|Published:||Arlington, Va.: Mercatus Center, 2021|
|Reviewed by:||Steve Davies, Institute of Economic Affairs, London|
This book is in some sense a summary or compendium of the main analyses and arguments that its author, Peter J. Boettke, has been making for the last two decades. We may hope and trust that it is not a final summary, as the arguments are not only persuasive but also perceptive. They are clearly conclusions arrived at in the course of a project of intellectual research and discovery, which is still continuing. Although the book is a collection of essays, presentations, and public talks, it is united by a number of themes and theses that are found in all of the pieces collected here. These will be familiar to anyone who has followed Boettke s work and public statements over the last few years, but it is good to have them collected in this way because the repetition of arguments and their exploration in different ways in each piece leads to a fuller understanding of how the various positions that he has adopted fit together into a worldview; and a fuller understanding of the role and current state of the discipline of economics that is compelling and thought-provoking. The style is clear and forceful, with trenchant views strongly presented but it is also respectful and courteous towards his intellectual interlocutors, a mode of argument that Boettke strongly advocates and is one of the main concerns of the book as a whole.
The central concern of most of the essays is with the nature and foundational assumptions of modern economics, and the ways in which these have led many or most economists to a mistaken and dangerous understanding of their role and social position. For Boettke the discipline took a definite wrong turn at the end of the nineteenth century with the appearance of neoclassicism, even if the bad results of that turn did not become apparent until after 1945. In his view the central and correct concern of the classical economists was institutional analysis, the study and identification of the social and legal institutions that enabled peaceful social cooperation and exchange and thereby human flourishing. The counterpoint was the way they also identified those inherited practices and institutions that had negative consequences and enabled exploitation and domination. This all led to a focus on the way good institutions reconciled competing human ends and claims to resources through a decentralized bargaining process and so reduced conflicts.
The marginal revolution did correct weaknesses in the intellectual armory of the economists but it also recast their intellectual project, in a way that Boetke sees as damaging. There was a move towards formalism and abstraction which later found expression in an obsession with complex mathematics. This was driven by a desire to recast economic studies as a form of science founded on measurement, as opposed to a humane study that was related to disciplines such as philosophy, history, and psychology. The result was that economists came to see their discipline as being about a static model of the ways in which an optimum allocation of resources was arrived at, with the ends for which those resources were used assumed to have been reconciled before the process started (because otherwise it could not be fitted into the scientific and quantitative mould). This contrasts with the older focus, continued by the Austrian School, on markets as instruments for adaptation to change rather than allocation in an unchanging environment. The interest in spontaneous social order and the comparative analysis of institutions, which involved historical and sociological investigations, was progressively abandoned. For Boettke this was an intellectual wrong turn with extensive and seriously damaging consequences. In fact, he goes so far as to claim that it was a major or even principal cause of the disasters of the twentieth century such as the Great Depression, major wars, and totalitarianism.
That is a bold claim but it follows from the broad historical vision that underlies the various essays. The argument, derived originally from Ludwig von Mises, is that the modern world has seen an unprecedented transformation of human life for the better, in terms of not just physical well-being but also the range and variety of human flourishing. Following Mises (and contemporary authors such as Deirdre McCloskey) this transformation is identified with liberalism, as both an intellectual tradition or research project and a political practice. It is deeper understanding of how certain institutions enable social cooperation and innovation and a consequent public policy position of supporting and enabling Adam Smith s natural system of liberty that has brought about this transformation of the world for the better. Modern neoclassical economics by contrast leads to a public policy of technocratic governance, in which economists fall into the delusion of seeing themselves as either philosopher-kings who can guide human society or as the advisors and instructors of those rulers, providing them with the knowledge and techniques needed for the realization of the goal of human flourishing. This is a species of hubris and brings the inevitable nemesis of at least hampered human improvement and at worst social catastrophe.
