The Mechanical Turn in Economics and Its Consequences

Yves here. This post takes what I see as an inconsistent, indeed, inaccurate stance on Adam Smith, since it depicts him as advocating laissez faire and also not being concerned about “emotions, sentiment, human relations and community.” Smith was fiercely opposed to monopolies as well as businessmen colluding to lower the wages paid to workers. He also saw The Theory of Moral Sentiments as his most important work and wanted it inscribed on his gravestone.

Nor is it true that Smith advocated government not intervening in business. From Mark Thoma, quoting Gavin Kennedy:

Jacob Viner addressed the laissez-faire attribution to Adam Smith in 1928…..Here is a list extracted from Wealth Of Nations:

  • the Navigation Acts, blessed by Smith under the assertion that ‘defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence’ (WN464);
  • Sterling marks on plate and stamps on linen and woollen cloth (WN138–9);
  • enforcement of contracts by a system of justice (WN720);
  • wages to be paid in money, not goods;
  • regulations of paper money in banking (WN437);
  • obligations to build party walls to prevent the spread of fire (WN324);
  • rights of farmers to send farm produce to the best market (except ‘only in the most urgent necessity’) (WN539);
  • ‘Premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen and woollen industries’ (TMS185);
  • ‘Police’, or preservation of the ‘cleanliness of roads, streets, and to prevent the bad effects of corruption and putrifying substances’;
  • ensuring the ‘cheapness or plenty [of provisions]’ (LJ6; 331);
  • patrols by town guards and fire fighters to watch for hazardous accidents (LJ331–2);
  • erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions intended to facilitate commerce (roads, bridges, canals and harbours) (WN723);
  • coinage and the mint (WN478; 1724);
  • post office (WN724);
  • regulation of institutions, such as company structures (joint- stock companies, co-partneries, regulated companies and so on) (WN731–58);
  • temporary monopolies, including copyright and patents, of fixed duration (WN754);
  • education of youth (‘village schools’, curriculum design and so on) (WN758–89);
  • education of people of all ages (tythes or land tax) (WN788);
  • encouragement of ‘the frequency and gaiety of publick diversions’(WN796);
  • the prevention of ‘leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease’ from spreading among the population (WN787–88);
  • encouragement of martial exercises (WN786);
  • registration of mortgages for land, houses and boats over two tons (WN861, 863);
  • government restrictions on interest for borrowing (usury laws) to overcome investor ‘stupidity’ (WN356–7);
  • laws against banks issuing low-denomination promissory notes (WN324);
  • natural liberty may be breached if individuals ‘endanger the security of the whole society’ (WN324);
  • limiting ‘free exportation of corn’ only ‘in cases of the most urgent necessity’ (‘dearth’ turning into ‘famine’) (WN539); and
  • moderate export taxes on wool exports for government revenue (WN879).

“Viner concluded, unsurprisingly, that ‘Adam Smith was not a doctrinaire advocate of laissez-faire’.

By Douglass Carmichael, perviously a Professor at University of California at Santa Cruz and a Washington DC based consultant, which clients including Hewlett-Packard, World Bank, Bell laboratories, The White House and the State Department. For the last ten years he has focused on the broad social science issues relevant to rethinking humanity’s relationship to nature. Cross posted from the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

With Adam Smith, and hints before in Ricardo and others, economics took the path of treating the economy as a natural object that should not be interfered with by the state. This fit the Newtonian ethos of the age: science was great, science was mathematics; science was true, right and good.

But along the way the discussion in, for example, Montaigne and Machiavelli — about the powers of imagination, myth, emotions, sentiment, human relations and community — was abandoned by the economists. (Adam Smith had written his Theory of Moral Sentiments 20 years earlier and sort of left it behind, though the Wealth of Nations is still concerned with human well-being.) Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, the same year as Smith’s Wealth, but hardly read today by most economists.

