Today Public Discourse publishes the first installment of a two-part review-essay in which Ryan T. Anderson takes up Redeeming Economics, a new book by John D. Mueller. There’s a lot to chew on in this review, but I want to highlight just one of the interesting things Anderson pulls out of the book. To wit, Mueller’s claim that Aquinas was the originator of what he calls an “adequate” economic science. Here’s Anderson:
As Mueller tells the story, Aquinas was the first to put together a complete economic science by combining key insights from both Aristotle (on production, exchange, and political distribution) and Augustine (on personal distribution and consumption based on utility).
Here’s Mueller explaining his theory:
The first revolution in economics had occurred five centuries before [Adam] Smith, when Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) set forth the basic elements of economic theory. Synthesizing the work of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), Aquinas offered a comprehensive view of human economic actions. All such actions fall into four categories: humans produce, exchange, distribute, and consume goods (human and nonhuman). Thus the theory Aquinas outlined—known as “Scholastic” economics—had four key elements: the theory of production, which explains which goods (and how many of them) we produce; the theory of justice in exchange, which accounts for how we are compensated through the sale of goods for our contributing to their production; the theory offinal distribution, which determines who will consume our goods; and finally, the theory of consumption (or utility), which explains which goods people prefer to consume.
Production, exchange, distribution, and consumption: Any adequate economic science will need to account for all four of these aspects of economic choice. And Mueller is insistent that this is true of all economic choices, across time and place, for individuals and families, corporations and nations.
Anderson’s review raises the question of what exactly we mean when we speak of economics as a “science.” I suspect that if we were to follow Mueller’s advice, economics no longer would be recognized as scientific—at least in the narrow sense that the word is commonly understood—by today’s economic practitioners.
Indeed, a great deal of our misunderstanding of economics stems from the misleading metaphor between economics and physics, between the study of Adam and the study of the atom. So, as much as I admire Mueller’s effort, I suspect that we would be less prone to misunderstanding economics if we were able to drop the scientific label altogether and speak of it instead as a “discipline.” Then, perhaps, we could move away from a situation where economists are regularly (and rather unfairly) faulted for their lack of infallibility.