Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ideas for the New Year

Today is the last day of the year. What topics would you like to see covered over the next year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

London, Christmas, 1843

From what work does the following come:

The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers" benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

The Grocers'! oh the Grocers'! Nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses. It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, clashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.
This unapologetic celebration of the market is from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. An odd thing, for those who believe this work to be an anti-capitalist diatribe. The problem with Scrooge isn't that he's a capitalist, but that he doesn't enjoy his life, that he's not generous, and that he has replaces all human affection with mere accumulation. The market is life; accumulation for the sake of accumulation is death, as Scrooge learns.

Take a look at some of the things listed above. It is Christmastime and, thus, winter, yet in the market are pears, apples, and grapes, oranges and lemons -- all out of season for winter London. From whence did they come, then? Through trade with distant lands in which they were in season. Free trade allowed winter London to have summer fruits. There are also "French plums" and cinnamon -- from the Far East -- and sugar, from the West Indies, no doubt, and figs from the Middle East. All of these things are in London exclusively due to free trade. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge just how wonderful and joyous the market economy can be.

Of particular note is when Scrooge accuses the Ghost of Christmas Present of depriving people of the market on Sundays:

"Spirit," said Scrooge, after a moment's thought, "I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people's opportunities of innocent enjoyment."

"I!" cried the Spirit.

"You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all," said Scrooge. "Wouldn't you?"

"I!" cried the Spirit.

"You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day," said Scrooge. "And it comes to the same thing."

"I seek!" exclaimed the Spirit.

"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
The Ghost points out that those who would shut down the economy on Sundays are of the same mindset as Scrooge. Note that those who shut down the free market economy on Sundays and, as a rule, oppose the market itself, are described as having "pride, will-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness." I agree with the Ghost that this is a perfect description of anti-market people in general.

The bottom lines is that Scrooge is not targeted because he is a capitalist -- he is targeted because he is a misanthrope. The grocers are celebrated in no small part because, having to deal with the public directly, there is no way they can be misanthropic. If Scrooge ran a grocery store, he would have gone out of business long ago. Fortunately for him, he went into a business where he did not have to deal with people to make money. Or, perhaps more accurately, he was attracted to that business for that reason. No doubt Scrooge will nonetheless discover that his newfound love for humanity will nevertheless be quite profitable. The market, after all, is a social network, and the more pro-social you are in it, the wealthier -- in every way -- you will become.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Rathouse

We have been added to Rafe Champion's The Rathouse, which deals with critical rationalism -- Karl Popper and Austrian Economics. Thanks, Rafe!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

J. Neil Schulman

Those interested in Austrian Economics should find the work of J. Neil Schulman of interest, as he directly integrates Austrian Economics into the plots of his works, which include screenplays and novels such as Alongside Night and Escape From Heaven. He also wrote and directed (and acted in) Lady Magdalene's.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Some Thoughts on Game Theory and Literature

Game theory is one approach to helping one uncover the rules of complex social systems. It shows that complex social systems can be understood as games, meaning they have rules. In postulating that games have rules, game theory goes against certain postmodernist-anarchist views that insist on opposing the very concept of rules. They see rules as limiting, as preventing freedom. They do not understand that it is the very presence of rules that give us “degrees of freedom.”

Nietzsche points out in Beyond Good and Evil that rules are absolutely necessary for every form of morality and art form has used and needed rules. “What is essential and inestimable in every morality is that it constitutes a long compulsion: to understand Stoicism or Port-Royal or Puritanism, one should recall the compulsion under which every language so far has achieved strength and freedom—the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm” (188). He then goes so far as to say that “all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness, whether in thought itself or in government, or in rhetoric and persuasion, in the arts just as in ethics” developed only because of rules – and that the use of rules lies in nature itself, that rules are natural. It is through living by rules that we make it “worth while to live on earth; for example, virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality.”

Nietzsche rejects living without rules. But which rules? The tacit question asked by game theory is: “what rules make for the best games?” But it also asks: “what rules would evolve to ensure survival of the game?” – whether that game is a species or a ritual, an economic system or a work of literature. Further, “Game theory shows how people make decisions about what to purchase and when and the rationale for seeing goals or rewards” (Richmond, et al, Science 11 July 2003, 179). That is, “Our sense of which behavior to choose to reach a goal or obtain a reward is based on the perceived value of the reward, the effort needed to obtain it, and our previous experience about the likelihood of success” (179). Which raises the questions of what is the “goal” of a work of art, and what “reward” that work of art gives us, since behavior’s existence suggests there is a goal and/or reward to be achieved/received that must have been important enough for us to have been pursuing it from prehistory to the present day. We will not act if we do not perceive that the reward we will receive is sufficient.

Action is always directed toward the future; it is essentially and necessarily always a planning and acting for a better future. Its aim is always to render future conditions more satisfactory than they would be without the interference of action. The uneasiness that impels a man to act is caused by a dissatisfaction with expected future conditions as they would probably develop if nothing were done to alter them. In any case action can influence only the future, never the present moment that with every infinitesimal faction of a second sinks down into the past. Man becomes conscious of time when he plans to convert a less satisfactory present state into a more satisfactory future state. (Mises, Human Action, p. 100)

We would not create works of art of literature or participate in viewing/reading/listening to art/literature/music if it did not reward us. That is why l’art pour l’art is neither achievable nor desirable. But each of the questions raised by game theory are really the same question. Formulating it the first way makes it clearer regarding how it can be applied to art and literature. It helps us to see the critic as the uncoverer of the rules the artist used (consciously or not) to create their work of art or literature. Formulating it the second way helps us understand how game theory can help us understand the source of rules, from the laws of physics to the rules of grammar. It shows that more rules are needed for more complex games. Only a few are needed at the quantum level, but with each movement up in complexity, more rules emerge – and are needed – until one gets to complex human social systems, which need thousands, if not millions, of rules. And it shows how necessary rules are if one is going to have any sort of game at all. It is the existence of rules that give us freedom – making us more creative, often far more creative than we are otherwise. Many good rules (note the word “good” here – it is not the number of rules so much as the kind, those that generate more moves, not less) give us many more degrees of freedom. Chess is a better, more complex game, with many more degrees of freedom, than checkers, though both are played on the same board. It is better because more complex. Complexity gives us more freedom. Rules are necessary, but the more complex the system, the more and more complex the rules that are necessary.

