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Economics of Good and Evil

EconomicsGoodEvil 160x160by Tomáš Sedláček

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Professor Sedláček is a former economics advisor to Czech President Václav Havel and currently teaches at Charles University in Prague. I first met and heard Dr. Tomáš Sedláček at the Europartners Conference held in Prague in February 2014. In addition to his economics expertise and policy experience, Tomáš is a practicing marketplace Christian who is not afraid to challenge public thinking about economic and social government policy.

He wrote this book “to show that there is a much broader and fascinating story of economics than its mathematical perception.” Much of the book is devoted to telling the historical story of how we came to see economics as a mathematical exercise despite its’ roots in philosophy, theology, sociology and even psychology. Clearly Prof. Sedláček favors the broader approach since he believes it helps us make policy decisions more closely related to the human condition (reality). When we uncover the ancient myths in our past economic thinking, we discover the same in our current thinking. A case in point- our common misconceptions that modern economic thinking began with Adam Smith’s book “Wealth of Nations” published in 1776. Sedláček believes the roots go back to the very beginnings of the human story.

He takes us back to the early Sumerian mythology about King Gilgamesh (The Epic of Gilgamesh) story, which is believed to predate even the written record of the Old Testament Pentateuch. Then he proceeds to discuss the Biblical Genesis story, Ancient Greek philosophy, Christian ideas, the modern views of DesCartes, Mandeville and finally back to the modern roots of Adam Smith. At each stop we learn the impact of human thinking and mythology on economic expectations.

For example, the author believes people have developed “a faith in the supernatural abilities of the invisible hand of the market.” In my view this discussion of the invisible hand, which is a thread running through the entire book, is one of its highlights. Essentially these are the self-motivated acts we each undertake to attempt improvements in our lives as consumers and business owners and other marketplace participants. We tend to assume they are some type of neutral form devoid of moral motivation. Yet they are not, they are often filled with moral implications. Here we see that a viewpoint of simple mathematics cannot help to understand the many decisions individuals can make. The “invisible hand” always reflects the moral underpinning of individual choices. Thus the concept of economics as good and evil.

The book is a clever discussion of economics juxtaposed to myths, religion, theology, philosophy and science. In the first part of the book we look for economic topics in these areas and in the second we dissect economic thinking to find the imbedded myths, religion, theology, philosophy and science themselves. Sedláček seeks to “chart the development of the economic ethos” and if possible “to study the evolution of the rational as well as the emotional and irrational side of human beings.”

One thing for sure, the author challenges the notion that economics is simply mathematics, statistics and probabilities. Like all sciences, economics reflects a complex accumulation of viewpoints and understandings often with moral and immoral implications. In many ways this is the reason that the “science” of economics holds such meaning for us.

 

 

 

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