This little book, no slave to practicality, is a skeptical assault on the orthodox views of human nature and commerce that economists usually embrace so that a "science" of economics may be possible. In George Brockway's view, economics falls far too shy of the exactitude of the hard sciences to qualify as one of them, and should be viewed as "a branch of ethics."
Accordingly, from the myth of "economic man" to conventional notions about money to econometrics, the current conventionalities of economics become targets of Brockway's bracing, often amusing, though not always coherent skepticism. The tendency of his argument is that economics ought to be a more humane, and humanistic, discipline; and that is an idea difficult to quarrel with.
But Brockway's lengthy philosophical excursions are but prologue to certain practical observations about the way the U.S. economy functions today. In key culminating chapters headed "Inflation," "Protection" and "Banking," we at last glimpse the rough outlines of his alternatives; and there the difficulties begin.
If I am not mistaken, a certain refreshing Down East conservatism lurks beneath Brockway's ostensibly radical economics. He finds most features of the current go-go economy -- banking deregulation, the steady shift from industrial to high-tech and service jobs, the "takeover" gyrations of conglomerate managers, high-flying finance, the international to-ing and fro-ing of capital -- a bit distasteful.
For instance, he holds bank deregulation largely to blame for the chronic upward pressure on interest rates as banks seek, sometimes none too scrupulously, customers for their excess liquidity. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve System has stinted too much on the long-term growth of the money supply, bringing chronic recession and underemployment. It should, he says, be put under "political control."
Brockway condemns the way conglomerate adventurers now raid, and selectively liquidate, vulnerable firms. Under their influence -- who can deny the justice of the charge? -- there is a shift away from old-fashioned entrepreneurial risk, or pride in product, or institutional caring about the welfare of employes. Meanwhile, free trade has, in too many instances, stimulated wholesale export of U.S. jobs, even to countries whose "competitiveness" rests on their willingness to sweat labor mercilessly.
There is obviously much merit to some of these complaints. But the alternatives Brockway suggests are themselves problematical. At least they raise issues of procedure.
In the Brockway economic world, corporations would be subject to uniform national regulation and taxation -- this to arrest the exploitative rivalries by which industries are lured from state to state, or region to region, in pursuit of lower wages or environmental laxities.
Meanwhile, to recapture institutional pride and esprit, stockholders not actually working for a company would eventually be bought out, with bonds or cash, so that over time only those with a direct and active interest in the company's institutional well being would remain as true owners.
Income distribution would move toward, if not all the way to, equality. Brockway's arithmetic shows that if the national income were evenly divided, every American worker would make about $40,000 a year. And while absolute equality might be impracticable, "We can say. . .that everyone is entitled to compensation in rough proportion to his or her contribution," with all getting at least a "decent minimum" and none "outrageous compensation."
Finally, we would be less preoccupied with the alleged perils of inflation. If it's really a serious threat, the author suggests, it should be handled with direct controls.
Much of Brockway's program is debatable, and some of it is eccentric, which is not necessarily to say unsound. The key problem is that George P. Brockway, a sort of old-fashioned Maine Tory when you strip away the facade of iconoclasm, is also a believer in a rigidly planned economy.
Where the orthodox laissez-faire economist bows and scrapes at the shrine of "market forces," Brockway envisions a system in which all sorts of essential decisions -- about the appropriate investment of capital, about taxes and equitable levels of income, about trade policy, and about many other essentials -- could only be managed bureaucratically. Somewhere at the top of his economic system, there would have to be whole warrens of economic philosophers, schooled in Brockway's "labor theory of right," dividing the swag. And that might raise a new difficulty or two for every one his system resolves.
All of which shows, not for the first time, that while it is easy to be impatient with the gross imperfections of the economic system of the day and its reigning theoreticians, it is always a challenging matter to devise alternatives consistent with the modicum of personal freedom and choice that all of us, including George Brockway, expect to exercise.
"Economics" is a stimulating book, of special value to those who have not recently reexamined their rooted economic assumptions. Yet in countless ways, it is wild-card stuff, to be chewed warily and swallowed with many grains of salt.