This brings us to the question of what distinguishes Rules from Laws (this is similar to Hayek's distinction between law and legislation). Both Rules and Laws are used to delineate what one does. However, Rules are flexible, which means they can be bent; they are prescriptive, which means they say what you can do (as, say, the rules of chess) and, as such, are positive in nature; they act as strange attractors, meaning they are dynamic, they deepen and grow more complex over time, and they increase your degrees of freedom, giving you more possibilities. Action is impossible without rules; rules create actions, possibilities of and for actions. Laws, on the other hand, are inflexible and cannot be bent, but only broken; and they are broken under threat of punishment (laws can be changed – but in the sense that they are changed, they no longer exist as laws and other laws now exist); thus, they are restrictive, saying what you cannot do; they are static, unchanging (especially in philosophy), they decrease your freedom by being restrictive, and give you fewer possibilities. Action is cut off with Laws; laws prevent actions, possibilities of and for actions.

In Individualism and Economic Order, F. A. Hayek points out the dangers found in the radically individualistic view of human nature – showing that it can and usually does lead to the collectivist view (too fine a texture looks like a solid color). Hayek shows that taking the exclusively individualistic view of human nature (vs. the social-individualistic view of human nature) leads to bad games (social systems, economic systems, government), since no information can be shared among players. A good game-system is one where communication – and, thus, community – is possible.

Hayek suggests that there are two kinds of individualism, one based on rational philosophy, which started with Descartes and was further developed by Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and by the existentialists, including Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir, and which I will call Cartesian Individualism, and the other based on the Scottish philosophical tradition of David Hume, Bernard Mandeville, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and John Locke, and further developed by Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton (which is the social-individualistic agonal view). Cartesian Individualism is based on the idea that man is rational and can thus rationally construct society, while the Scottish tradition does not see man as being fully rational, but also, perhaps primarily, influenced by his drives and wants and needs of the moment. These quite different views give rise to quite different forms of individualism. Perhaps the best way of explaining the differences would be to put the two traditions of individualism side by side in a table showing what Hayek sees as the difference between the two traditions, and the consequences of each of these traditions:

Scottish (Social-Individualistic) Individualism
the individual is found within the social, leading to free markets

man is not always rational, or even capable of always being rational – man also has impulses and instincts

since man is not rational, he cannot design or plan something like a society or economy

the individual participates in the social (cooperates) through being selfish

“If left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee” (11).

It is not necessary to find good men to run the society, meaning anyone can play

it is not necessary for us to become better than we already are, making it easy to enter the game to play it

freedom is granted to all

no one group never always wins, which keeps people playing

reason is seen “as an interpersonal process in which anyone’s contribution is tested and corrected by others” (15)

inherently unequal people are treated equally

inherent inequality allows diversity

hierarchical – intermediates encouraged

Cartesian (Radical Individualistic) Individualism
radical individualism, leading (ironically (?)) to socialism

man is rational and has no instincts and can always control his impulses

since man is rational, he can create through planning the ideal society or economy

individual vs. the social – i.e., selfishness vs. cooperation – therefore need coercion

“social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual human reason” (10)

only the best can or should run society and make economic decisions – few can play

men need to be improved (presumably made more rational) before a good economy or society can be created – hard to play

freedom granted only to the good and wise

the “good and wise,” “rational” rulers always win – no reason to play the game

reason found in the individual, especially in certain “good and wise” individuals

people are made equal in actuality – thus, have to arbitrarily assign tasks

only State and Individual, thus flattening society – intermediates suppressed

We can see in this comparison that the Scottish form of individualism, by being simultaneously social, provides us with a much broader, more inclusive set of game rules. Anybody can be involved in the social and economic games – making these systems more complex, containing as they do more constituent parts acting in coordination and cooperation. Man does not have to be “improved” for the kinds of systems that would be set up using Scottish principles as he does using Cartesian principles (historical examples of attempts to “improve” man to make him more suitable for “rationally” designed societies include the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Terror of Revolutionary France, and the slaughters of millions in the Marxist states of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Cambodia, just to name a few). In the Cartesian view, there is only one rationality, but in the Scottish view, there are many rationalities, which can often come into conflict.

Scottish philosophy gives us far more complex social game rules than does the (radical individualist) rationalist philosophical tradition. One may think this rationalist approach would allow a given individual’s influence to extend throughout a society and create a more interesting game, but what it actually does is flatten out society, making it less complex, less interactive. A radically individualistic world view leads, ironically, to a collectivist outcome. “All unity is unity only as organization and co-operation: no differently than a human community is a unity – as opposed to an atomistic anarchy; it is a pattern of domination that signifies a unity but is not a unity” (Nietzsche, WP 561).

If we take the Scottish view that a person’s knowledge and interests are limited, making our actions limited to a tiny sphere of influence – our family and friends, our churches and schools and businesses, the intermediate social groups the rationalists suppress and the Scottish encourage – we see a highly complex society emerging, with the individual influencing the small social groups, the small social groups influencing the individual, and both interacting to influence larger social groups, which themselves feed back to the smaller groups. We have a series of nested hierarchies where each person acts in a social-individualistic way through the communication of information to other individuals to create smaller cultural subsystems of the larger culture. The same individual can have an effect on a school, a church, a business, and a local government, each of which will have larger effects on the society at large. More people have more influence over society. And man does not have to be “improved” because the worst among us can be canceled out by the best. These principles, upon which the free market is based, are “an effective way of making man take part in a process more complex and extended than he could comprehend” (Hayek, 14-5). One does not have to have perfect knowledge to participate. One can participate while having a considerable amount of uncertainty, and still do well. Which is good, since no person is omniscient. We can reduce uncertainty through education, increasing our own individual knowledge, but we will still be left with a plethora of things which we will never have the time to learn.

There needs to be a way for individuals, with their limited information, knowledge, etc., to enter into a highly complex game, to be able to participate in the game itself. The way to allow someone into a highly complex game is by simply not having barriers to their entering and playing the game in the first place. And, if you do choose to play, and to take large risks while playing, you should be able to reap a correspondingly larger reward. To have a good game,

any workable individualist order must be so framed not only so that the relative remunerations the individual can expect from the different uses of his abilities and resources correspond to the relative utility of the result of his efforts to others but also that these remunerations correspond to the objective results of his efforts rather than to their subjective merits. (Hayek, 21)

And the game must not be constructed of iron-clad laws/legislation, but of more flexible rules. These are also good guidelines for creating works of art and literature, and for writing works of philosophy, theory, and criticism.

