A year ago last March, The Atlantic magazine had a short piece pondering what have been the “biggest scandals of all time.” It listed 11, and then invited its readership to submit other suggestions worthy of consideration. Some of the instances were momentary in their timeliness, and wouldn’t make the grade today. The sexual abuse of the American Olympic gymnasts, for example, or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Alexander Hamilton’s and Henry Ward Beecher’s affairs were nominated, as were the South Sea Bubble of 1720, Aaron Burr’s effort in 1807 to set up an independent country, and the 1877 Presidential contest settled by Congress. The Dreyfus affair made the cut, as did the Opium Wars in China, and the Catholic priest child abuse cases and coverups.
What arguably should have been nominated, in my opinion, is the corruption of economics, a story recounted by our late Mason Gaffney, in his 1995 book of that title. It is a scandal still remaining to be laid out in full. It extends further backwards to the treatment of land parcels as a market commodity, and their theft from native peoples worldwide. This history begins with 15th century Popes granting sovereignty over regions of the earth – whole continents, in fact – to European explorers who then parceled out their tracts piecemeal to settlers for sovereign title, as patents, or, eventually, for purchase. Several books now recount this history, and its consequences have been as corrupting as the ignominious record of slavery, even though not yet as recognized. Reparations for the history of slavery are being debated, and it remains to be seen whether any kind of recompense will ever come to pass. Similar to the restitution for the theft of native lands, in America, and in other nations too. In various ways, it is even slowly being instituted, in many different ways, sometimes only by atonement. The justices of these processes are enjoying growing recognition and appreciation.
As yet, the full scale of the ways in which economics was compromised, as both a practice and as an academic discipline, has yet to be explored. But, the number of studies and academic treatises addressing the questions are growing fast. One such alternative economic discipline is Ecological Economics. It recognizes that economics needs to be seen as a component of the natural world rather than, as mainstream economics now has it, that the natural world in all its elements is a component of economic study. A further recognition comes from the ideas of Henry George – that the natural world ought not be viewed as a capital asset, titled and owned by private interests. Rather, that our world, indeed the universe, should be regarded as the common heritage of humanity, and that its use should be paid for by rent to society and the public. Still another growing discourse proposes that all components of the natural world – plants, animals, and even resources of inanimate nature, should be given “rights,” ensuring that they are protected for the benefit of all other elements of the earth. How these ideas unfold remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the dominant views of today, particularly of what is known as capitalism, is very much an open discourse.
How then should the historical economic practices that have evolved be treated? Are they an instance of corruption? If so, by what measures should they be evaluated? The tradition of Henry George, inspired at a time when a paradigm of “natural law” was reaching its apogee and heyday, still rests in the minds of the preponderant proponents, on a tradition of this natural law. Does this tradition give Georgism more secure ground? And need it rest on such a world view? There are some Georgists who are not subscribers to natural law frameworks. One primary exponent was the pragmatist John Dewey. The appeal of Georgist thought beyond the western English-speaking world suggests that it has a compelling force beyond any foundational natural law framework. Its standing holds its place insofar as it can claim orthodoxy and that all other ideas are corrupt. This question warrants discussion, one that as yet, has not unfolded.