Saturday, June 27, 2015

James Fallows — How the World Works

Weekend reading
Americans persist in thinking that Adam Smith's rules for free trade are the only legitimate ones. But today's fastest-growing economies are using a very different set of rules.
Friedrich List, Alexander Hamilton, and the American system.
Today's Anglo-American world view rests on the shoulders of three men. One is Isaac Newton, the father of modern science. One is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of liberal political theory. (If we want to keep this purely Anglo-American, John Locke can serve in his place.) And one is Adam Smith, the father of laissez-faire economics. From these founding titans come the principles by which advanced society, in the Anglo-American view, is supposed to work. A society is supposed to understand the laws of nature as Newton outlined them. It is supposed to recognize the paramount dignity of the individual, thanks to Rousseau, Locke, and their followers. And it is supposed to recognize that the most prosperous future for the greatest number of people comes from the free workings of the market. So Adam Smith taught, with axioms that were enriched by David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and the other giants of neoclassical economics.

The most important thing about this summary is the moral equivalence of the various principles. Isaac Newton worked in the realm of fundamental science. Without saying so explicitly, today's British and American economists act as if the economic principles they follow had a similar hard, provable, undebatable basis. If you don't believe in the laws of physics—actions create reactions, the universe tends toward greater entropy—you are by definition irrational. And so with economics. If you don't accept the views derived from Adam Smith—that free competition is ultimately best for all participants, that protection and interference are inherently wrong—then you are a flat-earther.
Outside the United States and Britain the matter looks quite different. About science there is no dispute. "Western" physics is the physics of the world. About politics there is more debate: with the rise of Asian economies some Asian political leaders, notably Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, and several cautious figures in Japan, have in effect been saying that Rousseau's political philosophy is not necessarily the world's philosophy. Societies may work best, Lee and others have said, if they pay less attention to the individual and more to the welfare of the group.
The Atlantic (1993)
How the World Works
James Fallows | national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly

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