In philosophy and the arts (romanticism among others) there was great engagement in these issues economics was trying to avoid. But that philosophy and art criticism have not been widely read for many years.

The effect of ignoring the human side of lives was to undermine the social perspective of the “political,” by merging it with the individually focused “interest.” So, instead of exploring the inner structure of interest (or later utility or preference), or community feeling and the impact of culture, these were assumed to be irrelevant to the mechanics of the market. Politics, having to do with interest groups and power arrangements, is more vague and harder to model than economic activity.

Those who wanted economics to be a science were motivated by the perception that “being scientific” was appreciated by the society of the time, and was the path to rock-solid truth. But the move towards economics as a science also happened to align with a view of the landed and the wealthy that the economy was working for them, so don’t touch it. We get the equation, embracing science = conservative. This is still with us because of the implication that the market is made by god or nature rather than being socially constructed. Since economics is the attempt at a description of the economy, it was more or less locked in to the naturalist approach, which ignores things like class and ownership and treated capital as part of economic flow rather than as a possession that was useable for social and political power.

Even now, economics still continues as if it were part of the age of Descartes and avoids most social, historical and philosophical thought about the nature of man and society. Names like Shaftesbury and Puffendorf, very much read in their time, are far less known now than Hobbes, Descartes, Ricardo, Mill and Keynes. Karl Polanyi is much less well known than Hayek. We do not learn of the social history such as the complex interplay in Viennese society among those who were classmates and colleagues such as Hayek, Gombrich, Popper and Drucker. The impact of Viennese culture is not known to many economists.

The result is an economics that supports an economy that is out of control because the feedback loops through society and its impact of the quality of life — and resentment — are not recognized in a dehumanized economics, and so can’t have a feedback correcting effect.

The solution, however, is not to look for simplicity, but to embrace a kind of complexity that honors nature, humans, politics, and the way they are dealt with in philosophy, arts, investigative reporting, anthropology and history. Because the way forward cannot be a simple projection of the past. We are in more danger than that.

Anthony Pagden, in Why the Enlightenment is Still Important , writes that before the enlightenment, late feudalism and the Renaissance, “The scholastics had made their version of the natural law the basis for a universal moral and political code that demanded that all human beings be regarded in the same way, no matter what their culture or their beliefs. It also demanded that human beings respect each other because they share a common urge to ‘come together,’ and it required them to offer to each other, even to total strangers, help in times of need, to recognize ‘that amity among men is part of the natural law.’ Finally, while Hobbes and Grotius had accepted the existence of only one natural right — the right to self-preservation — the scholastics had allowed for a wide range of them.” —

Pagen also writes,  “The Enlightenment, and in particular that portion with which I am concerned, was in part, as we shall now see, an attempt to recover something of this vision of a unified and essentially benign humanity, of a potentially cosmopolitan world, without also being obliged to accept the theologians’ claim that this could only make sense as part of the larger plan of a well-meaning, if deeply inscrutable, deity.”

But as Pagen shows, that effort was overcome by market, technical and financial interests.

The reason this is so important is that the simple and ethical view in Smith (and many other classical economists if we were to read them) that it was wrong to let the poor starve because of manipulated grain prices, was replaced by a more mechanical view of society that denied human intelligence except as calculators of self interest. This is a return to the Hobbesian world leading to a destructive society: climate, inequality, corruption. Today, the poor are hemmed in by so many regulations and procedures (real estate, education, police) that people are now starved. Not having no food, but having bad food, which along with all the new forms of privation add up to a seriously starved life, is not perceived by a blinded society to be suffering. Economics in its current form — most economics papers and college courses — do not touch the third rail of class, or such pain. 

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44 comments

  1. HeadShaker

    Interesting. I’ve been reading (thanks to an intro from NC) Mark Blyth’s “Austerity” and, thus far, seems to imply, if not outright state, that Adam Smith was quite suspicious of government intervention in the economy. The “can’t live with it, can’t live without it, don’t want to pay for it” perspective. The bullet points you’ve listed above seem to refute that notion.

  2. justanotherprogressive

    Adam Smith tried to make a moral science out of what his class wanted to hear. If he had actually gone into those factories of his time, he might have had a different opinion of what labour was and how there was no “natural state” for wages, but only what was imposed on people who couldn’t fight back. If he had gotten out of his ivory tower for a while, he might have had a different opinion of what those owners of stock were doing. He also might have had different views on trade if he could have seen what was happening to the labourers in the textile industries in France. And I could go on. But instead he created a fantasy that has been the basis for all economic thinking since.
    In the same way, neoliberals are no different. They aren’t bad people – they just see their policies as right and just because those policies are working well for them and the people in their class, and I don’t think they really understand why it doesn’t work for others – maybe, like Adam Smith, they think that is the “natural state”…..

    Sorry, but there needs to be a Copernican Revolution in Economics just as there was in science. We have to realize that maybe Adam Smith was wrong – and I know that will be hard – just as it was hard for people to realize that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.

    Since I am retired, maybe I will go back to school, hold my nose and cover my lying eyes long enough to finish that Economics degree, so that I can get good access to all the other windows in Economics. I can’t really believe I am the only person thinking this way – there must be some bright people out there who have come to similar conclusions and I would dearly love to know who they are.

    1. Lyonwiss

      Read the first sentence of the Theory of Moral Sentiments – it makes an assumption which is the foundation of all of Adam Smith. He asserted that all men are moral. Morality in economics is the invisible hand creating order like gravity in astronomy. Unfortunately, Adam Smith’s assumption is false or at least not true enough to form a sound foundation for useful economic theory.

      1. justanotherprogressive

        But “morality” means different things to different people. Smith only saw the morality of his own class. For example, I am sure a wealthy man would consider it very moral to accumulate as much money as he could so that he would be seen by his peers as a good and worthy man who cares for his future generations and the well being of his class – he doesn’t see this accumulation as amoral – whilst a poor man may think that kind of accumulation is amoral because he thinks that money could be better used provide for those without the basic needs to survive ……

        1. Lyonwiss

          You have not read the first sentence of the book, where he stated what he meant – to me, it is his general statement of universal morality.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I’ve read a fair amount of Wealth of Nations although far from all of it and my take was that Smith was describing the economic system of his time as it was, not necessarily as it should or must be. Smith gets a bad rap from the left due to many people over the last 200+ years hearing what they wanted to hear from him to justify their own actions rather than what he actually said.

      I’m cherry picking a bit here since I don’t have the time to go through several hundred pages, but I think Smith might actually agree with you about the plight of labor and he was well aware of what the ownership class was up to –

      “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

      Adam Smith – Wealth of Nations

      1. diptherio

        Yup, wish I would have had that one handy in my intro to micro course…

        Another I remember from Smith was something like, “The law exists to protect those who have much from those who have little.” Sounds about right.

    3. Grebo

      there needs to be a Copernican Revolution in Economics

      One of Steve Keen’s favourite analogies is astronomy. Neoclassical economics is like Ptolemy’s epicycles; assume the Earth is at the centre, and that the planets orbit in circles and simply by adding little circles—epicycles—you can accurately describe the observed motion of the planets. The right epicycles in the right places can describe any motion. But they can’t explain anything, they add nothing to understanding, they subtract from it, because they are false but give the illusion of knowledge. Drop the assumptions and you can begin to get somewhere.

    4. digi_owl

      And that is exactly what Marx did, but then got himself sidetracked by trying to find (or create) support for his labor theory of value.

      Actually most of what he writes in Capital basically refutes said theory, instead hinting at energy being the core source of value (how much food/fuel is needed to produce one unit, basically).

      Steve Keen seems to have latched onto this in the last year or so, pointing out that all production is driven by energy. And the energy comes ultimately from the sun. Either it is turned into production via feeding workers, or by fueling machinery (by burning hydrocarbons extracted from plant and animal remains).

