In these days of international economic crisis–days when the economic underpinnings of the global economy are being exposed as seriously flawed–it is worth looking at other ways forward. What is new about this global financial crisis is that no one can see how it can be reversed by policy intervention: the fiscal and monetary levers that have been used to stimulate economic growth seem to have been almost entirely exhausted. Policy-makers are reduced to the expedient of printing money: the last stand of a bankrupt system of thought and practice. I am ruminating on the need to write a book entitled “The end of economics”; because surely, if economics regards itself as a science, subject to the scientific discipline of “conjecture and refutation” (to quote Karl Popper), then the present extended series of crises begins to look like a serious refutation which threatens the legitimacy of its intellectual foundations. So it is useful, as I say, to look at other ways forward.
In 2001 Wendell Berry wrote a piece for Orion magazine on “The Idea of a Local Economy.” He has written many other pieces along these lines, gathered in such publications as “Home Economics” (1987) and “What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth” (2010). This piece seems to me to be particularly apposite to the times. Wendell Berry is one of those rare writers who think clearly, write beautifully and are fearless in taking disparaged positions on moral grounds. Often, I find, he simply says (very well) what everyone knows to be true, on the family and community level, but which national populations and their policy-makers find it convenient, for reasons of short-term self-interest, to ignore. A particular virtue of his critiques is that they don’t remain critiques: he has something to offer in place of the current conventional wisdoms. He writes on behalf of ordinary people and their ordinary, human concern for the welfare of their families and neighbours, and for the welfare of the world–a conspicious contribution to the public discourse on how we are to live.
There is a proverb of sorts, variously attributed (I like Benjamin Franklin, as it sounds like him, although it probably wasn’t), to the effect that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” I leave you to draw the implications. Wendell Berry offers a different thing. At the very least he seems to be in and around the right place, which he firmly believes–and I agree–is likely to be local, not global.