The most egregious case of this is socialism, which the essays explain in idealist terms, as the product of bad ideas and analysis and above all mistaken economic ideas. As Boettke remarks in the introduction, the apparent absence from the content of the book is the subject of his earlier scholarship, the economic and intellectual history of the Soviet Union and of socialism more widely. In fact, as he says, it is the conclusions arrived at from that study that underlie all of the arguments of his subsequent work that finds expression in these essays. Socialism is understood as aiming at similar ends to liberalism but in a way that is deeply mistaken and counterproductive, because based on a faulty understanding of the nature and institutional preconditions of human flourishing. Socialism (meaning not only Marxism but the wider family of socialist thought) is a kind of ambitious experiment in trying to improve society in a certain way, that has proved to be a disastrous failure on its own terms. However, it is not only explicit socialism that is excoriated but also a wider more generic progressivism and technocratic politics.
The positive agenda of the book is scattered throughout but is the focus of four of the essays, in particular (pp. 205224, 225244, 271282, 283288). A central thrust of the work is a call for people to participate in this, as scholars and as engaged, informed, and publicly-minded citizens. A theme found in all of the essays although it is not the central feature of any of them is that the project of human liberation and improving the world is not simply an individualist one. It is also a public one with a central part played by a kind of decentralized and bottom-up politics founded on engaged and public-spirited citizenship and institutions and rules that facilitate voluntary cooperation and the reconciling of conflicts of interest or goals. The vision of politics, explicitly identified with the work of Vincent Ostrom, is contrasted with a kind of technocratic managerial politics that, for Boettke, came about in the later nineteenth century with Progressivism and has since metastasized. The call of the later essays is for a redefinition and recovery of the emancipatory liberal project as a radical one that is explicitly cosmopolitan and opposed to social and political relations based on power, not least the power of experts such as misguided neoclassical economists. The emphasis on cosmopolitanism is striking and unmissable. This has clear implications in the present time for the identity of the interlocutors or opponents of Boettkes liberal project. The focus of many of the essays is socialism and other varieties of rationalist progressivism but it is clear that populist and nationalist conservatism is the other oneeven though the term conservatism does not appear in the index. We may hope that this is made more explicit in his future work.
There is one element of the arguments presented that is questionable, on its own terms. The main theme is the harmful consequences for the liberal project of a better world of the rationalist and abstract turn that economics (and some other social sciences) took in the central decades of the twentieth century. The argument is that there was a reaction against this after the 1960s and a recovery of the earlier humane and institutionalist approach to economic thinking in the works of scholars such as Israel Kirzner, Vincent and Eleanor Ostrom, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, and Ronald Coase. This is undoubtedly true but overstated. The economics profession today has in fact moved even further away from the kind of approach that those scholars and others advocated. Boettke overstates the reaction because he identifies it not only with a revival of a comparative institutional approach but also with a more general revival of the argument for a market economic order as opposed to a planned or directed one.
The problem with this is that it makes people such as Milton Friedman and George Stigler and the Chicago or Freshwater school in general part of the reaction against the formalism of neoclassicism. This is surely incorrect as Friedman and the others were coming from within the neoclassical school, unlike people such as Frank Knight, or Friedrich Hayek, and the Austrians more generally. This means that the apparent triumph of a market-oriented public policy and understanding of economics from the 1980s onwards was as much or more to do with a shift within modern neoclassical economics as a revival of the alternative classical and Austrian approach. That in turn meant that the supposed neoliberal turn was in practice mainly a move towards a different kind of technocratic managerial politics that employed different tools rather than being a real revival at the policy and public discourse level of the kind of radical individualist liberalism that Boettke spells out. Instead, you had economist philosopher kings advocating technocratic and engineered market solutionsnot the same thing, to put it mildly. At several points he recognizes this, particularly when considering why it is that there has been such a reaction against market liberalism (which never had general public support), but the question is never directly confronted.
That said, this is a collection that captures a valuable body of work that sets out not only an analysis and intellectual history but a major scholarly and political research and action project. As such it is well worth reading, not least because its nature means it will provoke reflection and further engagement by others.
|Other Independent Review articles by Steve Davies|
|Summer 2007||Nineteen Public Bads of Empire, Nation Building, and the Like|