  3. la li lu le lo and behold

    There’s some sort of great irony in the appeal to the equally pseudoscientific concepts of “feedback loops” and “feedback correcting effect”, concepts from the mechanistic misconception of nature in cybernetics, in a piece complaining about mechanistic economics

    1. mejimenez

      Since words have somewhat flexible boundaries, it’s hard to tell from what perspective this response is looking at the history of science. Characterizing cybernetics as mechanistic would require an unusually broad definition of “mechanistic”. Even a superficial reading of Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, W. Ross Ashby, or any of the other early contributors to the discipline will make one aware that they were explicitly trying to address the limitations of simplistic mechanistic thinking. In the related discipline, General Systems Theory, von Bertalanffy expressly argued that we should take our cues from the organic living world to understand complex systems. With the introduction of Second Order Cybernetics by Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and others, the role of a sentient observer in describing the system in which he/she is embedded becomes the focus of attention. Bateson was an original participant with many of the people mentioned above in the Macy conferences where cybernetics was first introduced. The bulk of his work was a direct attack on the mechanistic view of the natural world.

      Of course, many writers treat cybernetics, General Systems Theory, and their related disciplines as pseudoscientific. But those are typically people who are firmly committed to mechanistic explanations.

    2. Grebo

      Engineers and ecologists will be surprised to learn that feedback loops are pseudoscientific. They must have been doing it wrong all this time.

        1. craazyboy

          I’m gonna kick my dog, Pavlov, till he stops getting this wrong. And crap. All that time I spent studying control systems theory in college. I coulda been a liberal arts major and mastered Cybernetic Totalitarianism.

    3. Anonymous

      if you think “feedback loops” are pseudoscientific please drop by any electronics college and enlighten them about how they’re using this pseudoscience all over their field and how they should follow proper “invisible hand laissez-faire” design …

  4. Vedant

    Yves,
    I have a question about a similar thing. Simon Kuznetz is credited as someone who has invented modern concept of GDP and he revolutionized the field of economics with statistical method (econometrics). However, Kuznets , in the same report in which he presented modern concept of GDP to US congress, wrote following(from wikipedia):-

    “The valuable capacity of the human mind to simplify a complex situation in a compact characterization becomes dangerous when not controlled in terms of definitely stated criteria. With quantitative measurements especially, the definiteness of the result suggests, often misleadingly, a precision and simplicity in the outlines of the object measured. Measurements of national income are subject to this type of illusion and resulting abuse, especially since they deal with matters that are the center of conflict of opposing social groups where the effectiveness of an argument is often contingent upon oversimplification.
    All these qualifications upon estimates of national income as an index of productivity are just as important when income measurements are interpreted from the point of view of economic welfare. But in the latter case additional difficulties will be suggested to anyone who wants to penetrate below the surface of total figures and market values. Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known. And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income. The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined above.
    Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

    So , my question is why economists keep treating GDP as some scared metric when its creator himself deems it not reliable? Why all qualifications about GDP by Kuznetz is ignored by most of the economists nowadays?

    1. Allegorio

      “So , my question is why economists keep treating GDP as some scared metric when its creator himself deems it not reliable? Why all qualifications about GDP by Kuznetz is ignored by most of the economists nowadays?”@Vedant

      ” Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known. And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income.”

      That is your explanation right there. Large abstract numbers such as GDP obscure social issues such as “the personal distribution of income.” and the effort that goes into creating that income. Large abstract numbers obscure the moral dimension that must be a part of all economic discussion and are obscured by statistics and sciencism. As the genius of Mark Twain put it, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Beware the credentialed classes!

