Many are the unsung heroes who have brought the global economy to the place it now occupies. Everyone knows of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Keynes and St. Milton of Friedman. Tragically, few are aware of the man who set the wheels of capitalism in motion and who gave it the amoral foundation without which it would never have metastasized as it has.
I am speaking, or course, of the father of Political Arithmetik, William Petty. This seventeenth-century thinker made possible the dismal science because of one sentence in which he discarded “comparative and superlative Words” and pledged to use only such reasoning as can be expressed “in Terms of Number, Weight or Measure.”
At first, we are tempted to pass over that statement as an interesting, if not dry, statement of fact. But the effects were revolutionary. For what Petty set into motion when he rejected “comparative and superlative Words” was the value-free study of economics. Qualification, that archaic concern over ethics, morality, compassion and community was to be relegated to the trash bin. If the numbers justified an action or a policy, then it was good, regardless of how horrific or tragic its consequences. Moral judgments would no longer have a place in economic decisions. This amorality made it possible for Exxon and its ilk to wrap their tentacles around civilization's balls.
Up until Petty, the nascent science of economics was a subset of moral philosophy. After Petty, it lost the “moral” and morphed into one of the social sciences.
In the heady world of pure numbers, there can be no suffering, no hunger, no poverty and no oppression. True, it is possible to quantify them, but the quantifiable presence of the latter involves no moral judgment about their whether they are good or bad. If they increase profits, they are good; if they place a downward pressure on profits, they are not good (as opposed to being evil).
William Petty was the father of that necessary instrument of globalization, the spreadsheet. We have seen its grow until it has become the shroud that covers the carcasses of its victims. (Spreadsheets are printed on thick paper so the blood of the dead never soaks through.)
Were it not for Petty, we would still be living the pastoral life of the farmer, our intellects numbed by our oneness with nature, with no concept of time other than the movement of the seasons and far too much leisure time on our hands once the crops were in and the fields were fallow beneath the winter frost.
Once Petty freed the mind from the chains of morality, progress took off and we now lead the lives God intended, scurrying like ants 24/7 to further enrich our overlords and propel the world over the precipice of unlimited economic growth.
The next time the mint issues a revised c-note, his face should appear on it. Sure, he was ugly as sin, but his contribution to greed and exploitation make him an object of beauty.
 Quoted in Peter Linebaugh’s, The London Hanged.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
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Its always an education when I read your blog. Keep educating
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