Karl Marx (Capital, ch. 6):
Capital Vol. I: The price of labor-power is fixed by the bargain.... The money-owner buys everything necessary... and pays for it at its full value.... Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and Mr. labor power-owner, we take leave of this noisy [market] sphere.... This [noisy market] sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents.... Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
As we leave this [market] sphere... which furnishes freetraderus ulgaris with his ideas... we see the persons in our drama change. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist. He, who before was labor-power owner, now follows behind, as laborer. The has an air of importance, smirking, intent on business. The other is timid and holding back, like one who has nothing to bring to market but his own skin and has nothing to expect but--to be skinned...



The standard mode of discourse in economics is positive-sum win-win Pareto-optimality. You provide people with the right incentives through property rights to invest and accumulate and they do so—and the benefits of their investment and accumulation spill over and produce higher incomes for everybody else as well. You provide people with secure contract rights and they trade what they personally value less for what they personally value more—redistributing the goods of society across individuals until the Pareto frontier is reached. You incentivize people through property rights to be good stewards of natural resources, and they are.
But a look back at human history suggests that this focus is perhaps misplaced. Much of human economic and political history looks as though it is made up of thugs with spears (or kalishnikovs) taking stuff; or those who can for some reason command the services of thugs with spears taking stuff; or those who can for some reason command the services of thugs with spears threatening others so inducing them to enter into contracts on unfavorable terms. Slavery. Serfdom. Debt peonage. Latifundia. Land barons. Cattle barons. Capital barons. Perhaps economics should focus not on Pareto-optimal exchange equilibria and economic growth but instead on distribution: perhaps economics should be not a hymn to the win-win bounties of the division of labor but instead a discourse on the origins (and maintenance) of inequality.
That is what this week is: Evsey Domar with an abstract paper on slavery, serfdom, and land barons; Austen and Smith on commercial consumer capitalism as the driving energy of the genocide that was the North Atlantic slave trade; Marx and Engels saying that the market economy of Pareto-improving exchange of which economists sing is, really, nothing new; and Engerman and Sokoloff on the long-run consequences of redistributive-based rather than gains from trade-based political economy.