  5. Mucho

    Interesting. There is a great book by John Dupré called ‘Human Nature and the Limits of Science (2001)”, which tackles this subject in a general way: the facts that taking a mechanistic model als a paradigm for diverse areas of science is problematic and leads to myopia. He describes it as a form of ‘scientific imperialism’, stretching the use of concepts from one area of science to other areas and leading to bad results (because there are, you know, relevant differences). As a prime example, he mentions economics. (When reading EConned;s chapter of the science ( ‘science’) of economics, I was struck by the similar argument.)

      1. Lyonwiss

        Soddy was a scientist. He should have written as a scientist with definitions, logic and rigour, but he wrote like a philosopher, full of waffle and unsubstantiated assertions like other economists. It is unscientific to apply universal laws discovered in physics and chemistry to economics without proving by observations that those laws also apply to economics.

        Soddy needed to have developed a scientific methodology for economics first, before stating his opinions which are scientifically unproven like most economic propositions.

        http://www.asepp.com/methodology/

  6. Jim A.

    I get irritated by radical free-marketeers who when presented with a social problem tend to dogmatically assert that “The free market wills it,” as if that ended all discussion. It is as if the free market was their God who must always be obeyed. Unlike Abraham, we do not need to obey if we feel that the answer is unjust.

  7. PKMKII

    Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, the same year as Smith’s Wealth, but hardly read today by most economists.

    Other than as a reflection of the sentiments of the time Gibbon was writing in, historians don’t spend much time reading it either. The moralistic explanations for the disintegration of the (Western) Roman Empire were long ago discarded by all serious analysis of late antiquity. More practical explanations, especially the loss of the North African bread basket to the Vandals, are presented in the scholarly work these days.

    1. PhilM

      That book of Gibbon’s is an incredible achievement. If it is not read by historians today, it is their loss. Its moral explanations, out of fashion today, are actually quite compelling. They become more so when read with de Tocqueville’s views of the moral foundations of American township democracy and their transmission into the behavior, and assumptions, of New Englanders, whose views formed the basis of the federal republican constitution.

      The loss of the breadbasket was problematical, too. And it may be that no civilization, however young and virile, could withstand the migrations forever, as they withstood or absorbed them, with a few exceptions, for eight hundred years. But the progressive losses to the migratory tribes may have been a symptom of the real, “moral,” cause of the decline.

      After all, the Romans did not always have that breadbasket; indeed, they had to conquer it to get it, along with the rest of the mighty and ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and beyond, using the strengths derived from the mores of their martial republic. The story of the Punic Wars is a morality play in history, as much as anything else. But the main problem was the dilution of the Roman republican mores into a provincial stew.

      And after that nice detached remark, about which historians can surely natter on in the abstract, I’ll toss in this completely anti-historicist piece of nonsense: I think it’s actually much the same problem the Americans are having today, as the mores of the founders have dissolved into the idea that the nation is about national government, centralized administration, world leadership, global domination through military might, and imperialist capitalism. That is not a national ethic that leads to lasting nobility of purpose and moral strength—as George Washington and Ike Eisenhower both pointed out.

    2. blert

      Dendrochronology ( tree ring dating & organic history ) has established a wholly new rationale for the termination of the Roman Empire… the re-boot of the Chinese and Japanese cultures… and the death of a slew of Meso-American cultures.

      From 536-539AD the entire planet suffered a staggering holocaust.

      Krakatoa blew up — ejecting so much dust that it triggered a ‘nuclear winter’ that lasted through those years.

      The Orientals actually heard the blasts… recognized that they emminated from the Indonesian islands. ( Well, at least to the south. ) The erruption and the weather was duly recorded by Court scribes.

      Roman accounts assert that 90% of the population of Constantinople died or fled. ( mostly died ) The Emperor and his wife were at the dockside ready to flee — when she talked him back off the boat. Her reasoning was sound: it’s Hell everywhere. He won’t have any authority once he leaves his imperial guard.

      It was this period that ended agriculture in North Africa. ( Algeria-Tunisia ) The drought blew all of the top soil into the Med. It was an irreversible tragedy.

