It is important to distinguish between the kinds of activity in which an economist might choose to engage. When we evaluate material placed before us, there are various questions subconsciously running through our minds.
- What is the author trying to achieve?
- How has the material been gathered on which his work is based?
- Is his argument coherent?
- Are there any contradictions?
- Are his axioms / presumptions explicit?
- If not, how do I discover them?
- Do I agree with these presuppositions?
Descriptive work seeks to analyse how a given economy works and outline what is happening within a given timeframe. Since descriptive work is carried out by humans (generally speaking), it will not be free from bias: the researcher will try to be impartial, but inevitably imposes his own presuppositions on the material he gathers and perceives. The very choice of what data to include and what data to exclude flows from commitments to concepts concerning validity, irrelevance, interest, and so on.
Prescriptive work seeks to provide a recommendation for a course of action (or inaction, as the case may be), and usually provides material to support its argument. Prescriptive work is by its very nature relational: a course is recommended in order to achieve a particular outcome – course and outcome are linked. In evaluating the recommendation, one must ask:
- Is the outcome desirable?
- Is the outcome achievable?
- If the outcome is achievable, can this course produce of action produce it?
- Is this course of action the optimal route to the desired destination?
We are used to seeing such discourse in political and philosophical arenas. Unfortunately, much of the time, the reasoning and presuppositions are obscured by emotionalism and rhetoric. The current political climate makes matters worse, because anti-free speech laws, increased divisions, and the natural desire to avoid conflict make it difficult to ask difficult questions and to give challenging answers.
The Leftist will argue that everyone should be equal. Propositions about what ought to be the case are not derived from experience (see the philosopher, David Hume’s, work on the is-ought problem). We impose morality on experience. Careful reflection on this matter, which lies beyond the scope of this post, should give a person serious grounds for believing these rationalist propositions:
- There is a class of knowledge that is innate.
- There is a class of concepts that is innate.
Returning to our economic thoughts, we may rightly ask why should everyone be equal in economic terms? The concept of economic disparity does not of itself entail misery, which is that Leftists are presumably trying to eradicate. Although our world currently contains both economic disparity and economic deprivation, we can conceive of a world in which everyone met a basic threshold of economic sufficiency and happiness, but which also saw economic differentiation between people and institutions.
A Leftist might respond that disparity breeds envy, and envy presupposes unhappiness, since true contentment means (among other things) an absence of a desire for change, and acquiring more things would be a species of change. Suppose that we could eliminate disparity. Would this, of itself, entail that all forms of envy have been eliminated? The intuitive answer is, “No.” Unless all humans are exactly alike, a man could envy another man his wife, even having a wife of his own. Suppose we eliminate envy, does this entail that all forms of unhappiness have been eliminated? Again, the answer is, “No.” There would still be the kind of evil that flows from mental illness, having no connection to economic wellbeing. This we might describe as “pure malice”, the desire to hurt others, not in order to obtain physical, economic benefits, but to gain psychological pleasure. Such evil begets anger and revenge, and the cycle goes on.
It is an a priori belief imposed on experience to claim that eliminating physical want and the disorders of the brain and mind will produce a world without evil. Evil, although witnessed in experience, is fundamentally a metaphysical concept. One could carry out experiments with communities in which people lived in abundance, and one might see a reduction in evil, but this would not entail that evil had been eliminated, because one would first have to define what evil is. If the scientist observes something and perceives no evil, that is because what he perceives does not match his definition of evil. But how do we know that this definition is correct and complete? Experience can furnish us with examples of evil, but it cannot tell us what evil in the abstract is (hence Plato’s concept of “universals” / “forms” imposed by us on experience; see also Kant’s work on the transcendental aesthetic). Even supposing no evil has been perceived on Days 1-1000 of the experiment, the scientist cannot say with certainty that it will not occur on, for example, Day 1889.
Since economics play only a part in the operation of evil in the world, it is reasonable to conclude that economic change cannot, of itself, fix the problem of evil.