An example of good game rules are our “traditions and conventions . . . [which] evolve in a free society and . . . , without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally deserved rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree” (Hayek, 23). Most social rules should be those agreed upon and practiced by most of the people most of the time, enforced by subtle social pressures, not the use and threat of physical force. “In the social sciences the things are what people think they are. Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are” (Hayek 60). They are rules because we agree they are – they are socially constructed. With these kinds of rules, those we find in the free market, we have various choices – while with orders or iron-clad laws, we get no real choices. This is what Nietzsche is getting at in his “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” when he says words are metaphors we have forgotten are metaphors, not Truth (words are not congruent with things – they are not attached to things through iron clad laws). Any choice is better than none. “It is better to have a choice between several unpleasant alternatives than being coerced into one” (Hayek 24).
Of course, just because the world has a socially constructed element, it does not follow that all the world is socially constructed. To claim it is brings us to the problems with pragmatism, where no system at all can be constructed. Hayek says pragmatism is “the preference for proceeding from particular instance to particular instance,” where the rule-maker “decides each question “on its merits””(1). With pragmatism, expediency and compromise lead us “to a system in which order is created by direct commands” (1). “Without principles we drift,” and we are led “to a state of affairs which nobody wanted” (2). Pragmatism makes it possible to change the rules with each move in the game – one could imagine some game master watching a game being played between two people, and changing the rules whenever he wished. This would lead to the game players in each move trying to gain the game master’s favor. They would end up trying to bribe the game master rather than paying attention to playing the game at hand. If this sounds like how too much business is conducted, with the government as the game master, we can see why. How much money do businesses waste trying to influence “pragmatic” government officials? With the use of basic principles, everyone is clear what the rules are and that they cannot – or, at the very least, are very difficult to – change. The game players concentrate on the playing of the game itself rather than coming up with strategies to influence some game master. With the use of general principles, the game master can all but be done away with.

There are a set of “basic principles” that are not socially constructed, a reality that exists even if we are not around to observe it which we have to deal with (though our attitude toward it, meaning our perspectives on it, are certainly socially constructed and thus inherited and modified based upon that inheritance). This is physis. On this world we have increasingly superimposed, with the introduction of such technologies as (especially fiat) money and writing, a socially constructed reality. This is nomos. This social reality, these social facts, “are accessible to us only because we can understand what other people tell us and can be understood only by interpreting other peoples’ intentions and plans. They are not physical facts, but the elements from which we reproduce them are always familiar categories of our own mind” (Hayek, 75). We have this socially constructed reality because “we all constantly act on the assumption that we can . . . interpret other people’s actions on the analogy of our own mind and that in the great majority of instances this procedure works. The trouble is that we can never be sure” (64). Which is what makes it all a game in the first place. But if we want this socially-constructed reality to work best, we need to allow it to structure itself as the rest of the world is structured – as a complex, dynamic emergent system.

Hayek has given us strong evidence against taking a collectivist-exclusive (unity-only) or an individualist-exclusive (pluralist-only) view. Hayek gives an alternative in his argument for a combination of individual and social – and even of a naturalistic and a socially constructed reality – that create a hierarchy of social interactions. What he argues for is a social-economic system that is in fact a system – a dissipative-structure system scalarly similar to every other system found in the universe, with the principles/game rules as the strange attractors of that system. It is a social system that reflects Francis Hutcheson’s definition of beauty unity in variety and variety in unity – which should not be surprising.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hayek in Mind: Hayek's Philosophical Psychology

The issue of Advances in Austrian Economics I am in, Hayek in Mind: Hayek's Philosophical Psychology, is now published! You can find it here, where you can download each individual chapter. My chapter, which is titled "Getting to the Hayekian Network", is the final chapter of the book. The book itself can be purchased here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How the Grinch Stole the Free Market

How the Grinch Stole the Free Market a Christmas poem by Sarah Skwire. Enjoy!

Thoughts on the Artistic Order in Light of O'Driscoll's 1978 Paper on Spontaneous Order

Here is an article by Gerald O'Driscoll on spontaneous order from 1978. In it he makes several observations we should keep in mind.

The principle of spontaneous order—or of “undesigned order,” as it might more properly be called—can be viewed as the first principle of economics. Indeed, James Buchanan has recently gone so far as to suggest that it is the only principle of economics. The principle is, in any case, a cornerstone of modern economics, whether we trace modern (i.e., post-mercantilist) economics back to Adam Smith and the other Scottish moral philosophers, or to the Physiocrats. With this principle, scholars for the first time could see economic phenomena as interdependent events. Indeed, this principle made it possible to reason systematically and coherently about economic phenomena. Much of nineteenth century economics can be seen as consisting of developments of this principle (along with minority criticisms of the principle and the systems of thought deduced therefrom).

On the other hand, most of twentieth century economics has consisted of reactions against systems in which this principle plays a central role. In this, Keynesian economics is but one among a family of theories that deny the existence of a spontaneous or undesigned market order in which plans are coordinated. The reaction has been so complete that what was taken by earlier economists to be an empirical law—the existence of a spontaneous market order—is now frequently viewed as the product of ideological bias or prejudice.
It seems notable that at the same time that most economists were giving up on the concept of spontaneous order in understanding the economy, that it had been taken up by the biologists, after Darwin's embracing the idea. His final point also helps us see perhaps why sociobiology, which attempted to reapply spontaneous order theory to sociology, including human sociology, was deemed to be an ideological move.

Indeed, O'Driscoll's point that Keynesianism is anti-spontaneous order in nature is another reason why we are not "Keynesianism and Economics." And anti-sociological theory cannot be of any use to understanding the sociology of artistic production.

The fact that spontaneous order theory is now taken to be evidence of ideology rather than of good science also suggests that we who are taking up this approach are in danger of being accused of being ideologues -- no matter the merits of the approach. This is more a warning than anything. (It now occurs to me that this may be the central reason why Literary Darwinism is also considered "illegitimate" by most literary theorists.) We who choose these sorts of scientific approaches to the humanities face an uphill climb.

Why pick up this theory of spontaneous order? Because "the question of the existence of a spontaneously generated order remains the central question of economics—and of social theory generally—even thought it is seldom recognized as such." Thus, if we truly want to understand the sociology of artistic production, we must understand the nature of spontaneous orders -- including the specifics of the artistic order. Denying the ability of spontaneous orders to coordinate behavior is to deny that we are social beings at all. Yet, there is little question these forces work well in the arts -- as the fact that artistic movements emerge, that canonical works emerge and are recognized and have long-term stability, etc. -- even if such forces are denied by market interventionists within the economy. It seems odd that somehow such coordination takes place easily in the arts, in science, and in other spontaneous orders, which all lack that wonderful coordinator of the economy, prices, but fails within the economy.

