Beijing Law Review, 2012, 3, 121-127 Published Online September 2012 (
Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities
Vincenzo Ruggiero
Department of Criminology and Sociology, Middlesex University Hendon Campus, London, UK.
Received May 14th, 2012; revised June 18th, 2012; accepted June 28th, 2012
Economic initiative, by definition, is a human and social effort devoted to the collective wellbeing. However, economic
development in general, along with more or less measurable benefits, may cause harm to people and the environment.
This aspect tends to be obscured by advocates of the currently predominant philosophy (or ideology) known as
neo-liberalism. This paper sets off with a critical analysis of the axioms of neo-liberalism focusing on the variab le risk
and on the harm provoked by economic development on the environment. Straddling legality and illegality, harmful
economic conduct is then equated to a specific form of white collar crime, while an attempt is made to trace in the his-
tory of economic thought itself the embryo of a destructive rationale. After considering how harm to individuals and the
environment is hidden through ideological strategies, the paper looks at some refreshing proposals to turn the threats of
economic development into human oppo rtunities.
Keywords: Neo-Liberalism; Risk; Law; Economy; Valueless Lives
1. Axioms and Risk
As an ideology, neo-liberalism serves to legitimise eco-
nomic conduct by conferring on it the character of inevi-
tability, of a divine project aimed at the happiness of all.
To hamper such project is tantamount to sacrilege, and
governments still convinced that their role consists in
civilizing the economy and the human interactions this
entails had better adhere to the new ideo logy lest they are
doomed. The political sphere is required to forg e its own
philosophy through the concepts and axioms prompted
by the economy, making society suitable to it, rath er than
the other way round. The marriage between economics
and politics is so harmonious that representatives of the
two realms swap functions and arenas, and have become
by now perfectly interchangeable [1]. Entrepreneurs be-
come politicians while the latter, after their mandate ex-
pires, find comfortable positions within business boards
of directors.
Neo-liberal ideology posits that a 2 - 3 point growth
per year is indispensable, even for societies which have
reached a satisfying degree of wellbeing, to continue to
enjoy such wellbeing. A corresponding increase in con-
sumptions, inevitably, has to be stimulated. Whether per-
manent growth manifests dysfunctional aspects, for hu-
mans and their environment, should not concern us, be-
cause, so go other axioms: a) markets are perfectly able
to self-regulate; b) capital flows withou t hesitation where
its utility is maximum; c) risks are always calculable [2].
As for the enormous mismatch between technological
and economic potentials and the actual life conditions of
the population of the earth, the “trickle down” principle
will soon display its healing capacity. Little attention is
given to the growing signs that the use of natural re-
sources implied by an economic model based on infinite
development is unsustainable, and that the time left to
change it is shrinking dramatically.
The ecological footprint of the planet in 2008 was
close to 1.3, namely the earth was using all its own
natural resources plus a third of those of another planet
If this tendency continues unaltered, the estimate is that
in 2050 the earth will need an entire second planet in
order to satisfy its use of natural resources, includi ng th e
capacity to absorb or recycle the waste thus produced
If developing countries came close to the levels of con-
sumption of the EU, 2.1 planets would be necessary. If
the entire world reached the levels of consumption of the
US, the earth would need the resources of four more
planets [2].
Each society identifies a “threshold of catastrophe”
which derives from its perception of the utility brought
by risky behaviour. Where this threshold is located is
highly controversial. Societies and economies of subsis-
tence, for example, may be highly opposed to risky deci-
sions because they are constantly threatened by the loss
of crops, the uncertainty of their productive system, and
ultimately by famine. Similarly, in monetary economies,
entrepreneurs who hold limited finances may be deemed
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Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities
less prepared to run risks than their colleagues who own
more funds. On the other hand , one may also suggest that
lack and uncertainty may lead to riskier behaviour as a
way of “gambling” one’s way towards abundance and a
secure future. In this sense, it is those endowed with
fewer resources that might be prepared to run higher
risks. In brief, the perception of risk and catastrophe is
not only based on scientifically shared calculus, but is
also heavily dependen t on subjectivity.
