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America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics

Author(s):Frey, Donald E.
Reviewer(s):Gregg, Samuel

Published by EH.NET (September 2009)

Donald E. Frey, America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009. vii + 239 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7914-9351-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Samuel Gregg, Acton Institute.

Despite the ascendency of positivism as a more-or-less unofficial religion throughout much of the academy, it has not proved easy for scholars working in even the most abstract of scholarly sciences to avoid engaging in reflection on the moral life. Given that economics was originally a branch of moral philosophy, there have been many studies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that have sought to explore the many intersections between positive economic science and the questions raised by ethics. The results of these analyses usually manifest themselves in the area of normative economic recommendations. There are, however, relatively few historical studies of the intersection of different ethical (even religious) theories of the good and the just, and the insights and methodologies of many economic ideas and perspectives.

Donald E. Frey?s America?s Economic Moralists is one of those still rare academic explorations of this subject. Looking specifically at American discourse (ranging from economic history to literature), Frey argues that the history of this area in the United States can be viewed in terms of the on-going competition of two rival theories of economic morality. One is focused on relationships and human interconnectedness (often through the prism of different concepts of justice), while the other is essentially concerned with human freedom, understood primarily in terms of autonomy and choice (often with varying understandings of the connection, if any, of liberty to the good).

The strength of Frey?s book lies in the author?s ability to condense the study of a quite large number of schools of economic morality into workable, chronologically-directed chapters. These begin with the American colonial period and end in the early twenty-first century. This is proceeded by an opening which spells out succinctly what Frey understands to be the two competing school?s fundamental assumptions about the human person, the purpose of economic life, and their respective priorities when it comes to the question of what economic science ought and ought not to do. Interestingly, Frey underscores that the differences between these two trends of economic-moral reflection lie not simply in their varying normative concerns, but also in their different appraisals of positive economics? empirical dimension, the particular insights it may offer, as well as the validity of these empirical claims. In this regard, Frey does any admirable job in illustrating how even the most positivistic-utilitarian minded of economists cannot really escape relying upon some unspoken normative assumptions or engaging in some degree of normative reflection.

Another underlying theme of America?s Economic Moralists is the powerful role played by religious thought in general (in the sense that religion involves reflection upon whether or no there is a divine Being and the implications or otherwise for human choice and institutions) and specific religious traditions (primarily of the American Protestant variety) in shaping the two trends of economic morality. The religious influences range from the powerfully evangelical impulses that have asserted themselves throughout American history even before the founding, to the theological utilitarianism of William Paley. Frey is also adept at illustrating how different religious traditions often attempted, with varying degrees of success, at linking together the autonomy and relational traditions, though rarely in such a way that such syntheses were able to withstand sustained criticism from representatives of both traditions.

A particularly intriguing aspect of this book is the way in which it highlights how different theologians and economists were willing to define various theological and economic emphasis and methodologies in terms drawn from their respective religious commitments. Thus an economist and one of the founders of the American Economic Association such as Richard T. Ely argued that the articulation and formulation of what he considered to be laissez-faire economics was remarkably similar to the exposition of tightly-argued religious dogmas and doctrine, which Ely, as a self-described ?religious liberal,? regarded as unreliable in addressing the questions raised by faith as in questions of economic science.

Yet another set of parallels that Frey?s approach brings to light is between the shared sets of concerns between various theologians and very secular economists, which in turn separate them from other sets of theologians and secular-minded economic thinkers. An example of this is the parallels between some of the concerns of the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the lay theologian Michael Novak in the post-World War II period. Occasionally one wonders whether some of the parallels drawn by Frey are slightly forced. In the case of Hayek, Friedman, and Novak, for example, it may be that that some of the very different emphases of these thinkers (not simply between the economists Hayek and Friedman and the theologically-minded Novak, but also the often very different normative concerns and working assumptions of Hayek and Friedman) are downplayed so as to underscore the similarities.

Readers will make up their own minds about whether Frey?s description of the nature of autonomy, ethics and relational morality are accurate models of rival economic moralities, or whether they are essentially straw men. Any model has its limits. America?s Economic Moralists does, however, provide a useful lens for thinking through competing visions of economic morality in America, and underscores the truth that there is no such thing as a value-free economic science.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute, and author, most recently, of The Commercial Society (2007), and Wilhelm R?pke?s Political Economy (forthcoming, 2010).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII