[OPE-L] (new book) Duncan Foley, _Adam's Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology_

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Nov 27 2006 - 12:01:42 EST

A new book by former OPE-Ler Duncan Foley:


A paper - with the "granite-faced title" -- "Notes on the Theoretical
Foundations of Political Economy" is still on his homepage:


Here's a review from _The New York Times_ of his book.

In solidarity, Jerry


November 25, 2006
Economics: The Invisible Hand of the Market

Duncan K. Foley could have called his new book simply "A Guide to
Economic Theory." The book grew from a course he long taught at
Barnard College and elsewhere, with an even more granite-faced title,
"Theoretical Foundations of Political Economy."

Instead, for his survey of more than 200 years of economic thought,
recently published by the Harvard University Press, he chose the title
"Adam's Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology."

Adam? Theology? The Adam in question is not the original inhabitant of
Eden and biblical founding father of the human race, but the
18th-century inhabitant of Edinburgh and founding father of modern
economics, Adam Smith.

So what is "Adam's Fallacy"? (The author, who is the Leo Model
professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, always
capitalizes the term.)

It is the idea that the economic sphere of life constitutes a separate
realm "in which the pursuit of self-interest is guided by objective
laws to a socially beneficent outcome," Professor Foley wrote, a realm
unlike all the rest of social life, "in which the pursuit of
self-interest is morally problematic and has to be weighed against
other ends."

"This separation of an economic sphere," he wrote, "with its presumed
specific principles of organization, from the much messier, less
determinate and morally more problematic issues of politics, social
conflict and values, is the foundation of political economy and
economics as an intellectual discipline."

Professor Foley's book is simultaneously an introduction to economic
theory and a critique of it.

It is his version, as mentioned on his opening page, of the classic
introduction for the economically challenged by Robert L. Heilbroner,
"The Worldly Philosophers," now in its seventh edition. "Adam's
Fallacy" concentrates more on the worldly philosophies rather than
philosophers, on economic theory rather than on characters and events.

How "Adam's Fallacy" will serve as an introductory text is for others
to decide. What is pertinent here is the author's contention that
economists, all along, have been writing theology.

He does not use the word "theology" with disdain, as many writers do
when they want to disparage something as doctrinaire or irrational,
although he has clearly chosen the word to provoke those who assume
that economics is either strictly logical or empirical. On the other
hand, he doesn't use it to signal anything about God, either.

What he means, he wrote, is that "at its most abstract and interesting
level, economics is a speculative philosophical discourse, not a
deductive or inductive science."

Historically, economics has not only shed light on how a capitalist
market system works, it has also suggested what attitudes people
should take about those workings and about the moral conflicts
accompanying them.

"These are discussions, above all, of faith and belief, not of fact,
and hence theological," Professor Foley wrote.

"Economics functions in a theological role in our society," he added
in an interview in which he paraphrased Milton, "to justify the ways
of the market to men." Economists, moreover, are "becoming priestly
figures, with arcane knowledge" and special powers, he said.

Economic laws are cast as universal and invariable. They are even
presented as natural laws akin to those of mathematical physics or
evolutionary biology.

From the bedrock belief that the pursuit of private self-interest will
ultimately benefit the whole society stems a willingness to abide
harsh economic measures and consequences, ranging from large-scale
unemployment to the destruction of traditional cultures.

The danger of these "illusory comforts of Adam's Fallacy," Professor
Foley writes, is that they obscure hard truths. Contemporary
capitalism, in his view, is a successful, resilient and adaptive
system for creating material wealth. But it is not a stable,
self-regulating one. Left to its own devices, for example, it will not
"solve the problems of poverty and inequality."

By questioning an economic sphere of life ruled by its own laws and
expertise, Professor Foley is implicitly proposing limits to the
secularization that is an underlying characteristic of modernity.
Secularization has meant that in a cultural transformation, major
areas of human activity set themselves up as quasi-autonomous, with
their own standards, authorities and guiding principles.

Economics, like science and politics, and then law, the arts and other
fields, declared independence from rule by religion, custom, intuition
or "speculative philosophical discourse," he wrote.

The new independence or autonomy has never been recognized as total,
however, at least not in matters directly touching upon human life.
The claims of each sector's ruling experts that each operates by its
own laws and standards have always been challenged by competing claims
from pundits, parsons, popes, politicians and secular moralists.
Theology, in the broad sense Professor Foley gives it, is inescapable.

The next question, of course, is how to relate what Professor Foley
recognizes as the rich resource of economic theory - as value-laden as
it may unavoidably be - to the other sources of morality, whether
religious or secular.

Some people argue that economics should employ its own allegedly
value-free techniques to produce a menu of options, each with
specified costs and benefits, that it submits to the rest of society
for moral judgment.

Others argue that the relationship is invariably more dialectical.
Other sources of morality have something to say about the technical
concepts and methods of economics, and economic theory in turn may
shed light on those other sources of morality.

These matters fall outside the reach of "Adam's Fallacy." Professor
Foley has a more modest aim.

Economists, he wrote, often speak of the need to teach people to
"think like economists." But "thinking like an economist comes hard to
many people," he added, "and I personally am grateful for that fact."

He wrote the book, he said, "to give people more confidence in their
own moral judgments" about economic issues.

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