O'Driscoll observes that

That nonpurposive social organizations will naturally evolve and that an undesigned order can be the product of self-regarding acts are radical ideas in Western thought. These ideas run counter to the dominant approach to social questions and were in ascendency for only a brief period in Western intellectual history. It is not, then, entirely surprising that in economics these ideas have not gained complete acceptance; and that among the general public, even the so-called educated public, they are scarcely understood at all.
Indeed, spontaneous order thought is in direct opposition to constructivist thought, both the strong (creatonist/socialist) and the weak (intelligent design/interventionist) versions. One of the benefits, I believe, in developing spontaneous order theory in other orders, such as the arts and science, is that people mistakenly believe that the economic order is the most important one. There is much that can be said about this kind of materialism, and how it leads us to misunderstand human nature and misinterpret historical events, but that's not what I want to focus on here. The good thing about this failure to value other spontaneous orders as much as the economy is that spontaneous order theory can be more fully developed -- and observed in some of its purest forms -- without too many political issues being raised. I say "too many," but the fact is that there is some recognition that acceptance of spontaneous order theory in any area is to reject constructivism everywhere.

The fact of coordination -- even in the fact of the constant threat (and reality) of discoordination -- results in emergent patterns of behavior:

Do different and disparate individuals have a common reaction to shared experience? We certainly would not want to say they always do, or there would be little sense in referring to “individuals.” Yet, there are obvious cases in which people do react to shared experiences in the same or similar ways: the perception of a fire in an enclosed room will lead to virtually everyone’s making for an exit. Each person could form a reasonable expectation about what the others will do.

Moreover, many events are implicit demonstrations of the degree to which expectations do coincide. Changes in clothing fashion might be cited as an example. The “agreement” among separate manufacturers of apparel can be amazing, though clearly retail customers do not register their preferences for new fashion in a clothing futures market. Apparently individual entrepreneurs, experiencing the same signals and trends, will often form similar expectations.
He again makes my point about artistic movements in his observation about changes in clothing fashion. The emergence of movements and fashions is evidence of widespread coordination of plans/projects/ideas.

I must criticize, however, O'Driscoll's claim that because "Lachmann is critical even of theories espousing a tendency toward overall equilibrium" that he therefore "denies the principle of spontaneous order". As it turns out (in much work done in other sciences since 1978, so O'Driscoll is hardly to blame -- not having has access to knowledge discovered since he wrote this paper) far-from-equilibrium states give rise to complex, creative, self-organizing processes. Equilibrium states are simple and entropic. Thus, equilibrium is not an indication that one has a spontaneous order -- rather, it is the presence of a far-from-equilibrium state that indicates such is present. Coordination and discoordination both are present in such systems.

In the end, though, it is because "Austrian economists tend to view most economic questions as issues involving the principle of spontaneous order" that I believe Austrian economics is the one approach most valuable for understanding artistic production.

Finally, I would like to note a Lachmann quote from O'Driscoll's paper:

Experience shows that in the real world of disequilibrium different persons will typically hold different expectations about the same future event. If so, at best one person’s expectation can be confirmed and all other expectations will be disappointed. Hence the “assumption that all other expectations are confirmed” cannot possibly hold. Nobody can take his equilibrium bearings if he does not know how others will act. In such a situation, which we have every reason to regard as normal, his equilibrium, as Hayek admits, cannot serve as a source of a “feedback mechanism.”
Can we not use this in helping us understand character actions and motives -- both in tragic and comic (and tragicomic) works? Another example of the benefits of Austrian-school insights.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

5 Best Books That Incorporate Economics

We all know that teaching someone something in the form of a story can be a great way to learn anything. In keeping with that thought, there are many books that also include valuable lessons in economics. To prove it, we have gathered just five works of fiction that incorporate valuable lessons in economics.

1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck’s masterpiece was the winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. It tells the story of a family living during The Great Depression and is an essential read for learning how economics can affect everyone.

2. Murder at the Margin – If you love murder mysteries, check out this book. It is by Marshall Jevons, a Harvard economist, and teaches essential lessons in economy surrounded by a murder mystery. Also a good choice if you are an undergraduate or high school student.

3. The Invisible Heart – If love stories are more your thing, then check out this book. It is a love story involving business, economics, and regulation through the eyes of two teachers at an exclusive school.

4. The Price of Everything – Get a “parable of possibility and prosperity” by author Russell Roberts. In the book, a Stanford student’s world is turned upside down by the opening of a mega store. The following is an interesting read and lesson on economics.

5. The Dharma Bums – Because wealth isn’t everything, check out this book. Jack Kerouac tells the story based on true events. It follows the travels of Ray Smith as he gets in touch with the outdoors and recalls what is truly important.

Bonus! The Wealth of Nations – Published in the landmark year of 1776, it was actually written by Scottish author Adam Smith. It focuses on how economics fits into the industrial revolution and is a strong proponent of the free market. It isn’t actually a fictional work, but it has been read and cited various times by scholars such as John Adams.

Molly Mitchell is a Economics graduate student and also owns the site Economics Degree. Her site helps students find the right Economics Degree to fit their needs.

Crowd Sourcing

If you saw a process description which those involved were described as "making mistakes, going down wrong paths, getting their hands dirty following up the most mundane of details, relentlessly pursuing a solution," you would surely ask if there were not a better, more efficient way of doing things. Of course, as it turns out, this is an almost perfect description of the actions of scientists, inventors, business people, and artists at work. And, in this particular case, it is the description of an experiment done by mathematician Tim Gowers, who started a blog he called the Polymath Project, beginning with "an important and difficult unsolved mathematical problem." After 37 days of the process described above, during which "27 people wrote 800 mathematical comments, containing more than 170,000 words" and involving people ranging from Fields Metalists (besides Gowers) to a high school math teacher, the problem was solved (Michael Nielsen, "Reinventing Discovery", p. 1-2). This is spontaneous order at work -- harnessed to discover solutions to problems -- known in such cases as "crowd sourcing."

Elsewhere I mentioned crowd sourcing in relation to auto design and I have started my own crowd sourcing project for my own poetry, where I am hoping people will come by and make recommended changes so I can improve my poetry. And of course this blog is intended to get people to discuss the ideas, to refine them and hopefully improve them. It is certainly clearer in math and the simpler fact-based sciences whether or not you have a solution than in the more complex social sciences, let alone in regards to normative or aesthetic claims, as one finds in the humanities, but difficulty is hardly a reason to not use crowd sourcing to solve problems. Quite the contrary -- it is precisely these kinds of problems crowd sourcing may be uniquely able to solve.

