A Far-Reaching Book The Sustainable Development Theory: A Critical Approach: Vol. 1. The Discourse of the Founders; Vol. 2. When Certainties Become Doubts, Palgrave, London, 2020; 2021. Authors: Ion Pohoață, Delia Elena Diaconașu, Vladimir Crupenschi
Erudition and research stand to gain from the publishing of this outstanding two-volume study. Sailing against the winds, three scholars from Iași set out to write not just a mere scientific paper – to keep up with the times – but a book. And it turned out to be an excellent book, meeting the quality standards that a reputable publishing house like Palgrave requires.
The book is both unsettling and deep and, although quite elitist, it is clear and compelling to any inquiring mind. Well-grounded in arguments and evidence gathered from all levels of knowledge and from the economic and social reality, the book carries out a critical analysis of the specialised literature on a paramount topic in the field of economic sciences: growth and development. The analysis is built on two main pillars, corresponding to the two volumes. The first volume, as already noted in a previous issue of The Market for Ideas, reveals the twists and turns of the subject as presented in the writings of the founders of the economic sciences. Even if the phrase “sustainable development” was not part of their notional toolbox, both the classical and neoclassical founders classicized the topic. In other words, they assigned it greater rigor; they captured it in final statements and placed it in the socio-economic and environmental context. The organic structure of the whole (economic + social + environmental) takes on the form of the natural. None of them thought we could talk about economic growth per se. If it does not serve the social and is not “consequence-free”, preserving the environment, it loses its essence. In order to reach such goals, the founders approached all the major topics that shape the framework of wealth and its distribution, mindful of the necessary background of harmony and balance.
What about the contemporaries? We find the answer to this question in the second volume of the above-mentioned study; an answer which, as the subtitle suggests, resides in uncertainty. Not all contemporaries were asked to take part in the analytical game. However, depending on the topic addressed, the most prominent ones are heavily exploited. Mises, Hayek, Keynes, Minsky, Fisher, Mason, Butos, etc. are brought to the fore in an attempt to unveil the intricacies of the contemporary economic dynamics. They are all experts in theory. Yet, as the authors prove, not all of them are sustainable in terms of the solutions put forth. The Austrians pay tribute to mentor Menger. The geometric rigor of their analysis fades as they fail to cut the Mengerian umbilical cord: money does not measure anything, it just mediates exchanges. Anti-Keynesians by default, some wake up to twin with the author of the General Theory when it comes to solutions. In addition, the Keynesian anti-crisis therapy, with its many and considerable downsides, proves to be more comprehensive. Fisher does not seem very inspiring either in terms of sustainability and resilience. If on the “Over-Indebtedness - Deflation - Monetary Injection” route one stands all chances to remain poor if one started out poor, why would one bother to do so when looking for dynamic solutions that end in development? Minsky is placed within the same matrix: an erudite, yet bewilderingly pale analysis – in terms of message – of sustainable development.
In search of lost lessons, the authors long for the splendid competitive game of the Adamist school, preserved by the logic of the natural price of goods and money. Disappointed, they eventually have to notice that the battle between many and relatively equal players – fought to the benefit of consumers – is insidiously replaced by a game ruled by two great players who decide upon our destinies: the state (government) and the bank. In addition to many other good practices, clearly echoed in the founders’ works, a rule that Smith, Ricardo, and Wicksell held dear is forgotten: the institution of the natural rate of interest. In its absence, central banks engage in opportunistic-individualistic behaviours, break away from the real economy in their monetary policy, and turn the government into an ally in their fight against bankruptcy. Sustainability and resilience lose out.
Sustainable development is equally harmed when the social – a powerful dimension of existence as such – is given an anti-productive status. When, for various ideological reasons, distribution is set before production, no one stands to gain; quite the contrary! The anti-profit position is also an underdog, just like the boundless embrace of the illusion of a distributive justice. As a case in point on how redistributive ideology and social pressure can harm sustainable development, the authors stop at “Pikettism” – a school of thought initiated and supported by the French economist Th. Piketty, who is “lashed” accordingly, to match his embarrassing illusions.
The analysis does not get past the utopian character of the downstream theory either. It demonstrates that the “stationarity” of the classics, a well-deserved Sunday break after a busy week, has nothing to do with the contemporaries’ hazardous invitation to stop before even starting. The reasoning put forth is complete, complex and compelling.
Finally, nature, as a splash of colour on the theory of sustainability, could not be left out of this analysis. The authors are convinced that the “ability” mentioned in the Brundtland agenda finds its correspondent and application in a philosophy à la Solow. You cannot hand over to the next generation nature in the exact same state you received it, once you are already making use of it. But you can keep it healthy and functional. “General intellects”, even coming from Marx, can serve as a guide in Solow-Daly’s “quarrel”.
And there’s more! The volume concludes with “Sustainability and the World of Animals”. Beautifully written lines. Worth reading. Just like the others! Worth reading and pondering over. Because, after all, this is precisely what the book is intended to be: a message through which we are subliminally told that the founders were the real promoters of sustainability. They should not be forgotten.