A Few Thoughts on the Origins of an Economic Paradigm

homeless

Modern economic thought arose sometime in the 18th century, a very different time than our own. In The Encyclopedia of Earth, Robert Costanza et al. explain the belief system of the time:

“After the Renaissance…it was argued that material security was needed to establish the conditions for moral progress. Scarcity caused greed and even war; scarcity forced people to work so hard that they did not have time to contemplate the scriptures and live morally. Material progress, in short, was necessary to establish the conditions for moral progress. Thus as economics emerged two centuries ago, the individual pursuit of materialism was justified on the presumption that once basic material meeds of food, shelter, and clothing were met, people would have the time and conditions to pursue their individual moral and collective social improvement” (“Historical Development”).

Anyone who has a fascination with history or a love for Dickens’ writing shouldn’t find this surprising, but somehow it was a revelation for me — like finding a piece to a puzzle lost under the sofa. It was always there, but I wasn’t looking in the right place.

In cultures where the ruling class, or the wealthy class, wants to remain the ruling/wealthy class, it’s best for them to give themselves moral authority. It isn’t necessarily enough to have wealth or even a birth right. When appealing to the common folk, it’s also good to have moral authority. The Catholic Church has relied on moral authority for two thousand years. The lack of correlation between its claims and the reality led to the Reformation and the popularity of Martin Luther’s teachings. The pharohs of Ancient Egypt and the emperors of Ancient China employed this technique, but not all elite employ such an explicit message. Often moral authority is an implicit paradigm within a society.

Embedded within both the Republican, and increasingly the Conservative, rhetoric, there’s an implicit message: If you’re poor, sick or in some other way marginalized, you’re somehow morally inferior as well. You’re not working hard enough and you’re not worthy. Although he is speaking specifically about Mormonism, I’m going to quote Mark Skousen, professor of economics at Grantham University, because his words illustrate the right-wing ethic so well: “If you live a righteous life, God will bless you. Over and over, you read about this cycle of prosperity—a business cycle, if you will” (As stated by Lehmann, 2011).

Upon reflection, I think this ideology plays well with our increasing idealization of celebrity and the wealthy lifestyle. By idealizing the wealthy and their possessions, we seem to, by association, grant them moral authority as well. On the positive side, we can look at celebrities like Bono who have been able to draw attention to worthy causes, but on the negative side there’s a creeping sense that people who lack possessions or wealth are unworthy of equal treatment. We continue to equate material progress with moral progress.

Robert Costanza et al. “Historical Development,” The Encyclopedia of Earth.

Lehmann, C. (Oct. 2011) “Pennies from heaven: How Mormon economics shape the G.O.P” Harper’s Magazine.

Image by Peter Griffin

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