Of course, within the humanities, normative claims and aesthetic claims have been crowd sourced for centuries or more. It is why we have the morals we do during certain times and in certain places. And it is why we have a canon of great artistic works. Those are the results of offline crowd sourcing. With the internet -- another spontaneous order which allows even broader, potentially more complex social interactions -- online crowd sourcing will of course move even faster.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coordination and Discoordination in Plays

Kirzner emphasizes coordination; Lachmann emphasizes discoordination. But both are present in the world.

Tragedies are exemplars of knowledge problems and discoordination: Romeo and Juliet die because their plans are discoordinated; Othello makes bad decisions based on bad information (bad information leads him to rationally reach a false conclusion -- similar to how ABCT works); MacBeth makes bad decisions because he misunderstands the information given him. Hamlet, on the other hand, has good information, but because he is uncertain about its trustworthiness, he delays acting. The delays result in the death of Polonius, leading to the insanity and suicide of Ophelia, and the tragic duel between Laertes and Hamlet, when Laertes seeks to avenge his father's death. Hamlet is thus a tragedy of regime uncertainty.

Comedies, on the other hand, are exemplars both of knowledge problems and of both discoordination and coordination. Love's Labor's Lost shows that even the most well-coordinated plans can, nevertheless, fail to come to fruition -- though in this case, in untragic fashion. The women are called away before the plans can be coordinated, by something having nothing at all to do with those plans. These things happen, of course. Most other comedies, though, follow the pattern of ending in coordination, in bonding, commitment, and promises kept.

Overall, though, plays demonstrate/enact the kind of communicative action/argumentation described by Habermas (Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 2001) and Hayek (in his work on spontaneous orders), the aim of which is to coordinate action. In the larger social sphere, one is likely to see more patterns of coordination than discoordination (certainly if this is not the case, the society in question will collapse), but in particular cases, one can find a variety of patterns, from near-perfect coordination of plans to complete discoordination of plans. The former are unlikely to be found in plays or any sort of story, since conflict is a necessary element of plot. We are rather likely to find discoordination dominant in plays -- as the dominant, necessary element in tragedies, and as the necessary element before plan coordination finally wins the day in comedies, as noted above.

In novels, it is possible to get "inside" the characters -- but in plays, one has to judge the characters more by their actions, since it is impossible to get "in the heads" of the characters (the occasional "aside" aside). Thus, economists need to spend more time at the theater . . . but I plan to save most of those thoughts (aside from those just shared above) for a paper I'm working on: "Why Economists Ought to Go to the Theater." As we can see, Austrian insights coordinate well with the way stories themselves work. Which should hardly be surprising.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Laws of Spontaneous Orders

It seems to me that those who study a subject should be primarily interested in determining what the laws underlying the object of study are. The proper work of a physicist is to discover the laws of physics. The proper work of a chemist is to discover the laws of chemistry. The proper work of a biologist is to discover the laws of biology.

This is equally true of the humane sciences -- and of the humanities. The proper work of an economist should be to discover the laws of economics. How many, though, in fact do that, rather than trying to impose their own ideologies on the science? The same could be said of social scientists, political scientists, etc. They need to focus on IS and keep the SHOULDS out of it. Biologists find it ridiculous when someone brings "should" into biology in the form of intelligent design or creationism, but nobody seems to find it ridiculous when economists do the same. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises observed that,

"The laws of the universe about which physics, biology, and praxeology [the study of human action] provide knowledge are independent of the human will, they are primary ontological facts rigidly restricting man's power to act.
Only the insane venture to disregard physical and biological laws. But it is quite common to disdain praxeological laws. Rulers do not like to admit that their power is restricted by any laws other than those of physics and biology. They never ascribe their failures and frustrations to the violation of economic law" (Human Action, 755-56).

This is no doubt because few economists are in fact trying to even understand economic law. They are instead trying to find out how they can manipulate this or that element of the economy. The result is dismal failure. Worse, they even use the wrong methodology -- mathematics. Math is great for simple systems, like physical systems, but almost useless for complex systems like economies. Some statistics is no doubt useful, but even statistics can be misleading -- and often are. What Hayek warned us about scientism is doubly true of mathematics: it provides a false view of reality when it comes to complex systems. True, there have been impressive advancements in complex systems mathematics, but even with those, we only ever get grossly over-simplified models that bear almost no relation to reality. If we treat the models as conceptual starting-off points, then they are useful. But when we use them as too many who use math do and assume that the math is a precise description of a precise reality, rather than a precise approximation of reality (something John Pierce, in "An Introduction to Information Theory," warned against). That mathematicization of the field of economics is what in no small part led to this current depression, the same way scientism led to the Great Depression and the various failed experiments in socialism.

In the end, we necessarily come to know about the laws of economics using methods appropriate to its level of complexity. The same is true of any of the social/humane sciences, as well as of the humanities. And we need to learn what these laws are so that we are not forever falling into error. The knowledge of such laws may not ever tell us what we should or should not do (that is the realm of moral laws), but they can tell us what is and is not possible. However, as Mises observes:

"Despots and democratic majorities are drunk with power. They must reluctantly admit that they are subject to the laws of nature. But they reject the very notion of economic law. Are they not the supreme legislators?… In fact, economic history is a long record of government policies that failed because they were designed with a bold disregard for the laws of economics.
It is impossible to understand the history of economic thought if one does not pay attention to the fact that economics as such is a challenge to the conceit of those in power. An economist can never be a favorite of autocrats and demagogues. With them he is always the mischief-maker.…
In the face of all this frenzied agitation, it is expedient to establish the fact that the starting point of all praxeological and economic reasoning, the category of human action, is proof against any criticisms and objections.… From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning. Precisely defining assumptions and conditions, they construct a system of concepts and draw all the inferences implied by logically unassailable ratiocination" (Human Action, 67).

And anyone who knows the history of Leftist thinking knows that they have even tried to deny the validity of biology for human behavior. So they don't even have to "reluctantly" admit to being subject to the laws of human nature, having denied such laws exist. But what else is the role of the human sciences and the humanities but to find out what those laws are, and what the laws of the spontaneous orders to which we give rise are? Or to what laws give rise to spontaneous orders in the first place are?

This then opens up an interesting question: what theories are truly valid for what spontaneous orders? And what do we mean by "valid"? I mean by valid, what theories deal with the nature of the spontaneous order they are theories of qua spontaneous order? Theories give rise to immanent criticism of the spontaneous order. Keynes and Mises provide different theories of economics, meaning they are trying to figure out what IS the case. One theory is right, the other is wrong, but both are proper to analyzing economics as such. Marx, on the other hand, by his own admission, does not provide a theory valid to analyzing economics. When he admits that he's not interested in what is, but in what should be, he admits to being an ethicist, with a theory applicable to the ethical spontaneous order, and not an economist.

