Recently I have been reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. In reading this book I realised that Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy opens the possibility of there being a different approach to economics. What Wittgenstein is always criticising philosophers for is there constant search for the one grand theory, the unifying theory that answers all the questions. There was he argued no grand theory and it was pointless looking for one. This is an approach that I believe should be adopted in economics.
There is at present one theory that dominates economic policy making and that is what might be termed free market economics. One small book Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the origin of all current thinking on economics. Usually today it is known as Neo-liberal economics, an economic philosophy associated with the political right. Although there is a left of centre variant, new Keynesianism. Proponents of the latter claim to have rediscovered in Keynes writings his love for the free market and put to one side Keynes radicalism.
Keynes radicalism was the consequence of his despair at the misguided policy making of the governments of the 1920s and 30s. Usually the policies of the 19th century Parisian commune are ridiculed by economists. One policy that was held up to ridicule was the policy of having the unemployed dig up the paving stones, only to replace them later. The unemployed were paid a wage for this work. Economists saw this as a foolish waste of money that did little to improve the economy. However as Keynes pointed out this created an income for the unemployed and that there spending could help bring a dormant economy back into life.
What this illustrates is that Keynes was asking a different question to that asked by his contemporaries. He was trying to find an answer to the question, how do we bring to an end the misery of mass unemployment? His academic colleagues were asking a different question, how do we restore a dysfunctional economy back to being a fully functioning one that will in the long term work to the benefit all? Different questions have different answers. While Keynes advocated greater government spending to increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment; they wanted to cut government spending, believing that only a prolonged period of sound finance and balanced budgets could create the strong economy, an economy which would eventually generate new economic growth and so ending the time mass unemployment. All this government could say to the unemployment was to have patience, as eventually the economy would pick up and they would have jobs. Keynes had one answer to this policy and that was in the long run we are all dead. There was also the unspoken assumption that growth generated by Keynes spending policies would be bad growth, whereas the economy eventually moved into the upswing in the trade cycle that this was good growth. A set of unprovable and dubious assumptions
When George Osborne adopted a similar policy in 2010, that of fiscal consolidation, cutting government expenditure and balancing the books, he repeated all the errors of the politicians of the 1920s and 30s. Mass misery, although this time not caused by unemployment, but low wages and the insecure employment of the ‘gig’ economy.
Wittgenstein’s last book was ‘Philosophical Investigations’ crystallised my thinking on economics. Rather than believing that there was one grand unified theory of economics, there are series of economic investigations which belong to one family, as they all bear a familial resemblance. The economy as subject matter is the familial resemblance. He also writes about the grammar of philosophy, which provides the format or structure for ensuring that the correct questions are asked or the correct philosophical investigations undertaken. What is the nature of good is an incorrect question. The correct question is what actions are understood as good. Asking people what is good is silly, as anybody when asked that question could give numerous examples. They understand the concept good, what they don’t need is a philosopher telling them what good means. Philosophers when asking this question brings itself into discredit, as the answer is either I don’t or a definition that lacks application or validity to everyday life.* Politicians are also failing to formulate their questions correctly. What they ask is that asked by the politicians of the 1930s how can we the economy to health. What they should be asking is a series of questions about the economy, such as how can unemployment be reduced, when looking for policy solutions to all these individual problems they will be answering the big question, of how can we restore the economy to good health.
I can give examples to demonstrate my thinking. The British economy has a number of dysfunctions within it, but ones that the Neo-Liberals believe only require the one solution. These dysfunctions are:
• Slow and anaemic economic growth
• The highest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP for a developed country, as a consequence of a shrinking manufacturing industry
• An unbalanced economy, one in which the financial service sectors are booming and manufacturing is in slow relative decline, an economy also unbalanced in that the southeast and London are experiencing high growth and incomes while the other regions experience the reverse
• An economy that is increasingly failing to deliver for increasing numbers of people, who are denied the essentials of a good life, that is fair incomes, secure employment and good housing.
• Income inequality is now approaching those levels last seen in the dismal 1930s
• The economy is increasingly subject to speculative booms and busts in the various asset market, usually such busts originate in the property market
• A country which shares record levels of indebtedness with Japan. The majority of British debt is private sector debt, which an upward shift in interest rates could make unsustainable, as too many households would have difficulty managing their debt repayments
There are other dysfunctions that I could add to the list, however I had to end the list somewhere. Only today Areon Davis (Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment) has in today’s Guardian newspaper outlined a different set of market dysfunctions, which could result in a repeat of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Yet the Neo-Liberals politicians always resort to the same set of policy options to deal with each of these dysfunctions. They are
• Vary interest rates, either lower or raise them
• Reduce regulation on business, thereby reducing the regulatory role of the state
• Cut taxes and government spending
• Recently they have added a new measure – quantitive easing, that is increasing the supply of money to the banks
What the British economy requires is a different set of policy options for each of these major dysfunctions. Why do these politicians believe that the same policy options should be prescribed for each policy? A doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, he would not use them a patient that suffered a cardiac arrest, yet this is exactly what the government does with economic policy making. It’s always the same prescription, whatever the problem.
The economy is a dynamic organisation that is constantly changing and each change in the economy offers new benefits or brings to the fore new problems. There can be no one theory of everything, while Neo-Liberalism offers some policy options suitable for some problems, that is all it can offer. If instead politicians realised that each new problem the economy threw up was asking a new question of them and not just some variant of an old question policy making would improve. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, economics is a series of investigations that ask different questions, each of which requires a different response.
*I am aware that my brief paragraph does an injustice to Wittgenstein’s thinking, as I have taken elements from ‘The Brown and Blue Books’ and ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which are dissimilar books written at different stages in the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking. However to do so suited my purposes.