      This super drought triggered the events in Beowulf — and the exodus of the Petrans from Petra. They marched off to Mecca and Medina… both locations long known to have mountain springs with deep water. The entire Arabian population congregated there.

      This was the founding population amongst which Mohammed was raised… many years later.

      The true reason that Islam swept through Araby and North Africa was that both lands were still largely de-populated.

      The die-off was so staggering that one can’t wrap ones mind around it.

      Period art is so bleak that modern historians discounted it… until the tree ring record established that this trauma happened on a global scale.

    1. justanotherprogressive

      Or throw them out! I remember the very first thing I was taught in Economics 101 about supply and demand and how they would balance at an equilibrium price. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that there is no equilibrium price and that an equilibrium price was exactly the last thing suppliers or demanders wanted, and that the price of a good depended on who had the most power to set the price. Yet, we had to accept the “supply and demand theory” as coming directly from God. It’s as if we were taught in Chemistry that the only acceptable theory of bonding possible was the hydrogen-oxygen bond and even though we could see with our own eyes that hydrogen also bonds to carbon, we should throw that out because it is an aberration from “acceptable theory”…..

      1. PhilM

        Yes, coming from God; Platonic, like a Form. Economics is written in Forms, like “homo economicus” and “the efficient market.” But we live in the Cave, where the markets that humans actually make are sad imitations of the Forms in the textbooks.

        There’s a lot good in the post, I think; noting the important philosophical underpinnings and challenges to Economics, and particularly in making it a moral, and therefore political and “social” science. But it’s great to see where people’s use of “incantatory names from the past” is called out by the curator. It’s a pet peeve.

      2. digi_owl

        Economics is the last “science” to hold onto the notion of equilibrium.

        The rest has moved on to complex systems/chaos theory, first demonstrated in meteorology.

        Trying to apply complex systems to economics have been the goal of Steve Keen’s work for several decades now.

  8. Rosario

    In college I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between modern economic theory and the control theory taught in engineering. Not such a great fit though, society is not a mechanical governor.

    1. craazyboy

      Ha. That’s the same thing that got economists so excited. Things is, an engineering student attempting to model a simple system with two moving parts cares a great deal about whether the moving parts are connected by a spring, or ball screw, or shock absorber, or lever, or even invisible stuff like a temperature gradient when coming up with the system math model. Economists seem to think wtf is the difference?

      Next, if the math gets a bit unwieldy as the number of moving parts increase, which it does in a hurry, they decide to simplify the math.

      Next, assume they have perfect sensors for everything and system lag can assumed to be zero for talking purposes, and in research papers too.

      Next, hysteresis effects due to bent parts, leaky valves and stretched springs are assumed not to exist. Congress has the “Highway Bill” thingy to address that.

      Next, the guy with the control knob will do the “right thing”. Or better yet, a “market” is doing the control knob. There could be “intermediaries”, but these are modeled as zero loss pieces of golden wire and gold plated connectors.

      Finally, money comes from batteries and there is no such thing in the real world like “shorts”, “open circuits”, or “semiconductors” with their quantum tunneling properties.

      Other than that, it’s all good!

  9. knowbuddhau

    Thanks for this, and especially the heads up about the author’s take on Smith. This is exactly what I’m on about. Not only are there more ways of knowing than the infamous mechanical, it itself should’ve died long ago.

    I learned that from this Chomsky lecture I found last year: Noam Chomsky: The machine, the ghost and the limits of understanding; Newton´s contribution to the study of mind”. (Quotes are from Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding, an essay that seems to me to be the basis of the lecture.) Pretty sure I mentioned it in comments somewhere.

    The author stresses economics is stuck in the age of Descartes. The history of Newton’s refutation of Descartes’s mechanical philosophy is very interesting. Yes, refutation. Descartes’s mechanical philosophy is as dead as a dodo. So why does it still plague us? Obviously, because thinking of and acting on nature as if it were all just one great big machine works at getting you paid, much better than that wishy-washy humanism crap. /f (facetious).

