If Brat wins the general election, he will become one of the few—or perhaps only—sitting members of Congress to raise serious questions about how the modern West thinks about economics.
With his victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the most shocking election in recent memory, Virginia congressional candidate Dave Brat has quickly replaced Thomas Piketty as the obscure economist every media outlet must express an opinion about. Though most of the focus thus far has been on the mechanics of Brat’s electoral victory rather than his beliefs about the organization of society, the paper trail of his academic career is also making headlines. Is he a Randian? A theocrat? Does he really think, as one Wall Street Journal headline suggested, that Hitler is coming back?
In an effort to dig deeper, Zach Beauchamp at Vox managed to uncover an unpublished text from Brat’s personal website entitled The Philosophy of Economics: A History of Science, Method, and Ethics. It’s a rough manuscript that is more of a reading guide to economic thinkers than a book in its own right, but nevertheless Brat’s work is a laudable attempt to lead readers toward the toughest questions undergirding modern economic theory.
And that, really, is the shocking part. A man who will likely ascend to a seat in Congress has produced a substantive and provocative line of inquiry that incorporates and critiques the thought of Smith, Locke, Mill, Schumpeter, and more. Is the claim that economics is a science justified? Are the findings of economics neutral with respect to morality and metaphysics? And do our economists—almost all of whom check “yes” to those questions—live and work in accordance with their own beliefs about what they are doing?
Since you will probably never read an excerpt of Brat’s manuscript in The Atlantic, nor find a scathing review in the New York Times, I’ve pulled out five quotes that illustrate Brat’s radical line of inquiry.
1) On John Locke’s theological vision:
“The Puritan theology of a life lived as the fulfillment of a series of ‘covenants’ or ‘contracts’ before God would take a secular form in the political and economic theories of Locke. Locke’s extremely influential theory of the state as a ‘social contract’ is, in essence, the Puritan society of covenants in a secular dress.”
From the beginning, you can see the fruit of Brat’s training in theology alongside his economic work. He understands that the theories of modern economics were not conceived out of thin air or deduced from experiments; rather, they have roots in history, philosophy, and theology. Without an openness toward the insights of these liberal arts, one will not be able to understand the import of the theories themselves.
In this case, following other authors, Brat argues that Locke’s theory of the social contract reflects a particular strain of Puritan theology rather than an empirical observation about the nature of government. It’s a simple enough insight, but if true, it opens up for critique the social-contract basis that is taken for granted by all Western governments, which insists on a purely secular patrimony in all matters of public interest, including law and economics.
2) On the claim that modern economics is neutral on ethical questions:
“It is by no means apparent why humans are or should be treated as equals in the modern world of economics! Make sure you reread that sentence. In fact, modern economics by definition refuses to make such normative claims.”
The refusal to make normative claims is par for the course in an introductory economics class. Economics, it is said, is a science, and as such ethical considerations must be left out of it. Economics simply describes the way things are.
Brat questions whether such an approach is even possible, but here he wants to emphasize that even if it were, we would be left with profoundly troubling conclusions. A discipline that cannot acknowledge even the most basic moral principles is open to the most horrendous abuses. It is disturbing for Brat that on economists’ own terms, the inherent dignity of the individual so often invoked by modern free-market advocates in the political sphere has no basis in reality whatsoever.
The common objection to this observation is that economists are simply neutral with regard to morality, which is different from saying that there is no morality at all. But Brat’s survey of economic theory shows that this position is incoherent. Economics claims to be value-neutral because it defines itself as a modern science similar to physics or chemistry. But modern science as a whole is based on a theory of knowledge that renders all normative or metaphysical claims false or meaningless. There is no neutral ground.
3) On Adam Smith’s theory of the mechanism of self-interest in the market:
“If this theory could now illuminate the true Newtonian mechanics of ‘society,’ men would finally have in their possession a proper understanding of the real workings of nature. With this knowledge, the valid route to human happiness, the path to future social progress—indeed, the very means of achievement of heaven on earth—would be revealed. . . . One might say that for the first time, salvation came to be associated with the economic progress of society. The religion of the Enlightenment became an economic faith.”