In the seventeenth century risk was associated with
gambling, which en tails simultaneous possib ilities of loss
and gains. Slowly, gains vanished from the equation,
while the negative outcomes of gambling were linked to
taboos and sins. The major moments of choice were
signposted with danger. Later, the public politicised the
subject, while scientists pretended to be neutral [3]. This
politicisation of the subj ect matter occurs because society
no longer runs risks in pursuit of what is necessary, but
of what is superfluous [4]. In this way, the identification
of a threshold of catastrophe becomes increasingly de-
pendent on who is likely to earn advantages from risky
behaviour. Those who feel that risk, or gambling, will
bring advantages to others than themselves, will move
the threshold of catastrophe accordingly. In sum, the very
perception of catastrophe and risk varies according to the
position one occupies in “gambling”: some individuals
may make decisions while others may just suffer the
outcomes of those decisions [5].
We spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t
need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people who
don’t care. Because we do not run risks in the pursuit of
what is necessary, but of what is superfluous, neo-liber-
alism needs to turn th e superfluous into a natural produ ct
of human activity or even into an element of human or-
ganic reproduction. Hence its need to imitate the natural
sciences, biologists, physicists, mathematicians and other
scientists have been called upon to make economic theo-
ries more “realistic and effective”, namely to inoculate
doses of dogma into them. As Gallino [2, pp. 94-95] has
noted, the major opus of economics produced in the 20th
century, the General Theory of Keynes (1936), out of a
total 400 pages included, mainly in the appendix, three or
four simple equations. In 1950 only 2 - 3 per cent of the
articles published by the influential American Economic
Review contained mathematic formulas, which normally
were not at all sophisticated. In 1980 the papers with
mathematical calculations were 44 per cent and formulas
had become much more complex. Currently the percent-
age is close to 90 per cent. The only “real” scien ce within
the human sciences, neo-liberal economics dominates in
university courses, in the specialist literatu re, and in most
schools of management and business. It is the core relig-
ion of business administrators, large enterprises, financial
institutions, ministries of the economy, central banks,
international organisations, the World Bank, the World
Monetary Fund and the European Commission.
The economy is seen as a physical system, implying
flows of goods, information and energy, so that it might
be useful to model the economy as a system, like physics
does. However, while economic theory uses the concept
of equilibrium, the same concept used by physics cannot
be applied to the economy, because this is an open sys-
tem and equilibrium refers to closed systems [2, p. 92].
Neo-liberalism does not observe and describe the
economic reality, it creates this reality. It also produces a
new conceptualisation of risk: from risk as uncertainty
for enterprise to risk as uncertainty for society at large.
This shift contradicts one of the very axioms of free
markets, namely that the full costs of a transaction must
be borne by the involved parties. Many economic active-
ties and transactions, however, exact a significant price
on humans and ecosystems, although economists label
such price with the reassuring euphemism “externalities”
[6]. In brief, neo-liberalism regards environmental harm
as an accidental, unintentional, externality.
2. Law and Economy
The analysis of harm-producing economic development
bears close resemblance with that of white collar crime,
as both are situated on what scholars addressing the latter
describe as the legal-illegal continuum. The notion that
there is continuity between legality and illegality is cru-
cial for an understanding of white collar, corporate, state
crime, and of the crimes of the powerful in general. This
notion may be fruitfully u tilised when harmful economic
conduct is analysed, as this can result from illicit as well
as totally lawful initiative [7]. The study of harmful eco-
nomic conduct, in other words, encounters the same
theoretical predicament experienced by students of the
crimes of the powerful and campaigners mobilising
against them. As Sutherland realized, research on the
crimes of the powerful is difficult without a willingness
to expand one’s sample well beyond the legal d efinitions
of crime. Global warming, for instance, may be likened
to sate-corporate crime [8], although in general one should
specify that the harm caused by econo mic initiative is the
outcome of a series of interlaced conducts that are “bad”
in themselves, on the one hand, and conducts that are
“bad” because they are prohibited by law, on the other. In
sum, harm-producing development contains at the same
time mala in se and mala prohibita.
In his analysis of the relationship between the law and
the economy, Max Weber [9] notes that there are limits
to the success of legal coercion in the economic sphere.
