Economics is a tricky thing to write about when you’re not an economist. One either ends up pleading ignorance on one’s own part and deferring to economists, or else making far too many amateur mistakes in reasoning to be taken seriously.* This is why I don’t often talk about the economic factors or implications of my political philosophies, and in fact focus my political philosophy on less controversial topics, like social solidarity as an antidote to crime and racism, arguing against the rationality of retributive justice, and all the political implications of the ecophilosophy project. You know, the easy stuff.
* Earlier this year, I read these two pithy articles by journalist Matthew Yglesias at Slate that write about economic issues reasonably well. Yet they do stay away from the details, and mostly focus on the daily problems of working people or the social and ideological disconnect between the super-elite of American society and everyone else who can’t afford multiple yachts.
So when Jean-Paul Sartre got into the tricky business of writing about economic ideas in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, I was a little worried he might go off the rails for a few chapters. While there isn’t a lot in these sections that has direct relevance to my ideas for the utopias project, there are a couple of interesting ideas.
One idea of his was to critique a notion that is, unfortunately, still prevalent in a lot of philosophical discussions and pretty big swaths of the general population: that the mathematical laws that scientific investigations discover about reality necessarily determine all action. Ian Hacking covered this territory about 40 years later in The Taming of Chance, showing how silly it is.
The traditional way of thinking about laws of nature goes like this. Scientists of various kinds work out mathematics that describe how the bodies central to their knowledge domains behave in various circumstances. We think of these mathematical systems as having always existed, and humans scientists discovered their existence. The laws existed separately from the bodies, the bodies and their movements being mere examples of the laws. Hacking showed that, at least in the case of statistical laws, this isn’t how the phenomena work. The laws are extrapolated from behaviour, and illustrate tendencies of motion for bodies of particular types. In other words, in the traditional deterministic picture, ontologically speaking, the laws come first and determine the behaviour. In the case of statistical laws, the behaviour comes first, and lets us extrapolate the laws.
Sartre is basically saying the same thing, except in the late 1950s instead of Hacking in the late 1990s, and it’s a passage in the middle of a 1400-page magnum opus. Except in Sartre’s case, he isn’t talking about statistical laws, but economics of supply and demand. The typical (or at least popular) way of thinking of this is that the law of supply/demand dynamics determines the development of prices on markets from the transcendent realm of mathematical law. But really, those dynamics are the effect of tendencies that occur when social bodies (humans, that is) buy and sell goods in an environment of resource scarcity.
There may be some inevitability that is very difficult to escape thanks to the nature of the bodies in question, but certainly no transcendent necessity.