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"Well, are the rich necessary? The question begs more questions." The quote is from Helen Jonsen's opening of an interview with Hunter Lewis for Forbes.com (September 11, 2007). Indeed, the title of this book begs more questions, among which, analyzed in the book, are: Are the rich necessary for the economy? (pp. 15-43) Is profit making what drives a healthy economy? (pp. 43-75) Should an economy strive to eliminate inequality and how? (pp. 75-106) Is government intervention good for the economy? (pp. 106-125) What causes economic depressions? (pp. 129-181) Does free trade help the economy? (pp. 181-199). The final two sections provide a brief discussion of four "economic value systems", that is Equalitarianism, Faternalism, Reciprocalism and Philanthropism, and support a version of the latter centered on the idea of expansion of the non-profit sector as "a way forward out of the old, bitter, and often sterile economic quarrels of the past" (p. 230). And lastly, a useful number of appendices, extending to over a hundred pages at the end of the book, guide the reader through a slightly more in-depth explanation of some economic terminology and theories, like the concepts of price and price instability, the business cycle, the federal reserve system and others.
Altogether the project is an ambitious one. About the topics listed above there have been dedicated schools of thought, with hundreds if not thousands of books aimed at answering those questions and many other related ones, and crowds of scholars, politicians and influence groups trying to defend one or the other of the sides. Hunter Lewis, however, does not get lost in lengthy academic analyses, and this seems to be his virtue and his vice. His approach to the topics is very direct, the pulp of the debates on all sides of a multifaceted problem is squeezed out, and opposing positions are made to stand on their own against each other. Lewis is a master at getting the theories naked for the confrontation, without academic embellishments, with their pros and cons, and down to their essential and pragmatic characters.
The author's mastery, however, is also his defect. Often in the book the reader must look closely for important caveats and analyses only present in between the lines, or not find them at all. For reasons of space perhaps, important objections to some of the claims the author directly defends are not mentioned, at times giving the impression that the answer to the problem was right there, just waiting to be discovered by the author's logical wit.
It would be pedantic to point out, for all the major theses defended, where the book could improve in thoroughness. This is why, in the following comments, I will address only the principal thesis the author defends, that is, that the rich are necessary for the economy. In a nutshell, Lewis argues that the rich are necessary for the economy because they are those who cannot spend all their money. Because of that, the rich provide savings and investments that an economy needs in order to grow. This role, saving and investing, cannot be played by the poor, who spend all their money right away, and by the middle-class, whose investments are too short run to guarantee economic growth in the long run.
The fist point of discussion I would like to mention has to do with the source of growth Lewis identifies, namely increases in efficiency. Clearly, investments and increases in production (growth) are possible only if there is excess of wealth. Economists have a word for that type of improvements: "free lunches", or more technically, Pareto improvements, that is, ways to produce "more and more, better and better with the same number of workers [and the same resources]" (p. 19). Pareto improvements, however, are not only the product of the rich; private research centers can benefit from small investors and donations, and public research centers receive part of their wealth from taxes, that is from the poor and the middle class as well as from the rich. Governments, in other words, are equally good at producing Pareto improvements, which can then be applied to production lines by the private sector's investments.
Secondly, the reader of the book will look in vain for some ethical caveats to the defense of the rich the book provides, namely, the fact that much wealth has been, and is being, produced at the expenses of the poor's health and livelihood. From the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, to the exportation of production plants that most American companies practice, wealth is produced by the rich exploiting more efficient production systems as well as cheap labor, low environmental standards, even practices that would be considered unethical in most modern industrialized nations. These arguments have been repeated several times in history and by many sides, and do not seem straightforward to rebuke. The author's praise of the rich for the wealth they bring about may hold in a system where laws respectful of human rights and personal wellness are applied, but those system are not always in place, and that poses an ethical problem about the rich that, for want of completeness, the author could address.
It is not easy to give an overall critical assessment of Hunter's book. Credits for the first edition of the book, made by numerous newspapers and wealthy figures from important world industries, a.ka. "the rich", (see opening credits on the first pages of the book), praised its readability, its balance in presenting arguments and counter-arguments, the intellectual challenges it presents as well as the original solutions it puts forth. Undoubtedly the praises are all due. "Are the Rich Necessary?" is a highly provocative book, but never falls into propagandistic tones; it breaks down complex debates into their main opposite components explaining and weighting both sides of the same medal.
To the book's virtue goes the fact that its arguments follow very clear logical patterns. For some of the main thesis, the first argument is stated and a counter argument produced, the latter is in turn scrutinized and argued back again with a second counter thesis, and the process is repeated for as long as it takes to get a general view of the problem. Similarly, for other theses, a section is dedicated to a number of defenses, one to the opposing arguments, and a third one to balancing the previous two. The overall result of this is a balanced and reflective text.
On the short side of the book, as exemplified above, the book at times could improve in completeness by dealing with some objections which, it is reasonable to assume, an informed readership would like addressed.
© 2010 Carlo Martini
Carlo Martini is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Tilburg University (NL) where he works, in collaboration with the local department of Economics and Business Administration, on philosophy of economics and social epistemology. He is also a member of the Tilburg Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science. More information about his publications, research and activities can be found on his website [http://www.martinicarlo.net/].