Such limits are dependent on the strength of the actors
involved, respectively pursuing their material interests
and promoting conformity to th e law. “The inclination to
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Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities 123
forego economic opportunity simply in order to act le-
gally is obviously slight, unless circumvention of the
formal law is strongly disapproved by a powerful con-
vention” [9, p. 335]. In the economic sphere, on the other
hand, “it is often not difficult to disguise the circumven-
tion of the law”, as economic action creates its own le-
gitimacy in the material as well as the legal realm. Inad-
vertently or not, Weber’s remarks fall into the arena of
the crimes committed by powerful individuals and
groups, where offenders possess an exorbitantly exceed-
ing amount of material and symbolic resources when
compared to those possessed by their victims. The des-
ignation of harmful economic conduct as crime is con-
troversial and highly problematic, due to the higher ca-
pacity on the part of powerful economic actors to control
the effects of their actions and to conceal (or negotiate)
their criminal nature. Such actors enjoy a “control sur-
plus”, namely an excess of control exercised on others
relative to the control they are subjected to by oth ers [10].
Their conduct is “foundational”, in the sense that it takes
shape in a grey area in which behaviour awaits the out-
come of the criminalisation -decriminalisation conflict, as
it may be subject to regulation or become accepted rou-
tine. Some economic initiatives are enacted within
vaguely regulated arenas and while presenting them-
selves as acceptable conduct end up creating a precedent.
Other initiatives implicitly invoke legal pragmatism,
challenging legal reasoning and advocating departure
from precedents [11]. Economic action invoking legal
pragmatism is foundational in nature, as it is inspired by
an “experimental” logic and driven by a consequentialist
philosophy. Powe rful actors so driven adopt certain prac-
tices with the awareness that they may be unorthodox,
but with an eye to the social and institutional reactions
that might ensue. It is the intensity of such responses
which will determine whether such practices become part
of a “viable” routine or are to be carefully avoided. Some
economic initiatives, in sum, possess a “founding force”,
namely they are capable of transforming the previous
jurisprudence and establishing new laws and new types
of legitimacy [12]. Foundational economic action re-
structures the legal and the political spheres while play-
ing a legislative role.
A variety of foundational power crimes fall in the
economic domain and pertain, specifically, to the envi-
ronment, where forcing the rules often results in new
rules being devised, in a race which sees the law ch asing
the economy, rather than vice-versa.
3. Destroying through “Science”
At one extreme of the legal-illegal continuum we find
conducts which are detrimental to the environment but
enjoy the “scientific” sanction of economic thought. These
are “crimes of the economy” and deserve more attention
than they are usually given by criminologists, some of
whom still believe, by contrast, that economic develop-
ment is in itself a key tool of crime prevention. Econo-
mists have often paid visits to the field of criminology,
examining the rational logic of offending. It is time to
return the visit, in order to ascertain whether the traces of
some familiar criminological concepts can be fo und there
[13]. But, first, let us outline some interesting recent de-
velopments in criminology.
Green criminologists analysing global environmental
harm straddle legal-procedural approaches, which define
harm as the outcome of illegal practices, and ecological
approaches, which contemplate environmental harm more
broadly, “by invoking no tions of environ mental morality,
environmental ethics, and animal, ecological, or human
rights” [14, p. 161]. In doing so, they are faced with the
dilemma known in ecological theory and practice as the
distinction between “shallow” and “deep” ecologism.
The former appears to believe that the technology which
is destroying the environment may also rescu e it: a mana-
gerial approach to environmental problems will be suffi-
cient to solve problems, without fundamental changes in
present values or patterns of production and consumption.
Deep ecology, by contrast, embraces a holistic outlook,
whereby humans are interconnected with each other and
are constantly in relationship with everything around
them—they are part of the flow of energy, the web of life.
Radical changes in production and consumption patterns,
but also in the fundamental principles and values ex-
pressed by the undeservedly respected “science” of eco-
nomics, are necessary.
