Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Essays

The Emptiness of Modern Economics

Why the Dismal Science Needs a Richer Moral Anthropology

Christina McRorie

Portrait of Adam Smith (detail), 1790, by John Kay (1742–1826); The Art Archives at Art Resource, New York.

It is not uncommon to find theological engagements with Smith in which he is summarily indicted as a conspirator in the illegitimate secularization of modern life or as the scourge of charity, banishing it from the public sphere in favor of self-interest. All of which is a shame.

Not long after its publication last spring, a treatise on economic inequality by a respected but hardly celebrated professor at the Paris School of Economics became the most unlikely bestseller of 2014. The public appetite for Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and the lively debate it occasioned, were nothing short of astonishing. Having received reviews and other treatments (including profiles of its author) in media outlets as varied as The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Colbert Report, the book also earned the distinction of being the only tome on economic theory ever to sell out on Amazon. No doubt, much of Piketty’s appeal lay in his intent to restore the kind of grand, sweeping theorizing not seen since the classic works of political economists like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. That ambition was linked to his openly expressed dissatisfaction with the increasingly sterile and fragmented focus on econometrics that characterizes so much of his field today. “To put it bluntly,” Piketty writes in his introduction

the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.11x Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 32.

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