    I used to go on and on against reducing everything to mechanisms, and I largely blamed Newton. I was wrong.

    I’ve spent an hour trying to boil this down. Ain’t happenin. Apologies for the length.

    The background is the so-called “mechanical philosophy” – mechanical science in modern terminology. This doctrine, originating with Galileo and his contemporaries, held that the world is a machine, operating by mechanical principles, much like the remarkable devices that were being constructed by skilled artisans of the day and that stimulated the scientific imagination much as computers do today; devices with gears, levers, and other mechanical components, interacting through direct contact with no mysterious forces relating them. The doctrine held that the entire world is similar: it could in principle be constructed by a skilled artisan, and was in fact created by a super-skilled artisan. The doctrine was intended to replace the resort to “occult properties” on the part of the neoscholastics: their appeal to mysterious sympathies and antipathies, to forms flitting through the air as the means of perception, the idea that rocks fall and steam rises because they are moving to their natural place, and similar notions that were mocked by the new science.

    The mechanical philosophy provided the very criterion for intelligibility in the sciences. Galileo insisted that theories are intelligible, in his words, only if we can “duplicate [their posits] by means of appropriate artificial devices.” The same conception, which became the reigning orthodoxy, was maintained and developed by the other leading figures of the scientific revolution: Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Newton, and others.

    Today Descartes is remembered mainly for his philosophical reflections, but he was primarily a working scientist and presumably thought of himself that way, as his contemporaries did. His great achievement, he believed, was to have firmly established the mechanical philosophy, to have shown that the world is indeed a machine, that the phenomena of nature could be accounted for in mechanical terms in the sense of the science of the day. But he discovered phenomena that appeared to escape the reach of mechanical science. Primary among them, for Descartes, was the creative aspect of language use, a capacity unique to humans that cannot be duplicated by machines and does not exist among animals, which in fact were a variety of machines, in his conception.

    As a serious and honest scientist, Descartes therefore invoked a new principle to accommodate these non-mechanical phenomena, a kind of creative principle. In the substance philosophy of the day, this was a new substance, res cogitans, which stood alongside of res extensa. This dichotomy constitutes the mind-body theory in its scientific version. Then followed further tasks: to explain how the two substances interact and to devise experimental tests to determine whether some other creature has a mind like ours. These tasks were undertaken by Descartes and his followers, notably Géraud de Cordemoy; and in the domain of language, by the logician-grammarians of Port Royal and the tradition of rational and philosophical grammar that succeeded them, not strictly Cartesian but influenced by Cartesian ideas.

    All of this is normal science, and like much normal science, it was soon shown to be incorrect. Newton demonstrated that one of the two substances does not exist: res extensa. The properties of matter, Newton showed, escape the bounds of the mechanical philosophy. To account for them it is necessary to resort to interaction without contact. Not surprisingly, Newton was condemned by the great physicists of the day for invoking the despised occult properties of the neo-scholastics. Newton largely agreed. He regarded action at a distance, in his words, as “so great an Absurdity, that I believe no Man who has in philosophical matters a competent Faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.” Newton however argued that these ideas, though absurd, were not “occult” in the traditional despised sense. Nevertheless, by invoking this absurdity, we concede that we do not understand the phenomena of the material world. To quote one standard scholarly source, “By `understand’ Newton still meant what his critics meant: `understand in mechanical terms of contact action’.”

    It is commonly believed that Newton showed that the world is a machine, following mechanical principles, and that we can therefore dismiss “the ghost in the machine,” the mind, with appropriate ridicule. The facts are the opposite: Newton exorcised the machine, leaving the ghost intact. The mind-body problem in its scientific form did indeed vanish as unformulable, because one of its terms, body, does not exist in any intelligible form. Newton knew this very well, and so did his great contemporaries.