Is the environment a public good? “Yes”, if we, in ab-
stract terms, assimilate it to other non-rival, non-ex-
cludable goods, in the sense that one person’s enjoyment
of the environment does not exclude its enjoyment by
others, and in the sense that the good environment is
provided to one and all at the same time. However, the
answer is “No” if we believe that goods and resources
belong to those who turn them into wealth. Economic
thought starts its “scientific” arguments from the latter
assumption, and in the texts of the founding fathers of
economic liberalism this assumption takes the form of
rationalisation for the plunder and destruction of colonial
regions. John Locke [15], for example, laid the philoso-
phical groundwork for human freedom in all its dimen-
sions: free enterprise, free trade, free competition, and
the freedom to invest. Freedom to destroy, in his thought,
takes the form of exploitation of the earth, which cannot
be left there as an object of contemplation, but has to be
turned into property as the result of improvement and
work. By leaving fruits to rot and venison to putrefy, and
for that matter by leaving the earth untouched, we offend
the common law of nature.
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Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities
Thrift, work and perseverance may replace inherited
rights to property, but is there a limit in hoarding up
more than one can make use of? By the same token, is
there a limit beyond which the exploitation of the earth
constitutes a threat to the planet? John Locke believes
that the “bounds of just property” have been removed
with the invention of money, which makes economic ini-
tiative boundless and infinite, money b eing “some lasting
thing that men might keep without spoiling” [15, p. 140].
Natural resources, in this view, must be turned into
monetary value, because if left idle they will dissipate.
Colonies and their inhabitants were a substantial part of
the natural resources this type of reasoning referred to.
The entire earth, today, can be likened to the resources
of the old colonies, including slaves, all given to us not
for the mere purpose of contemplation or for leading a
good life, but with the implicit mandate to use and ex-
ploit them. The environment, therefore, is not a common
good, but an arena where the capacity and ingenuity of
humans is constantly tested, and such capacity and inge-
nuity appear to be the only limit to initiative and devel-
opment. The ultimate resource, in brief, is the human
mind, and throughout history human genius always wins
out against natural resource restraints.
Physiocrats such as Quesnay [16, p. 15] urged that “the
land employed in the cultivation of corn be brought to-
gether, as far as possible, into large farms worked by rich
husbandmen; for in large agricultural enterprises there is
less expenditure required for the upkeep and repair of
buildings, and proportionally much less cost and much
more net product than in small ones”. Small farms, in-
stead, “employ uselessly, and at the expense of the reve-
nue of the land, a greater numb er of the families of farm-
ers, the extent of whose activities and means hardly puts
them in a position to carry on wealthy cultivation”.
Wealthy cultivation, to be sure, consists of intensive and
limitless exploitation of the soil, accompanied by enclo-
sures and priv atisation of the land, and the bo undless use
of resources. Growth is a permanent concern, as revenues
cannot remain inert, “to the detriment of the rep roduction
of the revenues and the well-being of the people” [16, p.
5]. Similarly, capital should not be taxed, otherwise
growth is inhibited and development hampered.
Physiocracy contributed to the description of the mate-
rial sphere of society, where wealth is created and con-
sumed, as a living organism, with its own blood circula-
tion, its veins and arteries. Quesnay’s economic tables
offered an organic representation of economic life as an
autonomous system, thus paving the way for the defini-
tive divorce between economics and ethics. From then on,
one sphere of human action increasingly distanced itself
from other common values orienting social interaction:
economics could no longer abide by the useless and da-
mageing principles governing the socialisation of groups
and individuals. Economics became a science.
Adam Smith granted the final seal to this science, pos-
iting the existence of a universal, timeless individual en-
gaged in the constant pursuit of material interests, thus
turning the immorality of accumulation into an instinct-
tive, biological necessity. Infinite growth becomes a
spontaneous mechanism involving productive agents
who transform resources into commodities and wealth:
such agents are the only representative of civility in that
they provide the necessary livelihood for all. Glorifying
producers, in Adam Smith, goes hand in hand with ridi-
culing those whose activity does not yield quantifiable
value or n et profit, su ch as domestic servants, politician s,
soldiers, judges, artists, teachers and clergy. Lawyers,
men of letters and musicians are equated to opera singers,
opera dancers and buffoons [17]. Such unproductive in-
dividuals do not “work” because they do not transform
anything: their performance perishes as soon as it is de-
livered, leaving the surrounding environment unchanged.
Homo oeconomicus opposes sterility and is urged into
developing innovative ideas leading to the relentless
conquest and re-shaping of the environment, in a process
that coincides with innate desire and the search for hu-
man happiness. Access to the economy and its products
links homo oeconomicus with homo laborans, both
chained to their own infinite material aspirations, the last
human beings, the happy slaves “replete with the goods
that [they] produce and consume without any other ideal
than ensuring [their] own comfort and tranq uillity” [18, p.
