On economics, ideology, power

Behind the Veil of Economics; Essays in the Worldly Philosophy, by Robert L. Heilbroner. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 207 pp. $17.95. Sometimes economists seem to be stating the obvious in a complex way. That may be the case for some of the essays in this short book by the Norman Thomas professor of economics of the Graduate Faculty at The New School in New York.

Behind our economic system, Robert Heilbroner writes, is ``also a system of power; that the work of analysis is inescapably colored by ideology and initiated by untestable `visions'; that the object over which the veil is spread is not a collection of individuals but a specific social order to which we give the name capitalism.''

Anybody who deals with a private sector ``boss'' or a government regulatory agency is aware of a power structure. News reporters soon discover that the analysis of economists, though usually based on some statistical facts and theoretical logic, can be colored by their ideology.

But Heilbroner apparently regards this as something of a new idea for his readers. It should be no surprise that Heilbroner, who was once described by a fellow economist as a ``Unitarian Marxist,'' should be fascinated by ideology and power.

Heilbroner also wrote one of the best histories of economic thought, ``The Worldly Philosophers.'' Many an economics student has found it manageable if not fascinating. This book, however, is hard slogging and probably of little interest to those without a background in economics.

Far from being a rigid Marxist, Heilbroner is certainly aware of the weaknesses of socialist states. He nonetheless tends to view capitalism from the background of Marxist economics. For instance, he writes: ``...capitalisms, like tribal societies, imperial kingdoms, feudalism, or socialist states, are at bottom regimes of power and privilege, built on the granite of family ties, community norms, and above all, on a deeply inculcated `habit of subordination.''' The latter refers to the tendency for most employees to obey their bosses as they earn their living. Similarly, he notes, nonmarket economies are based on the social routines of kinship or other obligations. There are tribal or feudal hierarchies that are observed.

Every society must certainly have its power structure to function. One advantage of capitalism is that this power structure is fairly flexible and constantly changing as individuals move up or down the various ladders of success - political, business, or professional. It is based less on family and inherited wealth or title than on feudal or tribal systems.

The head of the US Socialist Party, Michael Harrington, describes American society as highly egalitarian - although he would advocate that the government do a better job of redistributing income by taking more money from the rich to provide greater services to the poor. Marxist societies, with their ``new class'' of privileged communist bureaucrats, are proving to be more rigid than capitalist nations.

Heilbroner rightly points out that the majority of economists do not spend much time dealing with the distinctive political and cultural aspects of the capitalist system. They concentrate on the mechanisms of the market within the system.

But capitalism has evolved, changing constantly in small ways, and it continues to evolve. And there is no ideological breakthrough today that realistically offers a revolutionary change for the better.

This book leaves a suspicion that the author had a group of essays that he wanted to market as a book, adding a pair of new essays and vaguely tying them together with a theme (``Behind the Veil...''). It is certainly not Heilbroner's most coherent book.

David R. Francis is on the Monitor staff.

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