This Week on Free Will: Stephen Marglin

In today’s Free Will at Bloggingheads TV, I talk with Stephen Marglin, the Walter S. Barker Professor of Economics at Harvard University, about his new book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community.

I expected to hate this book, but I didn’t. Instead I found it thoughtful and stimulating, if ultimately flawed. I agreed with Marglin much more than I was expecting. It’s just that, unlike him, I don’t think the Amish are a very good moral model for anyone, and don’t think there is much worth lamenting when those kinds of communities are undermined by markets. I agree with Marglin that the transition from institutions of personal to impersonal exchange is radically transformative of community and personal identity. However, I’m willing to go to the mat for the idea that the gains in wealth, longevity, individual autonomy and creativity overwhelmingly swamps the loss of “thick” identities and tribal “meaning”. I think we’re “designed” to crave those things, however, so the cosmopolitan liberal utopia necessarily leaves us with a residue of regret. We will always be tempted to wreck Eden in a search of Eden. Thinking like an economist is inhuman and the bulwark against our ruin.

Also, Marglin’s left-communitarianism confused me. He was able to give no examples of the progressive, inclusive Gemeinschaft. I think there’s a good reason for that, and that’s reason enough not to try for it.