17]. With Adam Smith, therefore, necessity not freedom
came to connote human history, as development was
inscribed in the biological make up of humans. Whether
such bio- logical necessity generates waste and devasta-
tion did not concern th e founding father s of econo mics as
a science, because the spontaneous dynamic of growth
was deemed capable of self-regulation. Human waste, in
the form of labour cyclically expelled from the produc-
tive process, could sooner or later be absorbed into other,
innovative, economic initiatives, while the harm caused
to the environment will be mended by the very technol-
ogy producing it [5]. We have no alternative, Smith re-
marked, to accepting the distributional inequities and
moral violence that accompany private property relations,
as these are the only means for securing ou r survival. On
the other hand, this also means that selfishness should be
the pivotal variable orienting our action, irrespective of
how destructive this might be. Surely, there is a Chris-
tian-Hebraic stance in this suggestion, whereby a supe-
rior entity will arrange things so that every egoistic con-
duct will find its synthesis in a higher, inscrutable, har-
mony. This is a hubristic theory positing that we resem-
ble the God who made us, and that we no longer need his
judgement on our exploits. In sum, we are depicted as
animals, full of instincts, innate desires and egoism, but
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Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities 125
at the same time as gods who turn their animal nature
into universal harmony. This reveals a further contradict-
tion: despite the adherence to the doctrine of laissez-faire
in theory, Adam Smith maintains a strong interest in
promoting policies that further accumulation and favour
enterprise, whether both generate harm or not.
Locke, Quesnay and Smith converge, in different fa-
shions, into the practical philosophy or ideology of neo-
liberalism discussed above.
4. Valueless Lives
The harm caused by economic initiative, as externality,
includes climate change, disposal of toxic waste, de-for-
estation, pollution of sea, air and land, gigantic dispari-
ties in income, transference of toxicity to poor regions
and countries, impoverishment of vulnerable populations
and destruction of communities [19]. These “ecocidal”
tendencies [20] implicit in unfettered development are
masked in a process whereby the specific victims of de-
velopment itself disappear. Ideological strategies preside
over this disappearance, among which a hierarchical po-
sitioning of populations and individuals is of crucial im-
portance. Ontological priorities are established so that
some lives are deemed less valuable than others: in fact,
some lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense.
There are lives worth living and lives worth destroying,
the former being valuable and grievable, the latter de-
valued and ungrievable [21]. Utilitarian reasoning does
not object to such distinction, as the suffering of some
does not diminish the total happiness generated by the
economy. This distinction, in other words, implies the
neglect of individual wellbeing and happiness, while the
ranking of social goo dness and the selection of what is to
be chosen is done simply on the basis of the sum total of
individual wel fares [22].
The utilitarian calculus based on happiness or de-
sire-fulfilment can b e deeply u nfair to thos e who are p er-
sistently deprived since our mental make-up and desires
tend to adjust to circumstances, particularly to make life
bearable in adverse situations. It is through coming to
terms with ones hopeless predicament that life is made
somewhat bearable b y the traditional underd ogs, such as
oppressed minorities in intolerant communities, sweated
workers in exploitative indust rial arrangements, precarious
share-croppers living in a world of uncertainty, or sub-
dued housewives in deeply sexist cultures [22, p. 282] .
This “coming to terms” includes the acceptance of dif-
ferentiated distribution of vulnerability and precarious-
ness that the economy itself promotes.
According to another ideological strategy, develop-
ment has to be seen as war, which requires sacrifice and,
at time, heroes or martyrs. It would not be surprising, for
instance, to hear such justification be ing mobilised by car
manufacturers, who might claim that the victims of road
accidents are no less than martyrs of the process of tech-
nological and economic advancement. Critical social
scientists may argue, in this respect, that the translation
of victims into martyrs requires the use of a high degree
of hypocrisy [23], which is only acceptable in the name
of sovereignty, and in our case, more specifically, in the
name of economic development. However, a distinction
may help clarify this critical argument.
In “The Fable of the Bees”, Mandeville [24] distin-
guishes between malicious and fashionable hypocrites.
