Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Economic World of the Late Scholastics (Lew Rockwell)

Lew Rockwell delivered this fantastic speech at the Mises Supporters Summit in Salamanca, Spain, in which he chronicles the free market contributions of the Late Scholastics:

The subject of the medieval period highlights the vast gulf that separates scholarly opinion from popular opinion. This is a grave frustration for scholars who have been working to change popular opinion for a hundred years. For most people, the medieval period brings to mind populations living by myths and crazy superstitions such as we might see in a Monty Python skit. Scholarly opinion, however, knows otherwise. The age between the 8th and 16th centuries was a time of amazing advance in every area of knowledge, such as architecture, music, biology, mathematics, astronomy, industry, and — yes — economics.

One might think it would be enough to look at the Burgos Cathedral of St. Mary, begun in 1221 and completed nine years later, to know there is something gravely wrong with the popular wisdom.

The popular wisdom comes through in the convention among nonspecialists to trace the origins of promarket thinking to Adam Smith (1723–1790). The tendency to see Smith as the fountainhead of economics is reinforced among Americans, because his famed book An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in the year America seceded from Britain.

There is much this view of intellectual history overlooks. The real founders of economic science actually wrote hundreds of years before Smith. They were not economists as such, but moral theologians, trained in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they came to be known as the Late Scholastics. These men, most of whom taught in Spain, were at least as pro–free market as the much-later Scottish tradition. Plus, their theoretical foundation was even more solid: they anticipated the theories of value and price of the "marginalists" of late 19th-century Austria.

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