    And later:

    Similar conclusions are commonplace in the history of science. In the mid-twentieth century, Alexander Koyré observed that Newton demonstrated that “a purely materialistic pattern of nature is utterly impossible (and a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics, such as that of Lucretius or of Descartes, is utterly impossible, too)”; his mathematical physics required the “admission into the body of science of incomprehensible and inexplicable `facts’ imposed up on us by empiricism,” by what is observed and our conclusions from these observations.

    So the wrong guy was declared the winner of Descartes vs. Newton, and we’ve been living with the resultant Frankenstein’s monster of an economy running rampant all this time. And the mad “scientists” who keep it alive, who think themselves so “realistic” and “pragmatic” in fact are atavists ignorant of the last few centuries of science. But they do get paid, whereas I (relatively) don’t.

    1. Vatch

      …Alexander Koyré observed that Newton demonstrated that “a purely materialistic pattern of nature is utterly impossible (and a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics, such as that of Lucretius or of Descartes, is utterly impossible, too)”…

      I think that Newton considered phenomena like gravity, magnetism, and optics to be non-material, perhaps even spiritual, and separate from matter. Modern physicists would disagree, and would consider gravity and electro-magnetism to be purely material phenomena. Newton didn’t prove that the world is non-mechanical; he showed that objects do not need to touch for them to have influence on each other.

      It is still quite possible that there are non-material phenomena, but those would be separate from gravity and electro-magnetism, which Newton considered non-material.

      1. diptherio

        It is still quite possible that there are non-material phenomena

        Like love, courage, hope, fear, greed and compassion?

        1. Vatch

          Sure! The existence of souls is another possibility (even for Buddhists, although I suppose they would have to be pudgalavadins to believe in this).

        2. Plenue

          Are all products of the brain. I don’t see how the results of the interaction of electrical impulses and chemicals are non-material. Magic is not an explanation for anything.

    2. M Quinlan

      So Newton formulated his theories because of his belief in Alchemy and not, as I had thought, despite it.
      Discussions like this are what make this site so great.

  10. blert

    All modern economic thought ( 1900+ ) has been corrupted by the arrogance of Taylor’s Time & Motion Studies.

    The essence of which is that bean counters can revolutionize economic output by statistics and basic accounting.

    AKA Taylorism.

    Big Government is Taylorism as practiced.

    At bottom, it arrogantly assumes that if you can count it, you can optimise it.

    The fact is that ‘things’ are too complicated.

    Taylor’s principles only work in a micro environment. His work started in machine shops, and at that level of simplicity, still applies.

    Its abstractions and assumptions break down… elsewhere.

    MOST economic models in use today… are the grandsons of Taylorism.

    They are also the analytic engines that have driven the global economy to the edge of the cliff.

  11. RBHoughton

    For my penny’s worth the sentence “Today, the poor are hemmed in by so many regulations and procedures (real estate, education, police) that people are now starved” reveals the main problem.

    Too many of the most lucrative parts of every national economy have been closed off by politicians and reserved for their friends.

  12. Peter L.

    The introductory remarks on Adam Smith reminded me of a funny exchange between David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky. Barsamian complements Chomsky on his research on Adam Smith:

    DAVID BARSAMIAN: One of the heroes of the current right-wing revival… is Adam Smith. You’ve done some pretty impressive research on Smith that has excavated… a lot of information that’s not coming out. You’ve often quoted him describing the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

    NOAM CHOMSKY: I didn’t do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There’s no research. Just read it. He’s pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.

    And here is a link to Adam Smith’s poignant denunciation of division of labour:

    http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN20.html#V.1.178

    This mention of division of labor is, as Chomsky points out, left out of the index of the University of Chicago scholarly edition! Of George Stigler’s introduction Chomsky claims, “It’s likely he never opened The Wealth of Nations. Just about everything he said about the book was completely false.”

    I recommend reading the entire paragraph at the link above. Smith writes:

    “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. … But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

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