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The Moral Rhetoric of Political Economy: Justice and Modern Economic Thought

Author(s):Turpin, Paul
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Paul Turpin, The Moral Rhetoric of Political Economy: Justice and Modern Economic Thought. New York: Routledge, 2011. xv + 163 pp. $115 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-77392-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Paul Turpin?s thesis is that Adam Smith?s theory of a self-regulating economy was only plausible if it rested on the values and customs of the commercial society of his time and place. Smith?s ideal economy could operate without the regulating role for church and state only because the constraints of the ?social decorum? of his society took their place. However, reliance on social decorum creates a paradox for the theory of ?natural liberty? because ?at the very moment it dismisses dogma [church] and ancient custom [the feudal state] with one hand, it reintroduces a dogmatic decorum with the other. … People are free to be themselves as long as they correspond to the right decorum [of the commercial society]? (p.10).? Thus, the system of natural liberty imposes its own conformity.

Using traditional terminology, Turpin argues that the decorum of this society was that of ?commutative? justice — the values that allow commerce to function, such as high regard for property rights, contracts, voluntary trading, competitive efficiency, etc.? But the tilt in that direction largely banished issues of ?distributive justice? from the public sphere. When distributive issues occasionally intruded into the public arena, they were narrowly defined by the market mentality: distributive justice was reduced to the question of the rightness of the distribution of economic rewards received by people. And what is right is whatever results from the workings of a competitive market — an answer that reverts to commutative categories.

Broader distributive issues exist, Turpin insists: namely, what is one?s place in society and one?s relationship to that society? Smith left this to be decided in the private arena by the decorum of the existing society, and largely kept these questions out of the public arena. Turpin points out that such private-sector decorum worked at various times to subordinate, not liberate, groups of people (consider the role of women) — an outcome hardly consistent with a system of natural liberty. This reviewer thinks Turpin could have gone even further: the thought-patterns taught by commerce may invade the ?private? realm and turn even personal relationships into forms of economic transactions or calculations (a process written about in Robert Bellah?s Habits of the Heart).

Turpin defines distributive justice in terms of human relationships, which includes full membership in society for all: ?having a recognized place in society is something people need to develop their own identities. … [and] people as-they-are are recognized as belonging, as being members? (p. 106, emphasis added). That is, one?s security as a member of society does not need to be proportional to one?s economic productivity (or merely one?s high income), an affirmation that flies in the face of much of the practice of modern commercial cultures.? Smith considered some provision for the poor in The Wealth of Nations, as befit the ?decorum? of his time. But for the ?liberal? society, which followed him, removal of non-competitive hindrances to earning one?s income became almost the only public obligation to distributive justice. Turpin says that such a society would still leave people with existential insecurity, ?the frightening prospect of not-belonging, of being abandoned (p. 121).?

Turpin is a professor of communication, and supports his thesis by a close look at Smith?s rhetoric.? The Wealth of Nations rhetorically appeals to the reader?s sympathetic response to familiar commercial behaviors, which Smith praises as virtues. In Wealth, Smith also encourages his reader?s lack of sympathy for monopolists, whose motives are portrayed as wicked. That is, Smith?s rhetoric is that of moral blame and praise. Turpin argues that this resolves the famous ?Das Adam Smith problem.?? The ?sympathy? of The Theory of Moral Sentiments has not disappeared from The Wealth of Nations after all. While sympathy for others might not motivate economic actors, Smith appeals to the sympathetic response of his audience: ?The sympathy of the reader for the judgments of Smith?s implied reader creates a formidable orientation toward competition, legitimating both formal and informal institutions? (p. 40).?

Although much changed between Smith?s and Milton Friedman?s times, Friedman?s popular writing ignored that intervening history that had given people good reason to turn against laissez-faire. In Capitalism and Freedom, ?Friedman sums up nearly one hundred years of the heart of the modern era with no analysis at all about why or how welfare replaced freedom as a dominant concern? (p. 68).? Turpin describes Friedman?s strategy as being very similar to that of Smith: namely to advocate for individual freedom as the social norm, while actually promoting a particular social decorum that is necessary for it to work. ?The dissonance between these two social orders, the ideal and the actual, is what finally emerges as a problem? (p. 75). As with Smith, Friedman?s ?discussion of justice is actually about commutative justice, not distributive justice? (p. 74).? Justice is merely ?payment in accordance with product.? The fact that Friedman had a large modern following suggests that the values of our commercial culture have blinded many of us to what a minimalist, impoverished notion of justice this really is.

Turpin is in good company in defining distributive justice much more broadly — to include the affirmation of membership in, and participation in, one?s society or community. Arthur Okun?s well-known essay, ?Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade-Off,? spoke of the fundamental importance of affirming the full membership of people in their society; distributive justice went beyond income distribution, as important as it was. Okun argued explicitly that some things (e.g., voting rights, academic honors, or marks of athletic excellence) should be excluded from the market. Otherwise society would be no more than a ?giant vending machine,? and recognition of one?s human standing no more than a commodity. There is a long tradition among humanist thinkers, religious thinkers, and others, that a good society is marked by concern for one?s identity, found in community.? For example, a 1986 pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops was explicit about giving up some economic ?efficiency? (i.e., deviating from a key norm of the commercial society) to support the viability of existing communities and the sense of place they represented for their members. Well before Adam Smith, John Amos Comenius, the education reformer and Protestant bishop, envisioned a humane society that respected people, and their human dignity — starting with children.?

Turpin?s book approaches his economic subject from a multi-disciplinary perspective. His own field is communications (hence the title), but he is at home with the relevant economic and philosophical literature. Not surprisingly, Turpin prefers philosophy rooted in communications theory; but this is an apt choice. This philosophy views social-ethical norms as emerging from moral discourse among members of a community (he speaks of ?discourse? communities).? Human relationships imply discourse, and moral norms are nothing, if not about human relationships.? If norms are dictated by the social decorum of a certain society (which always seems to have inherent biases favoring some groups), they are not aids to freedom, but straitjackets for at least some members of that society. The laissez-faire system of natural liberty is not so free.

Turpin brings a fresh and important interpretation to the history of moral thought embedded in political economy. This book presents an impressive multi-disciplinary argument that is provocative, convincing, and consistent with what other observers have noted about the ills of a society modeled on an eighteenth-century ideal. Economists should consider Turpin?s idea that answers to problems of economic morality could emerge from human discourse. The alternative is to be mute about moral issues, thereby leaving the status quo to provide the answers.

Donald E. Frey is the author of America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics (State University of New York Press, 2009)???

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII