A social turn

Hard work and black swans

To explain wealth and poverty, the ideas of the earliest economists are being revisited and improved

THE EMERGENCE of the discipline of economics in the 18th century was the result of people trying to explain something that had never happened before. At the time a handful of countries were becoming fabulously rich, while others remained dirt-poor. In 1500 the world’s richest country was twice as well-off as the poorest one; by 1750 the ratio was five to one. It is no coincidence that the most famous book in economics, published in 1776, inquired into “the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”.

In order to explain such a divergence between rich and poor countries, the early economists were obsessed with culture, a catch-all term encompassing a society’s beliefs, preferences and values. Adam Smith, the author of “The Wealth of Nations”, explored the ways in which culture helped or hindered capitalism. He argued that certain norms were required in order for market economies to thrive—most importantly, that people would be self-interested, but that they would satisfy their self-interest by adapting to the needs of others. Karl Marx, a few decades later, worried that a culture of “oriental despotism” prevented the emergence of capitalism in Asia.

The speculations of Smith, Marx and others were often vague. Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, published in 1905, made them concrete. Weber…