Trespassing against the Happy Consciousness of Orthodox Economics

This is Chapter 1 in my book: Ellerman, David. 1995. Intellectual Trespassing as a Way of Life: Essays in Philosophy, Economics, and Mathematics. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

This first chapter addresses the problems of trespassing involved in understanding the arguments presented in the first five “controversial” chapters of the collection.  These chapters challenge the whole idea of the employer-employee relationship that is the institutional basis for our present version of a private-property market economy.  The problems of trespassing against fundamental orthodoxy in the social and moral sciences are of a completely different order of magnitude than the problems of trespassing in the natural and mathematical sciences.

Perhaps a parable will illustrate the point.  You are a member of the hierarchy in some church (sacred or profane).  A book is published that argues against some basic dogma of your church (e.g., the dogma that the Sun, the planets, and the stars revolve around the Earth).  You are explicitly or implicitly faced with several choices.

  1. Read the book, accept the arguments, and advocate them in your church—which would probably lead to being ostracized and losing your job,
  2. Read the book and accept the arguments but keep quiet so that you “live a lie” the rest of your tenure in the church,
  3. Read the book and reject the arguments based on any number of convenient counter-arguments supplied by the church, or
  4. Ignore the book.

The first two options, open your mouth and be punished or close your mouth and live a lie, are the two rather unpalatable options that result from taking seriously and understanding the arguments against the dogma.  Therefore quite aside from the merits of the arguments, one should not expect to find too many church functionaries taking seriously any arguments against their basic dogmas.  One would expect to find some variation on the last two options.  No counterargument is too superficial to be accepted as “settling the issue.”  A responsible church member would not want to be seen as indirectly attacking the sacred dogma and defending the heretical arguments by showing the superficiality of some counterargument against the heresy.  Thus church intellectuals are very comfortable with accepting the most banal counterarguments so they can redirect their time and energy on other, more “promising,” issues.  The last option is also very attractive.  Few of your superiors within the church would attack you for ignoring such an “obviously nonsensical book.”  Why take the time and effort to read the book just to put yourself in the position of being ostracized as a pariah or being a hypocrite (for keeping quiet about an argument you accept or for rejecting the argument on the basis of superficial official counterarguments)?  There is simply no “incentive” to take the risk of impaling oneself on the pariah-hypocrite dilemma.

The “church” in this parable is the orthodox economics profession.  The parable points out some of the exceedingly powerful but rather mundane institutional reasons why it is so hard to trespass against the dogmas of orthodoxy in economics.  Even “heresy” has been co-opted and pigeonholed in the worldview of the church.  While there is much active debate about shades of divergence within orthodoxy, any fundamental dissent “must” come from those who are assigned the role of being the official heretics, the Western Marxists or crypto-Marxists of various stripes.  It is simply inconceivable that one could attack liberal capitalism on the non-Marxist grounds that it violates the moral basis of private property (“getting the fruits of your labor”) or that it violates the basic principles of democracy (in the workplace governed by the economic pactum subjectionis, the employment contract).  Orthodoxy is blessed with the Happy Consciousness that liberal capitalism has no basic structural violations of human rights and that, far from violating the principles of private property and democracy, it is based on those principles.

Click here to download this Chapter 1.