Let me put this in another way. Literature has many theories literary analysts can use. Some, such as Aristotle's theory, New Criticism, Structuralism, and Poststructuralism, are all theories of literature qua literature. Others, however, are imported theories. Marxism, feminism, and queer theory are all ethical theories used to analyze the content of works of literature. None of these can be used to determine whether or not a work of literature is a great work of literature qua literature -- but the first set of theories can be. The first set help us to understand how a work of literature comes to mean, how it provides information to the reader/listener/viewer. The second set only tell us things about the content, about how characters interact, what the author may have meant or intended (or meant despite his intentions). If we try to say one of these other theories is in fact the true theory of literature, we are trying to impose another rationality, another theory applicable outside the spontaneous order, to that particular order. That would be like saying, for a work to be literature, it must be feminist. Though there are no doubt some out there who would like that, we should all recognize that this is a ridiculous requirement. Yet, we make the same claim for other spontaneous orders -- the economy being a favorite. Outside theories might help us understand the specific content of a given work, but they cannot be used to understand the spontaneous order of literature qua literature. When we do, the result too often sounds conspiratorial in a rather grandiose, irrational sense.

There is much work to be done, across the several spontaneous orders, if we are to find the laws of those orders. The good news is that they will all be there to be discovered, for they do no change. Different sets of rules make for different kinds of orders -- and that fact alone should make us excited for the possibilities.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Entrepreneurship, Austrian Economics, and the Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry

Here is an article from Tyler Cowen on "Entrepreneurship, Austrian Economics, and the Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry". The connections among entrepreneurship, Austrian economics, philosophy, and aesthetics he draws is precisely why I believe Austrian economics is the ideal economic theory for understanding literature. The fact that it related to so many aspects of the world, without being guilty of "economic imperialism" suggests its scientific accuracy.

Some Thoughts on the Relations Among Government, Religion, and Spontaneous Orders

Literature is a dangerous business. It can save or condemn one's soul. It tells us something about who we are and how we related to one another, acting as critique of one's soul, one's culture, one's society. That is why so much literature has been censored throughout the centuries -- by both religious authorities and governments. Literature is important and dangerous, or else pro-government and other religious people would not be so up in arms over it.

Science is a dangerous business. It can save or condemn one's soul. It tells us something about the fundamental nature of things -- of the universe, of life, of mind, of society. That is why so much science has been censored or misinterpreted or misused throughout the centuries -- by both religious authorities and governments. Science is important and dangerous, or else pro-government and other religious people would not be so up in arms over it.

Religion is a dangerous business. It can save or condemn one's soul. It tells us something about our relationships to each other, the universe, and the divine. That is why so many religions have been censored throughout the centuries -- by both religious authorities and governments. Religion is important and dangerous, or else pro-government and other religious people would not be so up in arms over it.

The arts were the first of these spontaneous orders to decouple from government and religion. The argument for that decoupling was that the arts are far too important to be controlled by government or religion. This decoupling has become so complete in the West that many now consider the arts to be completely unimportant -- precisely because they are decoupled from government and religion.

The sciences were the next of these spontaneous orders to decouple from government and religion. The argument for that decoupling was that the sciences are far too important to be controlled by government or religion. This decoupling is not quite so complete in the West, but in those areas where it is completely decoupled, that science has been declared not very important, while in those areas where government and religion are still involved, the science is declared vitally important. (Yes, I know many will challenge me on this, and argue the causality is backwards -- but consider the history of the arts and, below, of religion.)

Religion is a more recent of these spontaneous orders to decouple from government and religion. The argument for that decoupling was that religion is far too important to be controlled by government (or the religion that government would make the state religion). In places where religion has become decoupled from government, and where government is considered the proper replacement for religion, religion has been declared not very important (consider those who argue that economics, not religion, is the driving force behind al Qaida!).

Of course, during the time when these spontaneous orders were becoming decoupled from government and religion, many in both argued that the arts, the sciences, and religion were too important not to have strict political and religious controls over them. This is the situation with the economic spontaneous order at the present time. Yet, one could argue, as was done with the arts, science, and religion, that it is too important to be controlled by either. Once decoupled from them, it is likely that the economic order, over time, will come to be seen as "not very important" as well. Of course, once there is a separation of economy and state and the freed market makes us all wealthy, it won't be all that important.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Cost of Humanities Scholarship

Mark Bauerlein raises some interesting questions regarding the economics of literary scholarship. I'm not sure Google Scholar is the best way of gathering the data he does -- I know there is a scholarly citation index, which would have worked far better -- but the real issue involves the funding of research. In many ways, the issues he brings up are the same as those many conservatives bring up in regards to some scientific research.

Do we really need another article on the biophysics of nucleotide stacking in single-stranded hairpin DNA? How will such knowledge benefit mankind? Of course, we cannot know the answer to that, until it happens -- and there are some who insist that having the knowledge is, itself, of value.

Of course, the latter is probably the strongest argument for having yet another article or book on Shakespeare's Hamlet. How does it benefit mankind? Well . . . such things are far less tangible. Is not knowledge itself a benefit? Or understanding? Why does the transformation of knowledge into technology have to be the standard?

Of course, all of this skirts the issue of the source of the funding itself. A professor is being paid from money from tuition and from government funding. Who complains about research done with private funding? Few, if any. It is when the funding comes from taxes that people begin to question it. Those in favor of government funding of any sort of research have to learn to put up with the criticisms, or go find private funding.

Along these lines, I recently received a rejection letter for a position that was being paid for by an Australian government program that supported humanities research. The man in charge of the program told me that he was surprised -- and a little saddened -- by the sheer number of people who applied for the position from around the world, noting that many governments did not value humanities research. Of course, Australia is in much better financial shape than much of the rest of the world, which is one explanation. Another is that too many in the humanities over here (Stanley Fish particularly comes to mind) insist that the humanities have no value. Well, if people like Fish make that argument, we shouldn't be surprised that university presidents begin to think that, and begin cutting funding to humanities departments.

But there is also the point that in places like the U.S., government support for a humanities program would be immediately politicized. The conservatives would hate it because it would be dominated by progressives, and progressives would go out of their way to come up with the most offensive, ridiculous research agendas imaginable, just to insist that failing to fund them is a violation of their 1st Amendment rights (a position so absurd that only a postmodernist could make it, and believe it) and to annoy the conservatives. Libertarians, of course, would be against it because government is doing it -- and thus would align themselves with the conservatives, whose anti-cultural cultural wars are deeply offensive to libertarians.

