Which Thinkers Will Define Our Future?

by J. Bradford DeLong

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

BERKELEY – Several years ago, it occurred to me that social scientists today are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. One thing they all have in common is that their primary focus was on the social, political, and economic makeup of the Western European world between 1450 and 1900. Which is to say, they provide an intellectual toolkit for looking at, say, the Western world of 1840, but not necessarily the Western world of 2016.

What will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What canon – written today or still forthcoming – will those who end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had used when they started them in the late 2010s?

After mulling this question for the past few years, I’ve narrowed down my choice to the writings of three people: Tocqueville, who wrote in the 1830s and 1840s; John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s; and Karl Polanyi, who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s.

Keynes’s central concerns for his own time ring true today. He was worried about the fragility of our collective prosperity, and the grave tensions between nationalism and the rootless cosmopolitan attitudes underpinning a peaceful and flourishing global society. He focused on how to organize our activities and use our prosperity to create a world fit for the good life. He sought to expose the bankruptcy of ascendant ideological nostrums: laissez-faire, spontaneous order, collective cooperation, central planning. And he thought deeply about the technocratic problems of economic management – and about the social, moral, and political disasters that would follow from failing to address them.

After World War II, the problems that concerned Keynes faded into the background, as renewed prosperity in the West led many to believe that they had been permanently solved. Even during the stagflation (slow growth and rising prices) in the 1970s, the problem was said to be social-democratic overreach, not any fundamental flaw in the political economy of the West.

That argument cleared the way for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan to scale back the state’s economic role and untether market forces. The Thatcher-Reagan correction was an unquestioned success among the moneyed classes that prospered thereafter. It created an ideological consensus that would dominate the public sphere from 1980 to 2010.

Post-war prosperity also overshadowed the central problems with which Polanyi grappled in the 1930s and 1940s. Polanyi accepted that a market society could indeed produce a great deal of material prosperity, but he was concerned that it could only do so by turning people into puppets and playthings of mindless market forces, and that people did not take well to this new role. The goal, for Polanyi, was to achieve the prosperity that a market economy generates, without suffering the risks of poverty, creative destruction, and community erosion implied by the operation of market forces.

Crucially, Polanyi warned that if the modern bourgeois order failed at this task, authoritarian and totalitarian political movements would benefit. During the post-war period, the fair-weather argument that market-driven prosperity justifies any collateral social pain was taken as a given; it also came to define the consensus view among the moneyed class and its ideological backers.

This brings us to Tocqueville, who wrote almost two centuries ago, but whose central concerns never went away. Tocqueville focused on the consequences of the destruction of caste as a principle of social and political order. The big castes – from the supposedly Frankish Nobles of the Sword and Nobles of the Robe to proto-bourgeois merchants and Gallo-Roman villeins – all conferred upon their members small liberties and a measure of personal autonomy in exchange for obligations to the state. (And, of course, the lower one’s social status, the greater one’s obligations.)

Tocqueville saw this strictly ordered world being replaced by democracy and formal social equality, in which everyone would be equally free, but would also be equally at the mercy of society. In this new setting, no privileges or liberties would protect you if you failed to find a counterparty in the market, or ran afoul of the tyranny of the majority, or simply sought some form of direction as you tried to decide who you were supposed to be.

In Tocqueville’s world, the destruction of caste was only partial. He wrote for white men who knew their nationality, knew what caste membership meant, and knew the privileges such membership brought.

In our own time, the destruction of caste and caste privilege is taking another step forward. The period of white males’ political dominion in Western democracies is coming to an end. And it is coming to an end at a time when economic populism is replacing technocratic management, often with white males turning to nativism in response to the destruction of their jobs and livelihoods by the impersonal forces of globalization.

As we can see in one country after another, the old order won’t give up without a fight. No old order does. But the caste-like privilege of white males is doomed. The challenge now before us is how best to realize newly available opportunities for human betterment, for the benefit of all. I can think of few more useful guides to that challenge than Keynes, Polanyi, and Tocqueville.


J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 12.06.2018
Extract: “Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.
Added 06.06.2018
Extracts from the article: "Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong?".............."Another option is to look at the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. One of these is type 2 diabetes." ............"Testing these [diabetes] drugs in animal models of another neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, also showed impressive effects, ............These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference. To see any protective effect in the brain in a clinical trial is completely new, and it supports the new theory that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused, at least in part, by a lack of growth factor activity in the brain. These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference."
Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "The most common defense of truth is the pragmatic one – namely, that truth works; that true beliefs are more likely to get the job done than those that are not true. The pragmatic account of the value of truth is not wrong, but at the same time it is not enough. Truth is not valuable for solely instrumental or extrinsic reasons. Truth has intrinsic value as well. When we reduce the value of truth to instrumentality, it is a very short step to saying that we just want beliefs that work for us, regardless of whether they are true or not."
Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.