The former are said to pretend blind faith in a creed, but
know that their faith is false. The latter are forced to dis-
play their beliefs and show devotion lest they are ex-
cluded from the related social benefits that belief will
bring. Using Mandeville’s definitions, we can suggest
that high-rank economic actors are malicious hypocrites,
in that their belief in infinite development is unshaken by
its visibly destructive consequences. By contrast, some
underprivileged actors may be described as fashionable
hypocrites, in that their faith in economic grow th derives
from the conviction that what they get out of it is better
than nothing. As Sen [22] suggests, the hopelessly de-
prived may lack the will or even the desire to radically
change their social conditio ns. An easy op tion for them is
to limit their expectation s to the minimum they are likely
to achieve. Their desires, in other words, become adap-
tive and realistic, an adaptation to reality that at times
includes the acceptance of potential death.
Can the situation be reversed? Can economic devel-
opment turn its threats into opportunities? In conclusion
of this paper the opinion of some who believe so is rap-
idly sketched.
5. Human Development or De-Growth?
When addressing the problems experienced by develop-
ing countries, many politicians, economists, policy-mak-
ers, and bureaucrats keep asserting that social conditions
improve when, and only when, Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) per capita increases. League tables are cones-
quently drawn where countries scoring very high in
terms of GDP display enormous degrees of inequality,
namely countries in which a large proportion of people
do not enjoy the benefits of overall economic growth.
For example, South Africa under apartheid, with its im-
mense inequalities, used to occupy the top positions
among developing countries.
Because countries respond to public rankings that af-
fect their international reputation, this crude approach
encourages them to work for economic growth alone,
without attending to the living standard of their poorer
inhabitants, and with ou t add ressin g issues su ch a s h ealth
and education, which typically do not improve with eco-
nomic growt h [25, p. ix].
If the goal of economic growth is the delivery of an
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Economic Development: Threats and Opportunities
adequate quality of life to everyone, all countries are
developing countries. This observation has led to a new
perspective in the debate around the functions of eco-
nomic initiative, a new paradigm centred on the notions
of “Human Development” and later “Capability Ap-
proach”. The former appears each year in the UN Devel-
opment Reports since 1990 and is based on the belief that
the real wealth of a nation is its people. In this view, the
purpose of economic development should be “to create
an enabling environment for people to enjoy long,
healthy, and creative lives” [25]. This simple but pow-
erful truth is too often forgo tten in the pursuit of material
and financial wealth, with the consequence that eco-
nomic development becomes increasingly extraneous to
people’s most urgent problems. Even the benefits of
wealth resulting from foreign investment, it is noted, go
in the first instance to elites, so that increased GDP does
not affect wealth distribution.
The benefits of this increased wealth do not reach the
poor, unless those local elites are committed to policies
of redistribution of wealth; and they particularly do not
reach poor women, whose employment opportunities are
so much worse than those of men. Nor, as research
shows, does economic growth by itself deliver improve-
ments in health and education, in the absence of direct
state action [25].
The Capability Approach asks: what is each person
able to do and to be? Taking, in a Kantian fashion, each
person as an end, it evaluates less the total or average
well-being of a nation than the opportunities available to
each individual. A set of opportunities to choose and to
act constitute what Sen [26] calls “substantial freedoms”,
which refer to abilities and capabilities of functioning.
These abilities do not only reside within individuals, but
are also provided by the political, social and economic
environment. They offer the possibility to choose and
lead a life that is worthy of the human dignity. Economic
development, in this perspective, shou ld place all citizens
above a specified threshold of capability, an achievement
that is only possible if state action interferes with devel-
opment itself.
In a more radical elaboration, economic growth is
equated to a religion against which an atheist fight should
be constantly fough t [27]. Infin ite grow th is incompatible
with a finite planet. Only a tenacious and irrational faith
in “progress” can exp lain why economists and politician s
continue to deny this reality. The provocative term
“de-growth” is utilised to call for the abandonment of
such faith and, as I have attempted to do in this paper, to
contest economic thought itself and its supposed scien-
tific status. As the great economist Schumpeter [28]
warned: “the very ideas of economic thought are quench-
ed in smoke, and few people, and least of all we econo-
mists ourselves, are prone to offer us congratulations on
our intellectual achievements”.
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