The Missing Sector

For more than two hundred years, mainstream thinking has regarded the market as the primary source of material “progress.” And indeed, to a large extent that’s been true. But yesterday is not forever. Today the market is approaching a point of diminishing returns – systemic diminishing returns. It is yielding less well-being per unit of output by practically any measure, and more problems instead: obesity instead of good health, congestion instead of mobility , time deficits instead of leisure, depression and stress instead of a sense of well-being, social fracture rather than cohesion, environmental degradation rather than improvement.

In place of wealth, the economic machinery increasingly turns out what John Ruskin, the 19th Century essayist on art and economics, called “illth,” which is accumulation that fosters ill results rather than towards weal, or well-being.This is not just a matter of distribution, which is the traditional concern of the Left. Inequitable distribution is a major problem, to be sure, and becoming more so. But to redistribute illth is not necessarily to do anyone a great favor.


Why Economists Are So Often Wrong

What is called “economics” is really psychology on steroids. It starts with a model of human nature and extrapolates an entire scenario for how the world works from that. The model is homo economicus,the myopic protoganist of the economics texts. This hypothetical person has no social affinities, no lapses of judgment or hang-ups, no capacity even for thinking about anyone besides him or herself. He goes through life with an unfailing and relentless calculus of personal loss and gain.

As I explained in the first part of this essay, The Tragedy of Economics this portrayal of our basic nature did not arise from actual inquiry. Homo economicus was from the beginning a polemical construct, devised to serve political ends. At first this was to help undermine the secular authority of the Roman Church, and then the divine right of kings. More recently it has served to justify a fundamentalism of what is called “the market.” Along the way, it has provided economists with the semblance of a predictable atom of economic activity. This has enabled them to declaim under the banner of “science,” and has given them a hook on which to hang their arcane math.


The Tragedy of Economics: Market Theory Vs. Human Nature

When Jimmy Wales, a refugee from options trading, set out to create an encyclopedia online, he thought first of the Britanica model, except with volunteers. He assigned articles to professional experts, and established panels for peer reviews. Then he started to write one himself – on options trading – and realized it was a drag.

It was like “handing in an essay at grad school,” he said later. So Wales shifted gears. He kept the volunteer model; but made it an open and social experience rather than a hierarchical one. Anyone could write an entry, on anything. The peer reviewers would be the readers themselves, who could correct factual errors and omissions, and challenge biases.