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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The first ‘economist’: Hesiod and the problem of scarcity

No one should be misled into thinking that the ancient Greeks were ‘economists’ in the modern sense. In the course of pioneering in philosophy, their philosophizing on man and his world yielded fragments of politico-economic or even strictly economic thoughts and insights. But there were no modern-style treatises on economics per se. It is true that the term ‘economics’ is Greek, stemming from the Greek oikonomia, but oikonomia means not economics in our sense but ‘household management’, and treatises on ‘economics’ would discuss what might be called the technology of household management – useful perhaps, but certainly not what we would regard today as economics. There is furthermore a danger, unfortunately not avoided by many able historians of economic thought, of eagerly reading into fragments of ancient sages the knowledge gained by modern economics. While we surely should not overlook any giants of the past, we must also avoid any ‘presentist’ seizing upon a few obscure sentences to hail alleged but nonexistent forerunners of sophisticated modern concepts.
The honour of being the first Greek economic thinker goes to the poet Hesiod, a Boeotian who lived in the very early ancient Greece of the middle of the eighth century BC. Hesiod lived in the small, self-sufficient agricultural community of Ascra, which he himself refers to as a ‘sorry place... bad in winter, hard in summer, never good’. He was therefore naturally attuned to the eternal problem of scarcity, of the niggardlinesss of resources as contrasted to the sweep of man's goals and desires. Hesiod's great poem, Works and Days, consisted of hundreds of verses designed for solo recitation with musical accompaniment. But Hesiod was a didactic poet rather than a mere entertainer, and he often broke out of his story line to educate his public in traditional wisdom or in explicit rules for human conduct. Of the 828 verses in the poem, the first 383 centred on the fundamental economic problem of scarce resources for the pursuit of numerous and abundant human ends and desires.
Hesiod adopts the common religious or tribal myth of the ‘Golden Age’, of man's alleged initial state on earth as an Eden, a Paradise of limitless abundance. In this original Eden, of course, there was no economic problem, no problem of scarcity, because all of man's wants were instantaneously fulfilled. But now, all is different, and ‘men never rest from labour and sorrow by day and from perishing by night.’ The reason for this low state is an all-encompassing scarcity, the result of man's ejection from Paradise. Because of scarcity, notes Hesiod, labour, materials and time have to be allocated efficiently. Scarcity, moreover, can only be partially overcome by an energetic application of labour and of capital. In particular, labour – work – is crucial, and Hesiod analyses the vital factors which may induce man to abandon the god-like state of leisure. The first of these forces is of course basic material need. But happily, need is reinforced by a social disapproval of sloth, and by the desire to emulate the consumption standards of one's fellows. To Hesiod, emulation leads to the healthy development of a spirit of competition, which he calls ‘good conflict’, a vital force in relieving the basic problem of scarcity.
To keep competition just and harmonious, Hesiod vigorously excludes such unjust methods of acquiring wealth as robbery, and advocates a rule of law and a respect for justice to establish order and harmony within society, and to allow competition to develop within a matrix of harmony and justice. It should already be clear that Hesiod had a far more sanguine view of economic growth, of labour and of vigorous competition, than did the far more philosophically sophisticated Plato and Aristotle three and a half centuries later.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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