It is a shame that there are not private humanities organizations out there providing jobs. I think it would answer some of the issues raised by Bauerlein. More, it would raise the value of the humanities. Libertarians in particular should be interested in such organizations, as those of us who are in the humanities feel like we have no real home. If we can get hired into a humanities department, we immediately feel marginalized in them. And, of course, if we want free markets, we need to cultivate a pro-market culture. That is the potential job of libertarian humanities scholars. It is what we try to do here. It is what I would do even more if I could get a full time position somewhere, where I could do more scholarly work.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Without the U.N. There Wouldn't Be Music, Art, Film, Dance, Theater and Books?

David Boaz at Cato takes on Herbie Hancock on whether or not we would have culture without the U.N. That may sound like an absurd argument to make (on the part of Hancock), but the fact that the Washington Post actually published such an argument suggests that there are some who do not think it to be. I suppose that one should not be too surprised that an artist mistakes symbols for reality (as we artists all deal in symbols), especially when we have people like Baudrillard arguing for the separation for symbol and reality, but nobody is going to like jazz because there is now an International Jazz Day. People are going to like jazz because people like Herbie Hancock are making music people want to hear -- rather than wasting their time talking about illusionary positive connections between government and culture.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stuart Kauffman Likes Austrian Economics

After telling Stuart Kauffman in an email that I used his work in my own, including in some upcoming papers, I received the following reply:

"Glad to hear you are using my work with Austrian economics. They are not, I'm glad, so wedded to equations. Kind regards, Stu Kauffman"

Which answers one of the questions I have always had about the Santa Fe group when it comes to economics: why aren't they reading the Austrians?!? Well, apparently, at least Stu Kauffman is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Call for papers -- Economics and Literature: Beyond Praise and Disparagement

Deadline for submission: November 1st , 2012
Planed publication of the issue: 2013
Editors: Estrella Trincado Aznar, Jérôme Lallement

Since the nascent of political economy in 17th century, and even before, literature has been both a place for broadcasting and challenging economic ideas through idealizing fables and pastiches. In turn, economists could borrow from literature some ways to present their own ideas or to criticize alternative doctrines. The purpose of this special issue is to reflect on the transformations of the frontiers between economics and literature: to investigate how literature can reflect economic ideas and arguments and to see how economics and economists have dealt with literary presentations of economic ideas.

Regarding the complex links between economics and literature, it is quite certain that very different national traditions can be identified. For instance, it is sometimes said that the 1848 Revolution in France established a clear-cut divorce between economics and literature. Similar breaking points may have occurred at different times in different countries. Later on, economists that were against the use of mathematical symbolism and reasoning would be labeled “économistes littéraires”. From this last phrase, one is allowed to think that, from the marginalist revolution onward, not only literature had become of no use to the development of political economy but also that it was now something incompatible with its development as a science.

Things are probably not that simple, since the boundaries of literature itself have necessarily changed in parallel with the transformations of society, and that what could be expected from literature at the end of 19th century, after the burst of modernity, was quite different from what could be expected in the end of 17th century. Literature has always evolved in relation to the development of society and human knowledge, taking as its own raw material the representations of the world expressed in all fields of science and philosophy. Therefore, literature has always redefined its own boundaries as it was progressively facing the development of political economy, moral philosophy and political thought as organized discourses. Again, it would have to cope with the rise of other social sciences in the 19th century, and more largely with the institutionalization of the production of knowledge and the rise of disciplinary boundaries.

Therefore, the interplay between economics and literature is twofold. On the one hand, political economy progressively developed as an autonomous discourse, where arguments, ways of thinking, proofs, debates, contradictions, examples, commentaries, hypotheses, conclusions, have been progressively normalized in such a way that literature would no longer appear as an adequate means for broadcasting its own discourse and representations of the world. On the other hand, as political economy was progressively organizing itself as a discipline, literature would reflect in a different way upon the development of economics, either to ridicule its logical and abstract way of thinking, or to condemn its development as a « dismal » science, or possibly to make it a source for literary inventions and novelty.

OEconomia – History / Methodology / Philosophy plans to publish papers dealing with this subtle and moving links between economics and literature. It welcomes articles dealing with a particular work, author, national tradition, or providing a broader view of the relations between economics and literature through the study of specific genres and sub-genres (farces, comedies, pamphlets, fables, novels, philosophical novels, essays, utopias, etc.) and the way it is bound to reflect upon the transformations of economics. Articles dealing with original economic ideas from well-known writers are also welcome.

Authors are invited to submit an article (in English or in French) at:
http://www.editorialmanager/oec. For any complementary question, please contact us at

Editors should retain the right not to go ahead with the special issue if they do not receive enough papers of sufficient quality. If there are some strong papers, but not enough, then they could be published as stand‐alone papers.

HT: Peter Klein

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welcome Morgan Brown

I would like to officially welcome Morgan Brown to Austrian Economics and Literature. He is the author of the piece immediately below this one. I asked him to join us after reading the piece he wrote on Shakespeare, to which I linked. I must say that his first contribution here has not disappointed!

I think we have a very interesting, very diverse group here, made more interesting and more diverse with the addition of Morgan. I hope we can have the kinds of discussions like the recent back and forth on culture. It is excellent that we can disagree agreeably! More, I think the fact that there can be agreeable disagreements shows the strength of our position. Surely, if we can agreeably disagree amongst ourselves, we are in a good position to defend our position against those who disagree with our approach.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How College English and AE Go Hand-in-Hand

I recall what it was like to take introductory courses in college English during my undergraduate studies with the University of Georgia. We showed up to class, wrote on various topics, and received minimal grammar instruction--just enough to get by the Regent's Test. We read plenty of literature, we were introduced to MLA format, and we were taught principles of PC discourse. The grad students who taught the courses assured us that if we managed to handle these principles responsibly, avoiding plagiarism through superb parenthetical citations, we would be equipped for critical analysis and logical discourse.

This always struck me as a strange approach to argumentation. I had been much influenced by the more philsophical American Transcendentalists as a teenager, and had taken my first look at Kant during high school. I revisited the Critique of Pure Reason many times during my years at UGA, since I knew the principles of method and argumentation that Kant sketched out were at odds with nearly 99% of what I learned as an English major. By way of Kant I approached Mises, and have since seen what Austrian Economics has to offer both Logic and Literature: 1) Mises provides a brilliant method for a critique of reason (in many ways more like the Scottish Common Sense Realist, Thomas Reid, than Kant), and 2) Austrian Economics provides a safeguard against the erros of Historicism, Socialism, Postmodernism, Lacanian psychobabble, and nearly every other fallacious system of thought promoted by "English" academes.

