By Jonathan Aldred
- License to Be Bad; How Economics Corrupted Us (2019)
- The Skeptical Economist; Revealing the Ethics Inside Economics (2009)
Economics is unavoidably central to any attempt to improve our quality of life, but most people do not know why, or how to question its underlying assumptions. The Skeptical Economist rejects the story told by other popular economics books. Responding to Western malaise about quality of life, and a growing curiosity about economics and its relevance to these concerns, Jonathan Aldred argues that economics is not an agreed body of knowledge or an objective science. In reality economics is built on ethical foundations - distinctive and controversial views about how we ought to live, what we value and why. This revealing and entertaining book exposes these hidden assumptions, and opens up the black box of modern economics to reveal that conventional wisdom is not what it appears to be. The Skeptical Economist will challenge us all to examine the assumptions behind the economics of our current way of life. It rediscovers the ethics at the heart of economics.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Ethical Economics?
- The Sovereign Consumer
- Two Myths about Economic Growth
- The Politics of Pay
- Pricing Life and Nature
- New Worlds of Money: Public Services and Beyond
Andrew Meads on Economic Issues wrote:
"Freakonomics was written by an economist with some great real-world stories to tell and a journalist who knew how to write them in a light style for a wide audience. The Skeptical Economist, in contrast, is written in a style that is sometimes complex and dense, and the author often lavishes more ink on positions with which he disagrees than on the presentation and defence of his own views. When he does give examples to back up his arguments, these are often thought experiments involving people in generic environments facing generic problems. Yet despite these shortcomings, The Skeptical Economist is an astonishingly good book. It takes the mainstream economic views on which the likes of Freakonomics are based and makes a very convincing case for why they may be wrong. [...] He argues that introducing market mechanisms into the public services raises the question of why these services are public in the first place. He also believes that, since markets themselves could not function without trust, the market model is not a real alternative to the old public service model. And he suggests that non-market autonomy for public servants should not be feared, especially since motivation need not be about carrots and sticks, and may even be better without them."
Arild Vatn on Ecological Economics wrote:
"his main aim is to re-connect economics to ethics in ways which would have been unproblematic to a Smith or a Keynes but which, he claims, is lost in recent popular texts and, more importantly, in the technical sophistication of modern economic theory and applied policy analysis. And this leads to a view, pervasive throughout his book that the strong claims made for contemporary economics needs toning-down [...] Overall the book works very well. It is readable, up-to-date research-wise, concise and intuitive, does not overdo the underlying ethical theories and addresses important contemporary issues. And, perhaps most importantly, it manages to critique economics without undermining the need for it, so demonstrating that economists are often far better at evaluating their subject than non-economists [...] But there are some problems: he sometimes fails to see that some core assumptions are needed to provide a distinct basis to an academic discipline, even though they may often prove to be profoundly unrealistic; he understates the genuine and powerful insights that economic approaches can often provide [...]; and he sometimes over-draws the conflict between economics and ethics by downplaying the work of economists with a philosophical bias (e.g. Sen, Broome). And, while most of the chapters are excellent, some are weaker. In particular, the one on public services struggles to draw convincing moral conclusions about the role of markets, perhaps because their use in such circumstances is simply too varied to be able to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about their worth. [...] Aldred’s ultimate critique is not of ‘economics’ per se (he remains an economist!) as many economists share his core concerns. But, while he sometimes risks creating a view of economics that many economists would not recognise, he successfully explores the mindset of two types of economist who remain familiar: theorists who carelessly expand the domain of economics into areas of life not generally driven by rational calculation (e.g., Becker); and those who often work in governments, international organisations and the private sector who use the amoral arguments he refutes to recommend, or rationalise, certain policy interventions. [...] The ultimate readership for this book are the students who aspire to such jobs (and their teachers) and those who rely on economics in their professional or public lives who need critical guidance to the underlying, and implicit, ethical assumptions upon which economic analyses are based (i.e.,most of us!). It also forms a useful introduction to the more substantial and/or technical recent books concerning ethics and economics."
"The book is written for lay people, but the author seems to aspire to persuade the professional economist, too. [...] the theoretical questions are largely discussed in relation to practical problems/policy issues. This is meritorious as it makes the arguments both more accessible and relevant [...] Certainly, in a book taking up so many fundamental questions, there are also some issues. I will mention three. First, the author puts much effort into discussing the relationships between economics and democracy. This is good, but I lack a clarification of the author's own definition of the concept of democracy. [...] Second, a more systematic treatment of the role of context would have been helpful. I note with appreciation that Aldred favors a theory of choice that acknowledges context. Could it, however, be possible to say anything systematically about its role? One advice would be to include institutional theory and the idea of plural rationalities /norm based behavior to take this one step further. [...] Aldred has written a well-organized and easily accessible text with an admirable capacity to build arguments across the various chapters.It continuously stimulates reflection."
About Jonathan Aldred
Jonathan Aldred is Fellow and Director of Studies in Economics at Emmanuel College and Lecturer in the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. He is interested in the ethical foundations of economics and how they have shaped modern life. He has been lecturing and writing in this area for over twenty years, with a particular focus on questions of social and environmental justice, and the relationship between economic ideas and political change.