Samuelson, Bentham, & Foundations of Economic Analysis

face of a prisoner

Paul Samuelson, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, has probably been the most influential twentieth-century economist. His textbook, Foundations of Economic Analysis, was taught to college students around the world for decades. As intellectual work, Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis shares the abstract, individualistic, mechanistic conceptual framework of Jeremy Bentham’s highly influential late-eighteenth-century analysis of pleasure and pain.

Samuelson formally devalued human culture. Samuelson declared:

The laboratory notebooks of Michael Faraday are more precious to me than the Doomesday Book or the Rosetta Stone.^

That valuation lacks appreciation for human communication and human culture across its full historical scope. In economies today, production functions are communications networks. Communication is deeply social and cultural.

Samuelson himself was highly self-conscious of his own position in human society. Later in life, Samuelson perspicaciously noted the importance of the “struggle for priority and fame” in the development of science.^ In just the first page of his introduction to a 1983 enlarged edition of his Foundations of Economic Analysis, Samuelson associated his work with famous names: Coleridge, Mozart, Shakespeare, Frost, Milton, Tolstoy, Trollope, Newton, Euler, Clerk Maxwell {sic}, Henri Poincaré, and James Watson.^

Bentham was also intensely engaged in social competition. Bentham was a socially sophisticated atheist who wrote anonymously the book Not Paul, But Jesus (1823). Bentham’s utility principle is most reasonably understood rhetorically. Bentham declared himself to be the spiritual father of John Stuart Mill and the spiritual grandfather of David Ricardo. All three had high priority and fame in elite discourse.

Both Samuelson and Bentham refused to generalize their own intense concern for social priority and fame. That struggle is at the foundations of animal societies. In truth, that struggle is deeply enmeshed in socially recognized achievement in economic understanding. Samuelson and Bentham provide worse guides to twenty-first-century economies than does Paul of Tarsus.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *