One of the great economists, J. M. Keynes, observed that we are ruled by ideas and very little else. This is simple and true: even in the tribal state, one individual can’t dominate a group for long without the vital tool of an idea. To those of us who enjoy tinkering with ideas, the thought seems comforting only until we reflect on the quality of ideas currently in circulation.
In our times, economics provides the belief system for developed societies. We’ve tried feudalism, the divine right of kings, theocracy, collectivism based on notions of equality or national identity: history has even known brief experiments with democracy. In the end we come back to Leviathan: the people make willing submission to a system that may be oppressive, but is deemed better than no system, or any alternative that has so far been tried.
It turns out that Leviathan requires articles of faith as much as any other system – “because I’m telling you to” just isn’t sufficient for most of us. We need a unifying, all embracing theology to sustain our collective fantasy that we live in a rational world (even if that means denying the parts of the actual world that are beyond the scope of the subject. Economics provides the sacred books and theological doctrine of our secular societies – specifically, of capitalism – and the reassurance that all is being done for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Politicians still argue about this and that; but their language is couched in terms of economic theory that they regard as self-evident truth even when they barely understand it. For us, to deny the imperative of Economic Growth is equivalent to a medieval person denying the Word of God. Even urges that are seemingly built into the species have been sublimated to this purpose – with our tendency to warfare frustrated by mutually assured destruction, we live out the fable of nations struggling for supremacy through the competitive Global Economy (also professional sports, which every day more resemble just another area of business).
Of itself, this shouldn’t matter. We’re all hard-headed and practical materialists now and we know that money makes the world go round; we’re entitled to hold a creed that reflects our understanding of the world as it really is.
Except that none of the above is true. The world actually goes round in accordance with principles of nature, of which science can give us some glimpsed understanding. As for human nature; we may have understood (as a logical conviction at least) that transcendence of the spirit is a human invention and that we are tiny creatures with a brief span that is less than a flicker in the grand scheme of things, but this thought makes us neither practical nor hard headed. We invent big ideas to be ruled by because we are terrified of freedom that burns for just a short time. The economic theory of our capitalist societies is just one more in a series of comforting rulebooks, as dangerous as any other big idea that is supposed to explain everything. Here’s why. Read More→