It just so happened that I've been reading Christopher Lasch's The True And Only Heaven: Progress and It's Critics when a friend sent me Philip Mirowski's The Great Mortification" Economist's Responses to the Crisis of 2007-(and counting). This latter article led me to James K. Galbraith's Who Are These Economists, Anyway?
That's a very good question—who are these economists, anyway? I will go a small but significant way toward answering this question today in the first of a series of essays on where we stand in the Modern Age. I can only touch on the main concepts today.
The real meaning of Progress is defined by Lasch—
Once we recognize the profound differences between the Christian view of history, prophetic or millennarian, and the modern conception of progress, we can understand what was so original about the latter: not the promise of a secular utopia that would bring history to a happy ending, but the promise of steady improvement with no foreseeable ending at all...
Starting mainly with Adam Smith, and with the amendments of many others during the 19th century, the idea that continuous "improvement" was possible came to be embodied in the type of political economy we have today. Lasch quotes from Simon Patten's The New Basis Of Civilization (1921) to describe our roots—
Patten's widely acclaimed treatise ... argued quite explicitly that the emergence of a "pleasure or surplus economy" effectively nullified the "ancient tragic model" of civilization and decay. "The story of the rise and fall of civilizations, repeated again and again, seems to justify the familiar conclusion that the decline of a society after an epoch of prosperity is a natural, incontrovertible law." But "those who would predict tomorrow's economic states from a study of the economic states of Rome or Venice" overlooked the unprecedented abundance made possible by the productive system, which placed civilization on a new basis. Their apprehensions belonged to a "vanishing age of deficit" ... On the contrary, man's dominion over nature put an end to the "reign of want." according to Patten. "The social surplus is the superlative machine brought forth in the machine age for the quickening of progress."
Patten's optimism required the corollary assumption, directly opposed to the linkage of poverty and progress made by Henry George and Brooks Adams, that the growth of inequality could be reversed...
You can easily recognize the consumer society we live in today in Patten's views. The available "abundance" and our ability to consume are assumed to grow forever. Indeed, this is what Progress came to mean in the 20th century. Nothing has changed in this regard in 2010. That the available abundance might cease to grow or diminish in a new "age of deficit" is antithetical to our faith that Progress is inevitable & enduring.
The belief in this doctrine is nearly universal in our times. To dissent to the Progress paradigm in this day & age is to be cast as some kind of dystopian wacko. That there were other views of how the world works have long ago faded from memory. Simon Patten was responding to people like Henry George, who believed that the law of civilization and decay described below contradicted the notion of continuous improvement. Here is Lasch again, quoting from George's Progress And Poverty (1920)—
George's offense ... lay in his insistence that the theory of continuous progress—the "hopeful fatalism" that "now dominates the world of thought"—was contradicted by the "rise and fall of nations", the "growth and decay of civilizations." George did not deny that "we of modern civilization" stood "far above those who proceeded us." What he denied was that the achievements of modern civilization could be attributed to improvements now "permanently fixed in mental organization."
History, he thought, did not support the "current view" that "improvement tends to go on unceasingly, to a higher and higher civilization." The modern world owed its wealth and power to the transmission of skills and knowledge from one generation to the next; but the delicate mechanism of cultural transmission had broken down many times in the past, and could easily break down in the future...
[My note: Brooks Adams wrote a book called The Law Of Civilization And Decay (1895). I am not referring to that book or its contents when I cite the general law of civilization and decay in this post.]
You will recall that Simon Patten's optimism required the "corollary assumption" that the growth of (wealth, income) inequality could be reversed. George did not think this was possible. In fact, it was the inevitable wealth inequality brought about by endless growth which "must bring progress to a halt"—
This truth [the law of civilization and decay] involves both a menace and a promise.
It shows that the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress, but tendencies which must bring progress to a halt; that they will not cure themselves, but, on the contrary, must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road which every previous civilization has trod."
It is not an accident that this blog is called Decline Of The Empire. I do not believe in Progress, for History and Human Nature—no improvements have been "permanently fixed in mental organization"—argue strongly against it. I subscribe to the law of civilization and decay. Furthermore, I do my best to document the ubiquitous decay of American society everyday. This puts me in direct opposition to virtually every economist, every government official, every politician and every pundit in this Great Land Of Ours. I'm more or less comfortable in that role.
Henry George's point about "the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth" is well-taken. I myself have described it at great length, most recently in my post Trickle Down Economics. The tendency of wealth inequality to "bring progress to a halt" is obvious in the United States. See my posts The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing or Wiping Out The Middle Class. This deplorable trend is very far along, irreversible, and accelerating. Along with other disasters, it will be our undoing.
I have said little that might provide a direct answer to Galbraith's question who are these economists, anyway? But the answer should now be obvious: Economists are the High Priests of Progress who oversee & maintain Simon Patten's "superlative machine" to fuel ever-growing consumption. This goal is Holy, and the Sacred Obligation of economists is to make it so. I shall relate their role as Secular Priests to their manifest failure to understand why the superlative machine broke down later this week.