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Economist Samuel Bowles Urges the Construction of a New Economic Paradigm Based on More Egalitarian Societies

The distinguished international expert gave a keynote lecture at ECLAC’s headquarters in Santiago, Chile.

13 March 2018|Press Release

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The economist Samuel Bowles and the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, Alicia Bárcena
The economist Samuel Bowles and the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, Alicia Bárcena.
Photo: Paloma Montecinos/ECLAC

Distinguished US economist and prominent international scholar Samuel Bowles gave a keynote lecture today at the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago, Chile, where he called for the construction of a new economic policy paradigm based on more egalitarian and democratic societies.

The current Director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico (US), Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and PhD in Economics from Harvard University, was welcomed by ECLAC’s Executive Secretary, Alicia Bárcena, on behalf of the institution.

“We are honored to have Professor Bowles here with us, given that his contributions to economic theory and economic policy are very close to the set of preoccupations that are the core of ECLAC’s tradition,” Bárcena said. She added that the economist’s ideas about inequality and the redistribution of wealth, and their relationship with productivity, have inspired the Commission’s thinking over the years and are reflected in the new institutional document that ECLAC will present to its member States during its thirty-seventh session (which is the organization’s most important biennial meeting), to be held this May in Cuba.

“We must combat the culture of privilege that has taken root in our region and has ‘naturalized’ inequality. This has prevented governments from implementing policies in favor of innovation and structural change,” Bárcena emphasized. “The contributions of Samuel Bowles are guiding posts and encouragement in our efforts for advancing democracy, equality and development.”

In his keynote lecture entitled “The Origins and Future of Economic Inequality: Institutions, Technology and Politics,” Professor Bowles presented the results from his theoretical and empirical research into political hierarchies in different types of societies, inequality in income and wealth and their historical evolution over the long term.

He pointed out that the emergence of widespread, persistent and heritable economic differences among families began just 11,000 years ago with the development of farming and the subsequent appearance of states. Later on, with the advent of capitalism, the economies based on economic disparities were more competitive (from an economic, military, demographic and cultural point of view) than more egalitarian economic systems.

According to his analysis, a future economy may be based largely on caring for others, providing complements to leisure time, and the production and distribution of knowledge and affect. He called this the “weightless economy.”

“In a democratic society, we should have an economy that increases human capacities and is not based solely on material wealth,” Bowles explained. According to the specialist, the weightless economy may recover the foundations of equality that existed in forager societies prior to the Neolithic revolution.

In his presentation, Samuel Bowles also offered an analysis of neoliberalism and the reasons that led to its success, such as the assumption that market failures are merely exceptions and not the rule, and that collective action both by States as well as non-state bodies (e.g. trade unions) is motivated by the self-interest of the relevant actors.

According to his studies, the weightless economy may favor the emergence of a more egalitarian, democratic paradigm for political economy, albeit with some risks: the growing importance of economies of scale and winner-takes-all competition; intellectual property rights, which could pose difficulties to overcoming barriers to entry; and the need to preserve a democratic rule.

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