Although I have read economics, philosophy and theology at university, I am not an academic and I want a description that distinguishes me from the professional philosophers and economists. I think I can best be described as a ‘Hedgerow Philosopher or Economist’. It is a steal from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Return of the Native’, at the end of that novel Clym Yeobright becomes a hedgerow preacher. Lacking the formal qualifications necessary to become a preacher in an established church, he takes to the roads literally preaching to the country people in the fields. The hedgerows being the walls of his church and the place where he sleeps most nights. He is a figure that has always fascinated me and I Identify with Clym. I am a hedgerow philosopher because I speak as an outsider, looking in from outside the academy. This is not a viewpoint soured my malice or envy, but a viewpoint that expresses freedom and my independence, as outsider I am not obliged to follow the disciplines of any school. It is this distancing that gives me a different perspective on the practice of economics.
Country people such as myself believe that our being in constant contact with nature gives us an understanding of the world denied to town folk. It is the experience of witnessing the sunrise or sunset over a country landscape that makes us feel we are closer To those elemental forces that govern nature and the world. Probably this arrogant assumption is totally unjustified, but nevertheless country people do assume a superiority over their townie cousins.
As a philosopher I would suggest that economists are making a similar error to that made by philosophers as described by Nietzsche. One of the assumptions that under pins any moral philosophy is that humans are responsible for their actions, they make choices good or bad. However as Nietzsche write psychology demonstrates so many of actions that an individual makes are predetermined, so how can they be responsible for their actions? He accuses moral philosophers of falsely attributing behaviours to men which are absent in reality. They fall at the first hurdle in constructing their their moral philosophies. Similarly economists fail as they fail to understand the relationship between the economy and the host society of which it is part. One exception to this common misunderstanding is the economist Michael Polyani.
Contemporary economists know the writings of Friedman, Schumpeter, Hayek and Rand, yet never Hayek’s great rival those of Polanyi. Polanyi is absent from the economics curriculum of universities. Probably because he puts the economy back into the society of which it is part, he makes it one social science among many, relegating it from it’s position as the Queen of social sciences. He writes that the market economy is a threat to the social order and must be regulated so as to control its destructive tendencies. The example he use to demonstrate this is the Industrialisation of Britain in the late 18th and the threat that posed to society. The new textile factories produced cheaper and better cloth and in greater quantities than the home workers, That is the hand loom weavers. With the collapse in demand for their cloth these weavers were impoverished and faced the very real threat of starvation. The government responded to their misery by introducing the ‘Speenhamland system’, which as with today’s working tax credits was a supplementary payment made to the weavers to enable them to pay for the necessaries of life. He suggests that it was the system that prevented there being an English revolution to match the French one. Desperate starving weavers would have had no option but to resort to violence to obtain the food for their families. It was a series of bad harvests and hunger that drove the Parisian mob to violence and it was that mob that was one of the driving forces behind the revolution. Any economist that preaches a message contrary to the ‘feel good’ philosophy of Neo-Liberalism is unwelcome in today’s economics departments and Polanyi would not be found on any departmental book shelves.
Fear of the damage an unbridled free market can wreak on society is slowly becoming better understood within the governing classes. Recently the Head of Transport for London spoke of his fears that the high price of transport could provoke social disorder. He feared that what happened in Brazil could happen in London, when the poor took to violent street protest to express their anger at high fares. Neither economic or social history intrudes on the unreal world of Neo-Liberal economics; if it did they would know that the propertied classes of Victorian London lived in constant fear of the mob. A similar fear seems to be developing now with the spread of gated communities in London whose intent is to keep out the violent feral underclass of popular imagining.
If economists were also philosophers they would be familiar with philosophical scepticism, which teaches that all schools of philosophy are flawed and blind faith in one such system is an error. Neo-liberal economics as one such grand theory of everything is flawed. Human knowledge is at best limited, they are unaware of Socrates dictum that he as the cleverest Athenian knew that he knew nothing. The practice of economics would be improved if it’s dictums were subject to a healthy degree of scepticism.
What economics lacks is any understanding of ethics, which is essential for any human science. In the 1960’s, Says Law was discredited because of its very lack of humanity (and because of the existence of better alternatives). Says law states that governments should never control wage rates, as if wages are allowed to fall to their natural level, employers will start to employ this new cheap affordable labour. Employment will pick up and competition between employers will push up wage rates and all will be well. Without openly acknowledging it the British government has been an advocate of this law. By removing all protections from the labour market they have allowed wage rates to fall to such a level that employers can buy lots of this new bargain priced labour. It matters not a jot that many of these new jobs pay less than the living wage and the recipients of the new poverty wages live a life of misery. This is why in the UK there is a recovery that few experience as they are stuck on poverty wages with no chance of increasing them. Rather than the recovery pushing up wages, employers will use agency workers who they can employ at less than minimum wage, by adopting various legal subterfuges. The government and the community of economists are unaware that an economy which fails to work for the majority of people in reality works for no one. Having a childlike or naive faith in Neo-liberalism and lacking the perspective of a philosophical sceptic they will also mistake the fantasies of Neo-Liberalism for reality.