NR Digital

Summa Economica

by Kevin D. Williamson
Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element, by John D. Mueller (ISI, 400 pp., $28)

In this occasionally fascinating, occasionally maddening new book, John D. Mueller, whose work often illuminates the pages of this magazine, has set himself a formidable task: to reassert, convincingly, the value of a mostly abandoned model of economics rooted in Catholic ethics and Scholastic philosophy. He claims to have set the stage for a transformation of economic thought equivalent to the “marginal revolution” that enabled the emergence of neoclassical economics. Mr. Mueller, who does not shy away from bold assertions, maintains that his new economics 1) is expressible in the form of mathematical equations; 2) is logically complete; 3) is empirically verifiable; 4) is purely descriptive; 5) is valid at all levels of analysis, from the most micro to the most macro; and 6) will — because it is a “logically complete description of reality” — never require revision. The meek may be set to inherit the Earth, but economics apparently still belongs to the cocky.

Mueller’s concerns range from the astronomically abstract to the geologically concrete, but his first order of business, and the one he most obviously relishes, is the settling of scores with one Prof. Adam Smith, the moral philosopher who made something of a name for himself in the field of economics back in 1776 with the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He gets right to it, too: Chapter 1 is titled “Smithology and Its Discontents,” and in it Mueller lays out a detailed indictment of the classical-liberal economic model associated with the gentleman from Glasgow. His argument goes roughly thus: Adam Smith disfigured the field of economics by radically oversimplifying the intellectual framework he inherited from the Scholastic tradition synthesized by Thomas Aquinas, which combined classical sources with Augustinian interpretations to produce a model of economics comprising four elements: a theory of production, a theory of justice in exchange, a theory of utility (which enfolds the theory of consumption), and a theory of justice in the final distribution of goods. Smith is accused of shearing off the more important half of the model, jettisoning consideration of both utility and final distribution.

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