Friday, February 11, 2011

On Determining an Approach to the Economic Problem

Maitland A. Edey and Donald C. Johanson, Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

Mom's book.

Don Johanson is the discoverer of the famous "Lucy" fossil.
From a file dated 11-24-1995:

The book Blueprints is a study of evolution and the development of thought on that subject. It describes some of the observations made by Charles Darwin which led to his theory. It describes Darwin's internal struggle over the publication of his work. It describes the religious spirit of the time and the controversy which Darwin knew would arise because of his theory of evolution.

Blueprints also examines some predecessors of Darwin, those whose work paved the way for Darwin's own. The first of these is Linnaeus; next is Buffon. Both Linnaeus and Buffon were born in the year 1707; both "rode the same surging wave of curiosity that was sweeping over Europe, an avid desire for explanation and description of the natural world." [p.10]

Linnaeus devised a scientific naming system. The system he devised is still in use today. The system organizes all living things in a hierarchy of categories based on physical traits, from kingdom and phylum, to genus and species. Buffon also devised a naming system. Blueprints authors Edey and Johanson write: "As one who sought to put the universe in order, Buffon, of necessity, had to become a classifier himself. He rejected Linnaeus's system [...but Buffon's] system of animal classification was preposterous." [p.15]

The authors explain that Buffon "graded animals according to how useful they were to humans, and started with the horse, 'the noblest conquest man has ever made.'" Now, the usefulness of things is clearly what makes things useful to us, so that a hierarchy based on usefulness is not entirely without merit. But the subjective nature of Buffon's approach makes it an unsuitable standard for widespread use. Moreover, as the authors point out, Buffon's approach "does make clear what a strong hold the idea of the centrality of humans in the cosmos had on humans themselves--before Darwin." [p.15]

Now, suppose we were having economic problems and we wanted to solve those problems. We would want to devise a system or an explanation to help us understand those problems. What sort of system would be most fruitful? Would it be the system which carefully describes how these problems affect us and our society? Or would it be the system that describes the problems and how they relate to the economy as a whole, organized in such a way as to lead to an explanation of causal factors? A system based on the human aspect of the problems is a more natural approach and, because it describes the aspect which is familiar to us, it seems quite reasonable; this approach is in widespread use. But an objective analysis of the problems would be more fruitful.

Given a set of problems that are known to be problems, we can achieve much by determining the causes of these problems, and then attempting to subvert those causes. But we can achieve little by quibbling over which problems are the most harmful to us and which are the easiest to live with.

If we wish to gripe about economic conditions, Buffon's approach is well-suited to our needs. But if we are to satisfy our curiosity, our need to understand, then we must use the Linnaean style. And if we wish to solve those problems, and most especially if we are to set economic policy, we must not base policy on how problems affect us, but on the nature and traits of the problems themselves.

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