Thursday, May 20, 2010

Roepke on the Evolution of Economic Ethics

From Roepke's Economics of The Free Society, which even in its first chapter is proving to be excellent reading:

The social form of the struggle [against economic scarcity] is manifested in the different methods men use to obtain those things which nature has not freely supplied. There are, in principle, three such methods, as a result of which we see three kinds of struggle. There is, first, the ethically negative method of using violence and/or fraud to procure for ourselves, at others' expense, the means of overcoming scarcity. The second method is the ethically positive one of altruism, thanks to which goods and services are supplied to us without our being required to give anything in return.

The third method, which he goes on about at some length, is the “method of business” – ethically neutral reciprocal exchange that is mutually beneficial. He appears to have little regard for man's innate tendencies. “Only the powerful influences of religion, morality, and law appear able to induce us to adhere scrupulously to the third method.”

He sees many of the problems in modern economics as a confusion of the several “methods” for one another, mostly as a result of deliberate distortion:

There are a variety of procedures for avoiding the rendering of a service equal to one received. Leveling a revolver at someone is one of the quickest but also one of the riskiest ways of getting something for nothing. Much safer and more efficient are the devices of special privilege and monopoly for they can be tricked out in ideological trappings which may make them seem not only innocuous but even beneficial to the general interest. The modern problem of monopoly can ultimately be defined in no other way than as a distortion of the principle of equivalence or reciprocity in exchange effected by means of the method of exploitation. Solving the monopoly problem, therefore, means nothing other than finding a way to eliminate this distortion.

On the other hand, he is not necessarily fond of the way that modern Western civilization has extended the “method of business,” a.k.a., the division of labor. In particular, he views the modern extension of capitalism as an evolution of “internal” and external ethics:

The proportions in which the three methods are found and in which they are combined determine in the final analysis what we call the economic spirit of an age. The evolution of our own times can be better understood in the light of the double moral standard which has for so long prevailed: a sterner code is applied within the narrow circle of our own family and friends (internal morality) and a laxer one is employed in our dealings with strangers (external morality). For a soldier to steal from his bunk-mates is regarded as a low form of treachery, while to practice the same theft upon the occupants of a neighboring barrack passes for a feat of cunning. And let the same soldier return laden with loot taken from the citizens of a conquered country and his mates will give him a hero's welcome.

To his mind, the spread of capitalism is, in fact, the spread of internal morality to encompass ever larger and larger circles at the expense of external “morality,” yet also at the expense of dilution of that internal morality :

The evolution of the last few centuries can then be regarded as a process in which the domain of internal morality has been continuously enlarged while its content has been simultaneously diluted. In the Middle Ages, trade among the small group of provincial guilds was rigidly circumscribed while a large place was reserved to charity—a natural outgrowth of the deeply religious spirit of that time. But beyond these confines there was much unscrupulous and unrestrained exploitation. In the course of the development which saw the rebirth of ancient morality (humanism) and the secularization of the substance of Christian morality, the principle of sacrifice lost much of its force, even among members of the same family. In its stead appeared a new principle, and one which served at the same time to reduce the practice of violence and exploitation to negligible proportions, viz., the selfsame business principle we have been discussing.

Some pros and cons of this phenomenon:

Not all of the consequences of this development were happy ones. “Business” has occasionally lain its cold and impersonal hand on the family, requiring children to pay their parents for room and board; and science, art, even religion itself, have become commercialized to a lamentable extent. On the other hand, the general use of the business method has had the effect of narrowly circumscribing the area in which violence and exploitation can be profitably employed and of enlarging the sphere of activities yielding equal benefits to the participants.

He sees particular problems with developments here in America:

The “canonization” of business [confusion of altruism with business], if we may use the term, is particularly noticeable in the United States (witness the emergence of the peculiarly American doctrine of the “social responsibility” of business). It is accompanied by a tendency to relegate to a lower class all the professions which do not originate in business (scholars, civil servants, artists, career military officers). It is a process which has been made easier by the commercialization of these professions and the consequent perversion of the true hierarchies of rank and value—a grave American malady and one of which Europe, too, is beginning to exhibit the symptoms.

I had never thought of it quite this way before. The extension of internal ethics to ever wider circles came with dilution of that ethic, and Roepke observes that the extension of the division of labor is in explicit conflict with what we might consider “family values.”

The famous America-observer Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the spread of democracy and the concept of equality before the law were natural outgrowths of the spread and development of Christianity in the West. He believed that it was, in fact, quite obviously so. I think he was right.

My questions are several-fold. First, is Roepke's theory, reasonable as it sounds, actually true? I'm usually skeptical of any theory that is so blandly cavalier about the application of undifferentiated religion to social questions. There seems enough distinction between the religions, e.g. 9-11, that such a treatment would need to be more specific. However, Roepke's articulation of the extension of “internal morality” ever outward would seem to describe to a good first approximation the expected outward manifestation of the philosophy behind “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “love thine enemy.”

Second, and more importantly, if Roepke is correct, was it necessary that extension of the “internal morality” outward should be accompanied by dilution of that morality? Is it an artifact of that accursed hobgoblin of small minds, consistency, or is it an economic necessity imposed by scarcity? After all, one can't provide everybody one meets with free rent. But I would think that it is one thing to extend one's circle indefinitely with respect to restraint from violence, and quite another to extend it with respect to overflowing altruism, as one might show one's own children. Can there not be some kind of decoupling? Did Jesus really intend for us to make no distinction whatever between our own children and everyone else?

Finally, if the two are indeed in irreconcilable tension, which side does one choose?

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