Four economic worldviews

Brad Delong reviews a new biography of Joseph Schumpeter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and in the course of things gives a nice perspective on the evolution of economic thought over the three centuries leading up to the great man’s work:

Over the previous two and a half centuries, three different economic worldviews, in succession, reigned. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Adam Smith’s was the key economic perspective, focusing on domestic and international trade and growth, the division of labor, the power of the market, and the minimal security of property and tolerable administration of justice that were needed to carry a country to prosperity. You could agree or you could disagree with Smith’s conclusions and judgments, but his was the proper topical agenda.

The second reign was that of David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Their preoccupations odminated the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They worried most about the distribution of income and the laws of the market that made it so unequal. They were uneasy about the extraordinary pace of technological, organizational, and sociological change, and about whether an ungoverned market economy could produce a distribution of income — both relative and absolute — fit for a livable world. Again, you could agree or disagree with their judgments about trade, rent, capitalism, and machinery, but they asked the right questions.

The third reign was that of John Maynard Keynes. His agenda dominated the middle and late 20th century. Keynes’s theories centered on what economists call Say’s Law — the claim that except in truly exceptional conditions, production inevitably creates the demand to buy what is produced. Say’s Law supposedly guaranteed something like full employment, except in truly exceptional conditions, if the market was allowed to work. Keynes argued that Say’s Law was false in theory, but that the government could, if it acted skillfully, make it true in practice. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, Keynes was in any case right to focus on the central bank and the tax-and-spend government to supplement the market’s somewhat-palsied invisible hand to achieve stable and full employment.

But there ought to have been a fourth reign, for there was a set of themes not sufficiently explored. That missing reign was Schumpeter’s, for he had insights into the nature of markets and growth that escaped other observers. It is in that sense that the late 20th and early 21st centuries in economics ought to have been his: He asked the right questions for our era.

He asked those questions in a book he wrote while working at the University of Czernowitz in his mid-20s: the Theory of Economic Development. Previous first-rank economists (with the partial exception of Marx) had concentrated on situations of equilibrium. In that model, development is a gradual process, in which competition keeps goods high-quality and affordable, and the abstemious owners of capital await the long-term rewards of deferred gratification.

Schumpeter pointed out that that wasn’t how market economies really worked. The essence of capitalist economies was, as Marx had recognized before him, the entrepreneur and the innovator: the risk taker who sets in motion new and more-efficient ways of making old or new products, and so produces an economy in constant change. Marx saw that the coming of capitalist economies destroyed all feudal, traditional, and patriarchal relationships and orders. Schumpeter saw farther: that market capitalism destroys its own earlier generations.

For a infinitely more comprehensive look at economic growth, take a look at Daron Acemoglu’s umpteen thousand-page book on economic growth. This plus zillions of articles published a year. I am humbled. Do Brad and Daron write in their sleep?