as highly complex as economics amounts to anything worthwhile.” My suspicion that this was an ad hominem suggestion that my views on the topic of capitalism were worthless were confirmed by my interlocutor’s next sentence. “It amazes me,” he wrote, “how liberal arts scholars think they understand economics.” In other words, my views on economics in general and capitalism in particular are not worthy of any serious consideration because I do not have a Ph.D. in economics.

I couldn’t help feeling a sense of wry amusement at this approach to something that affects all of us. Do we all shut up and leave it to the “experts” in some sort of quasi-mystical trust in the gnostic nature of something that is too complex for us to understand? Such a suggestion is curious considering that these “experts” invariably fail to see any of the seismic shifts in the economy and are as shocked as the rest of us, and more shocked than some of us, when their “expert” predictions prove to be fallacious. Do we need reminding that the “experts” predicted disaster were the United Kingdom to fail to ditch the pound in favour of the euro? Have we forgotten that the “experts” predicted an economic apocalypse in the wake of Brexit? Quite frankly, if meteorologists had the same success rate in predicting the weather as economists have in predicting future shifts in the economy they would all be fired!

Another source of wry amusement was the fact that Adam Smith, whom I imagine my interlocutor reveres, was not an economist but “a liberal arts scholar.” Like me, the venerable Mr. Smith does not have a Ph.D. in economics. His training was in moral philosophy.

I have no idea whether my interlocutor has a Ph.D. in economics. Perhaps he doesn’t and is happy to leave it to the “experts.” Perhaps he is a disciple of the aforementioned Mr. Smith, in which case he is presumably happy to concede that at least some “liberal arts scholars” can pontificate on “something as highly complex as economics.” For my part, I am not a disciple of Adam Smith but of E.F. Schumacher, who, unlike Smith, does actually have a formal academic training in economics, at Boon in Germany, at New College, Oxford, and at Columbia University in New York City. He later held a position as an economist at Oxford University before becoming Chief Economic Adviser to the U.K.’s National Coal Board and an economic consultant to Third World governments. My book Small is Still Beautiful was merely an updated reiteration of Schumacher’s international bestseller, Small is Beautiful. I make no claim to originality. On the contrary, as a disciple of E.F. Schumacher, I am merely standing on his venerable shoulders, seeing things from the heights of perception that he has attained. They are not my ideas but his.

I am not claiming that my ideas about economics are better than those of disciples of Adam Smith because my mentor is an “expert” who is a real economist, whereas their mentor is only “a liberal arts scholar.” Such an argument would be silly because, as Schumacher insisted, all economics is a derivative of the philosophy which informs it. In his essay “Buddhist economics,” published in 1966 and later incorporated as a chapter in Small is Beautiful, Schumacher showed how economic thought is predicated by the anthropology that informs it. It is the underlying philosophy that shapes the economics. This means, in effect, that economics is not a stand-alone science, as disciples of the Enlightenment claim, but a branch of philosophy. In short, economics is one of the liberal arts.

Schumacher was so impressed by Catholic social teaching, as elucidated in the papal encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI and Paul VI, that he proclaimed that the popes in their proverbial “ivory tower” understood more about economics than any of the so-called economic “experts” who were Schumacher’s peers. Surprised by the wisdom of Catholic social teaching, which is rooted in an insistence that the problems associated with modern economics are a consequence of the false anthropology arising from the so-called Enlightenment, Schumacher was received into the Catholic Church.

Returning to our original question, I would say that we can understand economics and capitalism best by standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing from the heights that they’ve attained. I am sitting on the shoulders of E.F. Schumacher, who is sitting on the shoulders of the popes, who are standing on the rock that Christ established. Who am I and what right do I have to pontificate on capitalism and economics? I am merely a pygmy standing on a mountain top. It’s a great place to be and I invite my interlocutor to join me. The view is simply splendid!

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email