April 19, 2019

Economics as a Moral Tale

“Think of human development as a long journey. At the beginning, we live at the mercy of nature. Dependent on its bounty, we pray for rains and freedom from natural disasters and plagues. At the end of the journey, nature lives at our mercy. We use science and technology to release new wealth and remake the planet. Today, as humans implant themselves with microchips, install artificial organs and plan Mars colonies, we even aim for a ‘singularity’ that will lift us out of nature once and for all.

Economists began to compose the narrative of this odyssey, from subjection to dominion, in the 1700s. Once it became apparent that Europe had broken with millennia of stasis to begin a long period of rising growth – the same through which we are still living – political economists abandoned philosophical reflection to draft roadmaps to development.

Two broad types emerged. One approach described the walk, the other the walker. The first presumed that the context in which we made the journey – the natural environment, the institutions, the culture, the legal and political systems – determined the direction of the path. In this model, the government bore responsibility to build the path so that it could accommodate as many people as possible. Progressive taxation was simply an investment in social prosperity, key to maintaining an ascendant society and a reasonable return payment from those who had most benefitted.”

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