Economics & compassion

The origin of economics, as we currently understand it, is usually cited as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and its free market overall ethos as stemming from his notion of the ‘Invisible Hand’ guiding us in an appropriate direction through enlightened self interest. Origins are rarely so specific in actuality and we simply anchor them in our mind with some convenient time stamped event.

We should not forget that economics was a practical science born in a time of technological change in a nation rapidly expanding its trading well beyond Europe. Among the diffuse strands that were gathered together into the science of economics was the culture of commerce that grew out of international trading with societies that lived by very different mores to the British. Commerce had to be broad minded about lifestyles, beliefs and types of governance if merchants were to successfully bring home the goods their customers wanted.

This translated itself into the liberal and non judgemental stance economics still adops and its tendency away from morality and compassion. Its trading origins also dictated the central place that economics reserves for the ‘market’ and its tendency to view the world through a lens that magnifies and filters out almost all but human exchange, drawing on an inexhaustible supply of resources and raw materials. It is hard for such a system of thought to see human wellbeing in terms other than of commodities and consequently notions such as compassion and acceptance of limitations seem unable to penetrate its sphere of awareness and theory.

This leaves economic sensibility short of a sufficiently holistic view to take on board the full range of issues that should determine action: functionality, ethics, aesthetics as well as traditional economics. These limitations require that it should not be allowed to guide human activity without the constraint of other sensibilities.

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