Exchange and the Human Condition
By Bart Wilson
Humanomics is almost over. All that remains are a third of the oral final exams. (Yes, oral final exams for first semester freshmen. Two professors, one student, and a video camera. Good times all around.)
For the first time we concluded the course with a discussion of chapter 11 of The Rational Optimist. It was a mistake not to include this chapter in previous years. The chapter, entitled “The catallaxy: rational optimism about 2100,” brings the book and course together. After nine chapters of facts and reasoned arguments (we skipped chapter 9 due to time constraints), Matt Ridley delivers the point of his book as no principles of economics text does. Why does Matt Ridley care about his project? He tells you point blank (pp. 353-4):
It is precisely because there is still far more suffering and scarcity in the world than I or anybody else with a heart would wish that ambitious optimism is morally mandatory…It is precisely because there is so much poverty, hunger and illness that the world must be very careful not to get in the way of the things that have bettered so many lives already…Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.
Ridley concludes the book with a moral argument, and it hit students of all stripes with unexpected force. The acceptors and resistors of his facts had debated his arguments for a semester usually leaving the moral discussions for our other texts. By treating The Rational Optimist as a source of new facts for discussion, it became easy to overlook why exchange matters. Exchange matters because of the human condition.
Principles of economics textbooks, without exception as far as I have seen, dutifully explain the difference between positive and normative economics. Most dispense with the distinction early on and then proceed with a few hundred pages of pure positive analysis. Some even make blanket statements like “economists are concerned with positive analysis” (Mateer and Coppock, 2014, p. 27).
This is great if economic analysis intuitively resonates with the student, like it did for me as a freshman. But others need more than heady positive analysis. They engage with their hearts. In humanomics both the economics and the humanities students find common ground with Ridley’s big picture of the human condition, a picture that begins with the Acheulean hand ax. The notion that every human being (head engaged) was once dirt poor (heart engaged) brings home the importance of understanding what has, as one student wrote, “propelled our world to the prosperity we take for granted.” We studied humanomics together this semester because far too many people on the planet still live in poverty.