Why the Dismal Science Needs a Richer Moral Anthropology

51N54NCKS9LChristina McRorie at Hedgehog Review:

It’s tempting to conclude that Piketty understands and delivers what the public wants from economics: a return to classical political economy. More than a few reviews of his work make this exact claim; he’s been hailed as the Smith, Mill, or Marx the twenty-first century has been waiting for.

If only it were true. Or, to be fair, completely true. Piketty’s work is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, but it doesn’t make him the new Adam Smith. Empirical attention to the sweep of history was not the only thing that enabled the grand theorists of classical political economy to make sense of market life for their readers. The other half of what made political economy—the forerunner of economics—so compelling was its ability to take on “big questions” by connecting economic matters with moral and philosophical concerns, often by way of what might be called moral anthropology.

For those longing for a revival of political economy in the tradition of Smith, even Piketty’s remarkable turn to richer data doesn’t fully satisfy their hunger for a fully worked out exploration of the connection between economics and larger philosophical and moral questions. These questions are about more than mere markets and politics; they pertain directly to the moral dimensions of economic life.

Because early economists such as Smith (1723–90) were also moral philosophers, they took up such questions naturally. They assumed that theories of justice and normative reflections on society were inseparable from their theories about pricing, the distribution of resources, and national wealth. They assumed that their field could advance only if all such concerns were part of a seamless whole.

more here.