The Story of Economics: From Poetry to Science
Reality is spun from stories, not from material.
There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of
improving our knowledge …
Anything goes …
Man has always striven to understand the world around him. To this end he was helped by stories that made sense of his reality. From today’s standpoint, such stories often seem quaint —much as ours will appear to the generations that follow. However, the secret power of these stories is profound.
One such story is the story of economics, which began a long time ago. Xenophon wrote around 400 BC that “even if a man happens to have no wealth, there is such a thing as a science of economics.” 1 Once upon a time, economics was the science of managing a household,2 later a subset of religious, theological, ethical, and philosophical disciplines. But, little by little, it seems to have become something quite different. We may sometimes feel that economics has gradually lost all of its shades and hues to a technocratic world where black and white rule. But the story of economics is far more colorful.
Economics, as we know it today, is a cultural phenomenon, a product of our civilization. It is not, however, a product in the sense that we have intentionally produced or invented it, like a jet engine or a watch. The difference lies in the fact that we understand a jet engine or a watch —we know where they came from. We can (almost) deconstruct them into their individual parts and put them back together. We know how they start and how they stop.3 This is not the case with economics. So much
1 Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 2.12. Economics here means household management.
2 From the Greek oikonomia; oikos—household, house, family, nomos—law.
3 However, we still don’t really know what matter as such is made of. We understand watches, so to speak, from a certain level up. Nor do we know what the real essence of time is. So we understand the mechanics of a watch, the parts that we have, ourselves, constructed.