The Corruption of Economics

Mason Gaffney, Professor of Economics, University of California, Riverside

The following is the introduction to Professor Gaffney’s paper Neo-classical Economics as a Stratagem against Henry George, 5 July 1994.

This paper formed the basis of a book: The Corruption of Economics, Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison, Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd, London, 1994. Buy the book

Introduction: The power of neo-classical economics

Neoclassical economics is the idiom of most economic discourse today. It is the paradigm that bends the twigs of young minds. Then it confines the fluorescence of older ones, like chicken-wire shaping a topiary. It took form about a hundred years ago, when Henry George and his reform proposals were a clear and present political danger and challenge to the landed and intellectual establishments of the world. Few people realise to what a degree the founders of Neoclassical economics changed the discipline for the express purpose of deflecting George, discomfiting his followers, and frustrating future students seeking to follow his arguments. The stratagem was semantic: to destroy the very words in which he expressed himself. Simon Patten expounded it succinctly. “Nothing pleases a… single taxer better than… to use the well-known economic theories… [therefore] economic doctrine must be recast” (Patten 1908, p.219; Collier, 1979, p.270).

George believed economists were recasting the discipline to refute him. He states so, as though in the third person, in his last book, The Science of Political Economy (George, 1898, pp.200-209). George’s self-importance was immodest, it is true. However, immodesty may be objectivity, as many great talents from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mohamed Ali and Frank Sinatra have displayed. George had good reasons, which we are to demonstrate. George’s view may even strike some as paranoid. That was this writer’s first impression, many years ago. I have changed my view, however, after learning more about the period, the literature, and later events.

Having taken shape in the 1880-1890s, Neo-Classical Economics (henceforth NCE) remained remarkably static. Major texts by Marshall, Seligman, and Richard T. Ely, written in the 1890s, went through many reprintings each over a period of 40 years with few if any changes. “It was for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (1884) that I wrote the first edition of my Outlines, under the title Introduction to Political Economy. In this first edition of the Outlines there is to be found the general philosophy and principles that have shaped all future editions, including that of 1937” (Ely, 1938, p.81).

Not until 1936 was there another major “revolution,” and that was hived off into a separate compartment, macro-economics, and contained there so as not to disturb basic tenets of NCE. Compartmentalisation, we will see in several instances, is the common NCE defense against discordant data and reasoning. After that came another 40 years of Samuelson’s “neoclassical synthesis.” J.B. Clark’s treatment of rent, dating originally from his obvious efforts to refute Henry George (see below), “has been followed by an admiring Paul Samuelson in all of the many editions of his Economics” (Dewey, p.430).

Clark’s capital theory “… gives the appearance of being specially tailored to lead to arguments for use against George” (Collier, 1979, p.270). “The probable source from which immediate stimulation came to Clark was the contemporary single tax discussion” (Fetter, 1927, p.142). “To date, capital theory in the Clark tradition has provided the basis for virtually all empirical work on wealth and income” (Dewey, 1987, p.429; cf. Tobin, 1985). Later writers have added fretworks, curlicues and arabesques beyond counting, and achieved more isolation from history, and from the ground under their feet, than in Patten’s dreams, but all without disturbing the basic strategy arrived at by 1899, tailored to lead to arguments against Henry George.

To most modern readers, probably George seems too minor a figure to have warranted such an extreme reaction. This impression is a measure of the neo-classicals’ success: it is what they sought to make of him. It took a generation, but by 1930 they had succeeded in reducing him in the public mind. In the process of succeeding, however, they emasculated the discipline, impoverished economic thought, muddled the minds of countless students, rationalised free-riding by landowners, took dignity from labour, rationalised chronic unemployment, hobbled us with today’s counterproductive tax tangle, marginalised the obvious alternative system of public finance, shattered our sense of community, subverted a rising economic democracy for the benefit of rent-takers, and led us into becoming an increasingly nasty and dangerously divided plutocracy.

The present paper purports to identify the elements of Neo-Classical Economics (NCE) that were planted there to sap and confound George, and show how they continue to warp, debase and vitiate much of the discipline called economics. Once a paradigm is well-ensconced it becomes a power in itself, a set of reflexes to sort the true and false. Any exception spoils the web of interpretation through which art seeks to make human experience intelligible. Only the young, the brave, the energetic, the sincere and the sceptical can break off such fetters. This work is addressed and dedicated to them.

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