Monday, August 9, 2010

RIP: Tony Judt

Tony Judt was, amongst other things, compulsively readable, intellectually honest, deeply engaged, and almost always taught me something i didn't know about just about any subject, no matter how familiar, I read him on. His 'Ill Fares The Land' is one of the best political polemics I've read in a long time. His takes on Sartre, Aron and Camus are a deeply thought addition to a field crowded with cant on all sides.

Among his concerns in 'Ill Fares The Land' is what he calls 'economism'. Some talk of 'scientism', by which they mean (I think) that all questions human beings can ask about themselves and the universe are in principle answerable with science, and, if they aren't today, it's because science hasn't progressed sufficiently, and not because science itself is inadequate. Judt sees the political discourse increasingly, since 1980 or so, dominated by economic considerations and models above all others. It's necessary to know what something costs, but, says Judt, that's insufficient: there are ethical and moral questions, questions about what kind of a world we want to live in, what we owe each other, that require other sorts of discourse.

Even Judge Richard Posner, known for applying economics to law--he'd consider economic utility of enforcing a contract above all other considerations--has, in a recent book entitled 'A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 And the Descent Into Depression', questioned the market's limitations while noting the economists themselves mostly oblivious to the oncoming catastrophe.

Judt's right. We should, must act as if our lives are defined by more than money. If we don't, we run the risk of a sleepless night or two in the bed we've made ourselves.


The Phantom Creep said...

Moral considerations in the same breath as economic theorizing?


ProfWombat said...

That's Judt's point: economics isn't enough. And you're right to talk of economic 'theorizing'--most of it is based on models which only poorly apply to reality.

ProfWombat said...

I should correct myself a bit: a fair amount of economics doesn't fit my caricature. Such as Sen, Krugman, Galbraith, Keynes, others. But the economic discourse dominant these days celebrates 'free markets' uncritically, holds any government action other than bomb-building as economically destructive and tyrannous, and envisions a radiant future once individual initiative is unleashed, and parasitism no longer rewarded with perverse incentive.

It's common to hear right wing polemicists talk about liberals needing to take Econ 101. Every time they do so, liberals should respond to them by suggesting that they take Econ 102 et seq., in which the simple models of the freshman course get fleshed out a bit...