Here Brat grasps something that almost no other modern economists have bothered to grapple with: the metaphysical significance of the shift initiated by Smith. Smith’s inquiry into the causes of the wealth of nations is an attempt to find laws that govern economic relations, just as Newton sought to discover laws that govern physical relations. And just as Newton’s laws allow human beings to manipulate physical objects, the discovery of economic laws will allow man to manipulate human relations to create a better society, slowly usurping the traditional salvific role of religion in favor of purely material ends.
These are indeed the types of claims we see being made by economists today. The progress of economic laws has delivered us from evil. To give one recent example, Kevin Williamson at National Review has gone so far as to say that capitalism has proven Jesus Christ wrong. In this regard, as Peter Lawler has pointed out, triumphal capitalist economists are every bit as progressive, utopian, and materialist as their Marxist counterparts.
4) On the confluence of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant:
“So at this point in history, between Mill and the next generation of Political Economists, a severe split between reason and ethics occurred. Yet this split was ironic as Kant had sought to confine religion and ethics firmly within the bounds of reason alone. After Kant, science proceeded ‘as if’ only phenomena or objects from the physical world could be known for certain. This split has remained to this day in the distinction between the positive sciences which describe ‘what is’ and the normative disciplines which describe what ‘ought to be.’”
Kant and Mill are often treated as the thinkers at opposite ends of the range of moral thought. Kant thought that ethical behavior could be determined by using reason to discern universal laws, while Mill’s work on utilitarianism located ethics in those actions and structures that were calculated to provide the greatest good for the greatest number.
While there is certainly a difference between those views, Brat notes their shared premise that there is a clear divide between empirical observation and reasoned ethical principles. For Mill, all metaphysical speculation is invalid, so it is impossible for there to exist knowledge that transcends experience, leaving us with an ethics expressed only in pleasure units. For Kant, reasoning shapes our experience such that while there are indeed ethical imperatives, they are not the result of experience. This division between is and ought is foundational in modern economics as well, giving rise to a host of contradictions and conundrums.
5) On the troubled economic theory of Milton Friedman:
“The key point to remember here is that Friedman has convinced us that ‘prediction’ is the task and goal of positive science. It is not required that we understand the behavior in question, only that we best predict it.”
Throughout the work, Brat pokes holes in the various forms of positivism that economic theorists have advanced. Here Brat is explaining the problems with Milton Friedman’s theory of economic knowledge, which Friedman locates in the ability of economics to make correct predictions.
Friedman’s claim may seem inoffensive at first, as again it simply mirrors the hard sciences. But Brat conveys the classic challenge, which is that there may be multiple incompatible theories that correctly predict a given phenomenon. One famous example of this comes from the history of astronomy, where we find periods in which geocentric models of the universe and heliocentric models of the universe could both predict the movements of the planets and stars. On the basis of predictability alone, there was no way to determine which model was correct.
Friedman understands that this is a problem, but proposes the radical solution that science simply stop trying to understand the world. Explanations per se are not important, as reality itself is not the subject of scientific inquiry. There is no reality or nature to be studied; there are merely accurate and inaccurate predictions.
If Brat wins the general election, he will become one of the few—or perhaps only—sitting members of Congress to raise serious questions about how the modern West thinks about economics. Brat makes clear that questions about the ethical foundations of the economic order are not side conversations reserved for the ivory tower, but essential to any discussion of law and policy. That the mainstream media ignores this side of Brat is indicative of their interests—easily digestible soundbites that can be used to smear candidates they dislike as ignorant extremists. Let’s hope that Brat continues to smash presumptions.
Matthew Gerken is client services manager at American Philanthropic. He is a a 2010-2011 ISI Honors Scholar.