So, “Does the system behave the way we want it to behave?” is ultimately a moral question, one that we are banned from asking. In economics, this is exactly the sort of a question we’re not allowed to ask, because economics is supposed to be a positive science, not a normative science. The difference is clear: positive statements should describe things as they are (“facts only, baby”), whereas a normative statement describes things the way we want them to be.
Let’s take Milton Friedman, who was, of course, the biggest proponent of positive economics. He wrote the famous essay “Economics as a Positive Science.” In that essay, on the first page, you will find the following sentence: “Economics should be a positive science.” Now, please tell me if that is a positive or a normative statement.
The outcry in the face of such obvious truths is always that if they were implemented they would ruin the economy. The peculiarity of our condition would appear to be that the implementation of any truth would ruin the economy. If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week. We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is not god for me, for I have had to close a look at its wheels. I have seen it at work in the strip mines and coal camps of Kentucky, and I know that it has no moral limits. It has emptied the country of the independent and the proud, and has crowded the cities with the dependent and the abject. It has always sacrificed the small to the large, the personal to the impersonal, the good to the cheap. It has ridden to its questionable triumphs over the bodies of small farmers and tradesmen and craftsmen. I see it, still, driving my neighbors off their farms into the factories. I see it teaching my students to give themselves a price before they can give themselves a value. Its principle is to waste and destroy the living substance of the world and the birthright of posterity for a monetary profit that is the most flimsy and useless of human artifacts.
Though I can see no way to defend the economy, I recognize the need to be concerned by the suffering that would be produced by its failure. But I ask if it is necessary for it to fail in order to change; I am assuming that if it does not change it must sooner or later fail, and that a great deal that is more valuable will fail with it. As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French monarch, for it apparently can see no alternative to itself except chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness. For, of course, chaos is not the only alternative to it. A better alternative is a better economy. But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.
A better economy, to my way of thinking, would be one that would place its emphasis not upon the quantity of notions and luxuries but upon the the quality of necessities. Such an economy would, for example, produce an automobile that would last at least as long, and be at least as easy to maintain, as a horse. It would encourage workmanship to be as durable as its materials; thus a piece of furniture would have the durability not of glue but of wood. It would substitute for the pleasure of frivolity a pleasure in the high quality of essential work, in the use of good tools, in a healthful and productive countryside. It would encourage a migration from the cities back to the farms, to ensure a work force that would be sufficient not only to the production of the necessary quantities of food, but to the production of food of the best quality and to the maintenance of the land at the highest fertility — work that would require a great deal more personal attention and care and hand labor than the present technological agriculture that is focused so exclusively upon production. Such a change in the economy would not involve large-scale unemployment, but rather large-scale changes and shifts in employment.
“You are tilting at the windmills,” I will be told. “It is a hard world, hostile to the values that you stand for. You will never enlist enough people to bring about such a change.” People who talk that way are eager to despair, knowing how easy despair is. The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon “other people.” Anybody who wants to do so can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready– by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous. When a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will. And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.
From Discipline and Hope by Wendell Berry, from his book A Continuous Harmony (1972).