Advent 2009, Week Three, Day Two

 Although we are infinitely more prosperous now than we were even fifty years ago let alone in Smith’s time are we happier? Economists, such as Tibor Scitovsky, began to express doubts over a quarter of a century ago. In his book The Rough Guide to Happiness, published earlier this year, Nick Baylis gives far more attention to the multiplicity of therapies being tried by people in their desperate search for happiness than he does to the question of money. Might Carlyle have had a point? Is the ever increasing role of ‘the cash nexus’ part of the problem?

 

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week Three – Happiness, A New Morality

Day Two – The Dismal Science

 

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,

Rejoice.

 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The

Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in

everything by prayer and supplication with

thanksgiving let your requests be made known to

God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all

understanding, will guard your hearts and your

minds in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4: 4-7

 

Long before he applied to it the term ‘the dismal science’, Thomas Carlyle had become a bitter critic of the political economy of his day. Writing with reference to the economic views of Thomas Malthus, Carlyle complained: ‘Nowhere, in that quarter of his intellectual world, is there light; nothing but the grim shadow of Hunger’ (Fraser’s Magazine, 1834). This was triggered by Malthus’ gloomy prophecy, in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, that: ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’ The basic remedy against this tendency towards impoverishment, according to Malthus, was moral restraint – voluntarily limiting the number of children to keep in line with natural resources. Carlyle was writing in the year when the harsh Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. Five years later, on the eve of the Hungry 40s, Carlyle repeated the charge against Malthus: ‘Dreary, stolid dismal, without hope for this world or the next’ (Chartism, 1839).

 

But it was not until 1849, at the end of that decade of famine, disease and revolution that Carlyle coined the term ‘the dismal science’. He applied it not to Malthus but to political economists such as John Stuart Mill, who had made common cause with evangelicals in condemning the system of slavery (already abolished in England). What was it that a liberal political philosopher and conservative evangelicals had in common that unleashed such a critique? In Carlyle’s eye it was what he called ‘the cash nexus’. His point was that at least under slavery, as under feudalism, there remained some kind of interpersonal relationship, albeit far from acceptable, between master and slave, between lord and serf. The result of the replacement of such bonds by the crude ‘cash nexus’  was that the ‘freedom’ both of West Indian slaves and Irish peasants was turning into an inhuman disaster. Carlyle wrote this in an article whose language we now recognize as deeply offensive but which may be a salutary reminder of where we are coming from: Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, Fraser’s Magazine, 1849.

 

The prevailing economic science of Carlyle’s day was dismal – in its values, its principles, its vision of society and in its human consequences. It stood in stark contrast to the rosier view of Adam Smith, according to whom economic freedom was supposed to promote happiness. In Smith’s view prosperity would ensue naturally because of the underlying invisible harmony woven into creation by God. And it would all happen serendipitously, because it did not depend on impossible assumptions either about human intelligence (the ability to plan) or altruism. Self-interest, plus a natural measure of sympathy and concern for duty would be enough. It is astonishing to see this naïve faith in a divinely established natural harmony still being professed by some economists, when its underlying world-view has long been discredited by almost every other science, whether cosmology, biology, sociology or politics.

 

But, leaving aside Smith’s theological premises, Smith’s economic principles did not seem to be working in the real world. Although there is evidence that workers’ wages did increase between Smith’s time and Carlyle’s, the social uprootedness, the cultural impoverishment and the moral degradation of the increasingly urbanized working class was truly shocking – and was beginning to pose a threat to the established political order.

 

But by a century later the condition of the working class and society as a whole had improved immensely. So was Smith, rather than Carlyle, right after all? Only if we forget that the social progress of the past two centuries was due not simply to the laws of political economy (‘the cash nexus’) but also to genuine humane social reforms on the part of the middle and upper classes and political organization and struggle on the part of the working class. The welfare state hardly represents a natural development of 18th century political economy.

 

But a troubling question remains. Although we are infinitely more prosperous now than we were even fifty years ago let alone in Smith’s time are we happier? Economists, such as Tibor Scitovsky, began to express doubts over a quarter of a century ago. In his book The Rough Guide to Happiness, published earlier this year, Nick Baylis gives far more attention to the multiplicity of therapies being tried by people in their desperate search for happiness than he does to the question of money. Might Carlyle have had a point? Is the ever increasing role of ‘the cash nexus’ part of the problem?

 

It is not that money and material goods are irrelevant to happiness. Anyone tempted to say ‘Money does not buy happiness’ might ask themselves whether they would be happy to welcome a 4% increase in the rate of income tax (as has been the case in Ireland) or a 20% cut in pay (as has been the case with those whose working hours have been cut by one day a week). It is not money but the love of money (philarguria) which is the root of all evil, according to I Timothy 6:10. To which we might add: it is also the role of money. It is when economic life is ruled by money rather than nobler cultural values and deeper social bonds that we are headed in the wrong direction. What, then, are the connections between money, material goods and happiness? Can our economic theories, systems and behavior be re-shaped so as to ensure that they truly are oriented to the pursuit of happiness?

 

Sceptics would say no. They invoke the obvious objection that happiness is such a subjective thing as to make nonsense of any claim to a scientific ‘economics of happiness’. But that has not stopped economists from trying.

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