Creativity Is the True Source of Economic Wealth
(The following book review is published with permission from Freeman’s blog Africa and the World where it appeared on June 26. Patrick Kabanda, a native of Uganda, is an accomplished organist who also serves as what he describes as a “well-tempered non-economist,” consulting internationally on economic development policy. His book is entitled “The Creative Wealth of Nations: Can the Arts Advance Development?” It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. The review has been slightly edited.)
With his book, Patrick Kabanda makes a significant contribution to the subject of economics with a new and refreshing approach. Rather than being stuck in a maze measuring monetary values, he looks beyond the financial structure of prices and export-import figures, to the relationship of the human mind to economics. While I do not agree with everything in this book, its principal value to me is that it elevates the discussion of the importance of creativity in economics.
The title of Mr. Kabanda’s book caught my eye, because it provocatively alters the title of Adam Smith’s well-known wicked book, “The Wealth of Nations.” Contrary to what is commonly accepted by the majority of my fellow citizens, and what is taught in our institutions of learning, the United States was not founded on the tenets of Adam Smith. In fact, no economy ever was, or ever could be successful by following Smith’s canons. President George Washington and his brilliant Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, rejected Smith’s doctrines, as did every follower of the American System of Political Economy, including many American Presidents and foreign leaders. (Read Alexander Hamilton’s Credit System Is Necessary for Africa’s Development)
While it is useful that Kabanda calls attention to the function of culture (art, music, drama) in contributing to economic progress, he errs in properly pinpointing the relationship. It is not culture per se that contributes to economic progress, but rather only a culture that fosters and nourishes human creativity. More precisely, it is those compositions of art, music, and drama, which stimulate creative thinking, an aptitude uniquely bequeathed to the human species, that we should revere. It is this potential for creative thought that makes us truly human, which society’s culture should cherish and nourish.
Creativity in Economics
Before proceeding with my review, it is necessary to discuss the genuine role of creativity in the science of economics. Improving the conditions of life for an expanding population is not based on money. To understand real economic growth, it is important to comprehend that it is physical (not monetary) inputs injected into an economy that yield improvements in the productive powers of society, which causes an increase in aggregate of wealth. It should be evident that the augmented capacity of a nation to ensure a prosperous future for those living and their posterity is not the result of the silly creeds of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
Putting aside cult-like beliefs in monetarism, let us focus on crucial aspect of physical economy. In the broadest, yet most accurate terms, economics is humankind’s relationship to the physical universe. Humans act creatively to transform nature lawfully for the perpetuation of our noble species. Natural resources are not the ultimate source of value. It is true that human labor adds value to resources in the production process. Thoughtful economists recognize that the productivity of farmers and workers depends on the quality and quantity of infrastructure available to society.
However, the crucial concept for our purpose here is the following: Discovery and utilization of resources, productivity of human labor power, and the level of infrastructure for any given economy, are all delimited by the level of existing scientific and technological culture accessible by the population. Improved productivity emanates from the invention of new designs for machines that enable work to be performed more efficiently. The application of advanced technologies is derived from discoveries of new scientific principles by the noetic process of the human mind.
Let us examine energy from a higher conceptual standpoint. On the simplest level, oil has existed for millions of years. However, it only became a valuable resource to humans when a technology was invented to utilize oil for energy, which became the dominant fuel to power the twentieth century. The attainment of electricity was made possible by a human scientific discovery of electromagnetism. It was the scientist, William Gilbert, whose publication de Magnete in 1600 began the process of understanding the correlation between electromagnetism and earth’s magnetic field.
All energy is not equal. Energy is measured by energy-flux density, that is, the ability of that energy source to achieve higher concentrations of heat available to perform work. With that criterion in mind, we can assert with scientific certainty that nuclear fission is the most powerful form of energy we have today. Africa would be well served if there were hundreds of 1,000 megawatt or modulars of two to four 200 megawatt nuclear power plants dotting its landscape. To achieve nuclear fusion, whose energy flux-density would far exceed fission, requires additional scientific breakthroughs to fuse hydrogen isotopes at temperatures hotter than the Sun. In tragic comparison, large parts of Africa still rely on burning wood and biomass. Not only is this practice primitive and environmentally unsound, but it utilizes energy at the lowest flux density.
All machines and integrated infrastructure platforms incorporate in their design the principles of scientific knowledge of the universe prevalent in their historical period. A greater density of machine-infrastructure capital in an economy, engenders a more productive and educated labor force. The effects of manufacturing, and railroads on the productivity, and level of knowledge in society are brilliantly discussed by Alexander Hamilton in his “Report on Manufactures” (1791), and Friedrich List in his “The National System of Political Economy” (1841). Both authors, who identify humankind’s mental powers as a source of economic wealth, should be studied by every competent economists and statesman.
