This is a rather cautious article by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in the NY Review of Books (from a couple weeks ago, h/t Mark Thoma). He starts out by talking about Adam Smith and the need to put some reins on markets (he even mentions Marx):
However, even as the positive contributions of capitalism through market processes were being clarified and explicated, its negative sides were also becoming clear—often to the very same analysts. While a number of socialist critics, most notably Karl Marx, influentially made a case for censuring and ultimately supplanting capitalism, the huge limitations of relying entirely on the market economy and the profit motive were also clear enough even to Adam Smith. Indeed, early advocates of the use of markets, including Smith, did not take the pure market mechanism to be a freestanding performer of excellence, nor did they take the profit motive to be all that is needed…
The present economic crisis is partly generated by a huge overestimation of the wisdom of market processes, and the crisis is now being exacerbated by anxiety and lack of trust in the financial market and in businesses in general—responses that have been evident in the market reactions to the sequence of stimulus plans, including the $787 billion plan signed into law in February by the new Obama administration. As it happens, these problems were already identified in the eighteenth century by Smith, even though they have been neglected by those who have been in authority in recent years, especially in the United States, and who have been busy citing Adam Smith in support of the unfettered market.
As for the discipline itself…
While Adam Smith has recently been much quoted, even if not much read, there has been a huge revival, even more recently, of John Maynard Keynes. Certainly, the cumulative downturn that we are observing right now, which is edging us closer to a depression, has clear Keynesian features; the reduced incomes of one group of persons has led to reduced purchases by them, in turn causing a further reduction in the income of others.
However, Keynes can be our savior only to a very partial extent, and there is a need to look beyond him in understanding the present crisis. One economist whose current relevance has been far less recognized is Keynes’s rival Arthur Cecil Pigou, who, like Keynes, was also in Cambridge, indeed also in Kings College, in Keynes’s time. Pigou was much more concerned than Keynes with economic psychology and the ways it could influence business cycles and sharpen and harden an economic recession that could take us toward a depression (as indeed we are seeing now).
I’ve never actually read Pigou- in fact, in most cases where I’ve heard about him, it’s been in the context of a Pigouvian tax, as against the property rights argument of Coase. But, from the one chapter I’ve ever read of Keynes from the General Theory, it seems he was obsessed with psychology and used uncertainty as almost a guiding principle. So, reading this, I was hoping Sen would offer something that Pigou had said that I had no clue about. He kind of does:
The contrast between Pigou and Keynes is relevant for another reason as well. While Keynes was very involved with the question of how to increase aggregate income, he was relatively less engaged in analyzing problems of unequal distribution of wealth and of social welfare. In contrast, Pigou not only wrote the classic study of welfare economics, but he also pioneered the measurement of economic inequality as a major indicator for economic assessment and policy…A third way in which Keynes needs to be supplemented concerns his relative neglect of social services
Well, that’s pretty cool. I could go for some honest discussion of inequality. I still don’t think there’s anything discipline-shaking about that, however. Sen concludes:
The revival of Keynes has much to contribute both to economic analysis and to policy, but the net has to be cast much wider. Even though Keynes is often seen as a kind of a “rebel” figure in contemporary economics, the fact is that he came close to being the guru of a new capitalism, who focused on trying to stabilize the fluctuations of the market economy (and then again with relatively little attention to the psychological causes of business fluctuations). Even though Smith and Pigou have the reputation of being rather conservative economists, many of the deep insights about the importance of nonmarket institutions and nonprofit values came from them, rather than from Keynes and his followers…
The present economic crises do not, I would argue, call for a “new capitalism,” but they do demand a new understanding of older ideas, such as those of Smith and, nearer our time, of Pigou, many of which have been sadly neglected. What is also needed is a clearheaded perception of how different institutions actually work, and of how a variety of organizations—from the market to the institutions of the state—can go beyond short-term solutions and contribute to producing a more decent economic world.
I guess I don’t get it. I read Sen, and find myself extremely glad that someone like him, seemingly outside the mainstream, can win a Nobel. But then, it seems a little unimaginitive offering Pigou, whose ideas are now very mainstream, as the panacea for economics. I think we can do much better in terms of opening of the discipline, but if people like Sen aren’t thinking creatively about that question, who in the mainstream is?