The first time the field of economics got me scratching my head was about twenty years ago when a textbook informed me there were only three basic questions governing the distribution of resources. How do resources get distributed? How much is distributed? Who receives the distributed resources? Twenty years later I was informed the same thing as I listened to an economics course on CD. How? How much? Who?
It seemed to me even twenty years ago that economic scholarship was omitting at least one other question about distributing resources. Why do we choose to distribute resources with any particular system? Socialism, communism, free markets, laissez faire capitalism and domestic production modes have been different choices for economic systems that occurred throughout history. The other questions of “How?”, “How much?” and “Who?” are answered differently according to the implied question of “Why?” behind our choice of economic systems.
As a scientist I can understand some reluctance for the “Why?” question. One potential answer behind that question is: “That is the way God meant it to be.” Whether true or not that type of answer tends to discourage further inquiry. During the Enlightenment scientists developed a coping mechanism for this dilemma known as Deism. This was a type of religion ordaining that God set the universe in motion with perfect laws and then became somewhat of an innocent bystander. The responsibility was then set for scientists to uncover these perfect laws and make the best use for them.
In other words, scientists of the Enlightenment marginalized the answer of “God” to the “Why?” question so as not to interfere with inquiry. In the modern age the answer of “God” has been replaced by either “Evolution” or “The Big Bang” depending on the field of science. Though scientific inquiry is satisfied with these as ultimate answers for “Why?” there looms the questions of “Why Evolution?” or “Why The Big Bang?”, but those questions are unanswerable by science.
Economists of the modern age seem to be adopting the same avoidance strategy as the deists of the Enlightenment, with a slight exception. Economic scholars do not marginalize the question of “Why?”; they pretend the question does not exist. If we assumed that all of economics has been ordained by God we might at least cross-reference the questions of “How?”, “How much?” and “Who?” with religious creed. Instead, economic schools of thought become their own religion.
Scientists asking “Why?” for how organisms obtain resources come up with answers that lie along a continuum. The stereotypical r-species evolved characteristics that enabled them to colonize and exploit resources faster than potential competitors. The stereotypical k-species evolved characteristics that enabled them to maintain a sustainable balance with their environment. Early social bands of humans started out as stereotypical k-species. We were altruistic, with the unrivaled ability to adapt our behaviors to sustain ourselves in vastly different environments.
Culture changed that. We evolved culturally to favor those who can horde the most resources in the shortest amount of time, at the expense of both natural altruism and sustainability. In fairness to them, economists did not drive this cultural evolution; they entered the picture post hoc at the time of the Enlightenment. Since that time economists have operated within the fixed framework of colonialism, even as science and technology took off through the resurgence of empirical exploration.
The relatively new field of behavioral economics can be seen as an attempt to move beyond the basic questions of “How?”, “How much?” and “Who?”. While I applaud their efforts, this seems like a back door approach at best. With this approach our behaviors become components of the economic system we choose, rather than the foundation for choosing an economic system. We can proceed with some tinkering of the system and avoid any major overhaul.
Make no mistake, if we were to decide that we are not hot-wired for greed after all, that we might want an economic system geared towards merit instead, there would be a major overhaul needed. Some sacred scholarship would come into question, such as the scholarship that worships the business corporation as an inviolate component of an economic system where no one bothers to ask “Why?”.