Without going beyond the scope of this article, the history of civilization’s progress can be measured by the increase of total energy throughput and energy flux-density, which is made possible by technologies that encompass new scientific principles. It is the profound ability of the human mind to continuously discover higher principles embedded in the physical universe, which lifts humankind from one plateau of economic activity to the next superior one. Civilizational progress emanates from the human mind, not nature per se. Even from the few paragraphs above, it is discernible that the source of economic wealth is the metaphysical, non-material creative imagination, not some corporeal “thing” that you can see, smell or touch. These apparently intangible ideas that spring from the brow of our “mind-soul” have greater force than bodily-physical objects. This conception has profound epistemological implications in economic theory. More can be said about physical economics and how societies develop, but that will have to wait for another time.
Culture and Imagination
Returning to our review: Mr. Kabanda’s book highlights the role of the contribution of culture and creativity to economic development, and contains many useful insights. In his opening chapter entitled, “Overture,” he discusses “the arts’ ability to emancipate and foster human imagination.” (p. 3) In chapter two, “Arts in Education,” he writes: “…since the arts embody creativity and innovation, they have a major role to play in fostering knowledge for development.” (p. 44) He quotes Theodore Schultz, “advances in knowledge are a decisive factor in economic progress. The increases in the quality of both physical and human capital originate primarily out of the advances in knowledge.” (p. 48) Kabanda quotes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who advocates changing the curriculum of science, technology engineering and math-STEM to STEAM by adding the arts. (p. 53) Renaissance-man Leonardo da Vinci is also mentioned for his search “to know what we don’t know,” a concept made famous by Socrates 2,000 years earlier. (p. 26)
Kabanda includes the creative hypotheses by the towering scientist-astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who unknown to the majority of our society, hypothesized that the ordering of the solar system was derived from musical harmonies. (p. 53) Kepler’s great astronomical discovery of gravity and the spacing of the orbits of the planets is presented in his book, “The Harmony of the World” (1619).
In the book’s final chapter “Imagination and Choice,” Kabanda underscores an essential conception to understanding economic progress.
“Now when the people began to search for the wisdom behind progress, in the end it was not whether development came first and then the arts followed. Or some sort of miraculous statistical formula. Much of it was imagination in thought and deed. Imagination was the future, and the future was imagination. It was [and is] the cradle of civilization… this finale is a call to imagine the future we need.” (p. 221, emphasis added)
Kabanda points to the personality of Albert Einstein to demonstrate the unity of science and imagination. Einstein was known to resort to taking up his violin to kindle his imagination to explore scientific hypotheses. He quotes Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” (p. 223).
All great art and scientific discoveries first emerge in the creative imagination. A true leader, a statesman, also relies on his or her creative-imagination. When he or she implements policies in the present they ought to be derived from a vision of what the future should look like seen through the mind’s eye.
Despite many useful and challenging ideas presented in “The Creative Wealth of Nations” there are flaws in sections of Kabanda’s thesis. However, to be fair, these shortcomings are unfortunately endemic to our corroded culture.
Not all cultures — i.e., all music and art — are good for society. Applying the criteria which we developed above, we should rightly ask; Does a particular culture nurture the creative powers of the mind? For example, the rock-drug counterculture ushered into the West in the 1960s was destructive, and its damaging effects still linger in today’s society. Music is not good because it is music, or art because it is art. Today’s music is in large part debasing and degrading to the human mind. Profits made from the music industry do not add value to the economy if their music assaults our soul-mind and undermines our creative capacity.
On a deeper level, Kabanda errs in Chapter 3, “The Arts and Environmental Stewardship,” when he writes: “The arts have long had a sense of stewardship towards protecting the environment and mitigating climatic change.” (p. 72) Contrary to present day popular culture, mankind’s relationship to the physical universe is much more than being a steward or custodian. Human beings lawfully transform the physical environment. Consider the injunction given to mankind in Genesis 27: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Humankind is not meant to be a just a caretaker, but has dominion and the power to subdue. The universe is organized to respond to willful human cognition, transforming the biosphere into the noospshere, according to Russian scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky. Humankind with the unique power of creative mentation, was not put on this planet to act as a glorified groundskeeper. When we exercise our creative potential, we humans are the most powerful living force in the universe.
Accepting the axioms of Adams Smith’s notions about economy and society leads us down the wrong path. Kabanda alludes to Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” favorably as he does with his “Wealth of Nations” (p. 49) It is in the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” that Smith presents his most hedonistic description of human nature, reducing humankind to being governed by animalistic instincts, rather than human creativity. Smith’s economic assumptions flow from his degraded, amoral conception of human beings as mere creatures of pleasure and pain. For that reason alone, we know his dogma could never be a successful prescription for how an economy develops. At its core, Smith’s doctrine is antithetical to the lawful relationship between humankind and the physical universe.
Let the Discussion Begin
Kabanda deserves a great deal of praise and credit for focusing our attention on the relationship of culture, and creativity to economics. His endeavor is far more relevant to our economic well-being than the trillions of dollars gambled on the gyrations of the stock market. For civilizations to continue to exist, society’s culture must unceasingly produce creative individuals. If we want a more prosperous and stable world for our children and their children, then we need citizens from all nations to engage in a robust debate of the role of culture in our society. If this book helps spark such a discussion, then Kabanda’s contribution has served an invaluable function.
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com