The Two Narratives of Political Economy

Every once in a while I try to educate myself about the dismal science.

A retro review from June 14, 2012 …

Review: The Two Narratives of Political Economy, eds. Nicholas Capaldi and Gordon Lloyd, 2010.Two Narratives of Political Economy

The two narratives are the arguments for liberty and the argument for equality, the two ultimate sources for most of our political debates these days, our discussions over what government should and can do. This book traces the main points of that argument for roughly two hundred years. What causes enslavement, what causes inequality, what can eliminate either, and whether it is possible to solve both problems at once – if they are problems, is what this book covers.

While economics was already pretending to be a science and using some very simple equations, these selections all come from a time when economics was not pretending to be a values neutral description of the world separate from politics, just another impartial tool for government to pick up as needed. These authors all have a political picture of the world they wish to preserve or create, an idea of the best life for man.

It’s evident fairly early on Capaldi’s and Lloyd’s sympathies are with the liberty narrative. They both are affiliated with the Liberty Fund. Some exclamation marks get thrown around in the introduction to the equality narratives, and, at one point, they openly state the book is weighted towards the liberty narrative since the equality narrative is the default one of the modern world, an observation hard to argue with.
Still, Capaldi and Lloyd have succeeded well in producing a one-volume discussion of this important argument for modern audiences who have little or no first-hand acquaintance with these authors. Given that many of the introductions and editorial summations are filled with questions for the reader to ponder, it would not only serve for self-study but as a classroom textbook. They have given the publication dates of their selections and place them in the historical context of the ongoing arguments but otherwise offer little editorial opinion. Readers are just given the texts with no poisoning of minds with autobiographical details or comments on the authors’ styles or comprehensibility.

After a general introduction which argues for the retrieval of the wisdom found in not severing the study of politics and economics and placing the liberty-equality argument in historical context and introducing some terms, we get the three sections of the book. Each of them briefly summarizes the following excerpts, and each seems to almost follow some exponential progression since each is about twice as long as the preceding section.

The first part is entitled “The Emergence of Political Economy: Economic Activity Leaves the Household”. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the founders of the two schools of argument and this section has three selections from three works by each. For Locke, we have excerpts from The Second Treatise, “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, and “Some Considerations on the Lowering of Interest and the Raising the Value of Money. For the equality argument, Rousseau’s “The Two Discourses”, “A Discourse on Political Economy”, and “The Social Contract” are excerpted.

Part two is “The Arrival of Political Economy: Liberty, Property, and Equality”. It features the most varied cast of contributors. Excerpts of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” are here. There is a section of relevant material from American founding documents for the liberty narrative: Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, a portion of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, an excerpt from James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” written between the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, a portion of that constitution, two Federalist Papers, and some of the Bill of Rights. The French Revolution of equality is represented by excerpts from the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”; the French Constitutions of 1791, 1793, and 1795; and Robespierre’s “On the Principles of Political Morality”. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is excerpted along with two works of P. J. Proudhon, “The Philosophy of Poverty” and “What Is Property?” (The latter essay gave us the famed anarchist slogan, “Property is theft.”)

While they are mentioned later on by other contributors, I don’t think the excerpts of Robert Owen’s “A New View of Society” or Comte de Saint-Simon’s “Nouveau Christianisme” really advanced the argument much or increased understanding of their specific contributions to the equality narrative, so they could probably be eliminated. The same could arguably be said of the excerpt of Friedrich List’s “National System” – though it does provide a valid rejoinder to the inherent and naïve globalism of Smith’s Wealth of Nations on free trade and the damage it can do to nations.

Part three, “The Maturation of the Two Narratives: The Challenge of Social Economy” features only three authors: John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Fredrick Engels. From Mill we get selections from “The Principles of Political Economy”, “On Liberty”, and “The Subjection of Women”. Marx solo provides bits from Das Kapital; Engels by himself gives us “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, and together Marx and Engels provide excerpts from “The Communist Manifesto”.

Some of the titles may, at first glance, seem surprising in a theoretical argument on the definition, value, and creation of liberty and equality through government and the economy. Tocqueville spells out how some of capitalism’s more unpleasant consequences were mitigated in the America he toured – though he also warns – in a theme that continues from Smith to Marx – on the dehumanizing consequences and social rifts that are the potential for industrialized capitalism. Many of the writers on both sides take up the issue of public education and the rights of women whether from a pragmatic or moral ground, whether smarter and more workers are the object or the enrichment of ignored minds.

One useful thing the editors have done, besides modernizing the spelling, is provided their own subheadings for the longer excerpts. The introduction of the third part usefully, and with no distortion that I could tell, sums up the ten excerpted arguments of Das Kapital. (It may surprise readers that two of the most modern writers, Marx and Mill, have the most opaque styles.). They also provide plenty of references for further readings, including two major websites for libertarian centered works and Marxist related works. However, this book could stand another proofreading since there are some typos and, apparently, missing words in parts.

Of the works and authors I am somewhat familiar with – Locke and Smith and the American founding documents, I think the selections were good, relevant choices.

So why read almost five hundred pages of writers dead at least a 100 years? Well, there is the pleasure of being able to discomfort those making glib and ignorant arguments from the authority – or by misinterpretation – of the selected authors. More significant, though, is that the reader often gets some concise, thoughtful arguments on matters still relevant to us or comes to see when a thinker’s thoughtful, detailed analysis of a problem veers off into abstract, wishful thinking when he starts on the solution. Those who have followed the ideological arguments of modern politics will recognize some of the phrases, some of the arguments. There is satisfaction in seeing that writer x really did say y and in z context. Other times, the opposite occurs, and one realizes just how much violence time and popular misunderstanding has done to a slogan’s origin. I, for instance, while having a great deal more sympathy for the liberty narrative, did find some valid points in Proudhon and Marx. However, I found Rousseau’s philosophy even more execrable than I suspected.

In short, a good way to hit the beginning highlights of a conversation still taking place in the world – whether with quiet or raised voices or with guns.

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