The amount of time that introductory college courses dedicate to "formatting" is absolutely mind-boggling. Colleges routinely train students in the principles of citation drafted by the Modern (Menshevik) Language Association, yet the formal principles of logic and argumentation have been abandoned for experimentation with the infinitessimals of MS Word's "Paragraph" tab. I used to be embarrassed to admit that I learned nearly everything I learned about grammar and logic outside of the college classroom. After all, my college degree had equipped me with little more than routine indoctrination in multiculturalism (my sophomore year was the year that he college made multiculturalism a mainstay of the curriculum), an ability to arrange a superb Works Cited page, and ninety-nine ways to turn literature into an apology for welfare economics. But while working for a Master's Degree at Georgia State University, I learned pretty quickly that no other student of my generation had received any formal training in the two fields that justify the existence of English Departments: Grammar and Logic.

Anyone can read literature, and anyone can have an opinion concerning meaning. But how do we know where intellectual fallacies lie? Where do interpretive fallacies lie? For these questions, we require logical exercise.

Everything I learned of any lasting value was learned outside the classroom. When teaching my first English courses as a paid teacher, I nearly laughed out loud when looking at the quality of instruction provided by contemporary textbooks. Remedial students received heavy instruction in grammar, and ENGL 1101 students were simply assumed to have the skills necessary to engage in logical argumentation. They were instead given tips on how to develop a "critical attitude" or a "social outlook." Why should students develop any critical or social outlook if they cannot spot a fallacy at first glance or an error in verb agreement or pronoun agreement? What good is a fallacious theory, or a socially-sensitive apology for a fallacy?

I have been working as a teacher over the past couple of years to strike a balance between grammar and logic (working up from the Subject-Predicate standard to Universals/Particulars, and then onward into Bastiat's "That Which is Seen") which lends itself to a method of logic and argumentation fit for the college classroom. It is amazing to see what students are capable of achieiving if you simply place good materials in front of them. Logic, as Mises and Kant repeatedly urged in their works on human action and philosophy, is the only critical apparatus that man possesses to criticize society. And thanks to intellectual bankruptcy of college English departments, legions of literati and would-be college elites are exiting American "Institutes of Higher Learning" completely unarmed.

I would like to think that a new generation of teachers may be on the rise, which is jaded with the failures of the "Sixties" paradigm. My experience with peers tells me this. The daunting scholarship of the Austrian tradition is an assurance that we do not have to start from scratch if we want to make a change.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rise of Ayn Rand on Campus

Over at Minding the Campus, there is an interesting article on The Rise of Ayn Rand on Campus. The reason Rand comes up occasionally here is because of the fact that she identified Mises' economics as closest to her own. She is thus in the Austrian economics tradition (even if her literary theory is not necessarily valid -- or necessarily invalid -- to what we are doing here). The article is of note because if Rand's works are increasing in popularity on campuses, this suggests the conditions are improving for our kind of analysis of literature.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Market for Shakespeare has a nice piece on Shakespeare by Morgan Brown titled Shakespeare: The Ultimate Market Product. I am sure anti-market types would argue that this diminishes Shakespeare, but in fact it does nothing of the sort. The market cannot successfully market things nobody wants.

Lessons from The Lorax

Steve Horwitz quotes a student paper on Facebook:

The situation depicted by Dr. Seuss [in The Lorax] in which the Onceler destroys the environment does not describe a market failure because the land in which it takes place does not adhere to the principles of a market economy because it lacks clear property rights.
It turns out that there is an excellent piece in The Journal of Private Enterprise on the Lessons from The Lorax.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why My Economics Is Austrian

I probably came to the Austrian school in the most unusual way possible. I started by academic career by majoring in recombinant gene technology and minoring in chemistry at Western Kentucky University. I had every intention, at the time, of getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology and doing biology research. But I ended up getting sidetracked – and it all started with an Intro. to Philosophy class I took with Ronald Nash. Among the works Ronald Nash taught from was his book “Poverty and Wealth: A Christian Defense of Capitalism.” Yes, among the oddities of my path, I was introduced to free market economics in a philosophy class. I found the topic so interesting, I went to the library and read everything I could find on economics. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Ayn Rand’s Capitalism the Unknown Ideal. The last of course led me to Atlas Shrugged and to the rest of her philosophy. In my case, it didn’t start with Ayn Rand, but her work was an important point along the path. Through her I discovered Nietzsche, whose ideas have been vital to my journey.

At the same time, I was also reading books on chaos theory, complexity, and self-organization – topics somewhat closer to my scientific interests. Nietzsche’s philosophy made sense in light of these ideas, and certainly economics seemed to fit well into them, even if nobody I was reading at the time made the connections. Of course, chaos theory, etc. were fairly new theories, so it was not too surprising to me that the connections were not necessarily being made.

One of the consequences of my increasing interest in complexity, philosophy, and economics was that I grew increasingly bored with biology. Rand’s influence, though, resulted in my deciding to go into fiction writing rather than economics. As a result, I dropped out of a Master’s program in molecular biology to pursue a Master’s in English instead. From there, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program in the humanities at UT-Dallas precisely on the basis of my background in molecular biology, philosophy, literature and creative writing, and economics. Little did I know at the time how good a fit it actually was for me.

At UTD I first met Alexander Argyros, who had published on time, chaos theory, and literary theory, and then Frederick Turner, a poet and philosopher who has published two epic poems, several collections of poetry, and works on philosophy and on literary theory that make use of evolutionary psychology, time, complexity, and free market economics, among which is his “Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics.” I was thus introduced to people who were thinking the same way I was. More, it was in Turner’s “Game Theory and the Humanities” class that I was truly introduced to Austrian economics, when we read Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order and Polanyi’s The Logic of Liberty. Hayek of course introduced me to Mises. And both Hayek and Mises ended up in my dissertation Evolutionary Aesthetics.

But even then, impressed as I was, I was not yet a full Austrian school economist. No, that occurred after graduation, when I was invited to attend a Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conference. The paper I submitted used a great deal of complexity theory, etc., but nothing of Hayek. It was suggested by the conference participants that I should really include a great deal of Hayek, since his work was what spontaneous order theory was based on. I was then invited to a Liberty Fund colloquium on Hayek, for which I read a lot on spontaneous order theory – and I was hooked. Why was I hooked? Because of everything I had learned up through that time. I view the world as a complex set of emergent processes. I gained that world view through learning about chaos theory, complexity, self-organization, the theory of time developed by J.T. Fraser, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and free market economics – tied together through the philosophies of Nietzsche and Frederick Turner. When I really encountered Austrian economics in the fullest sense of the term, I realized that it was the theory of economics I was looking for. It was the school of economics that fit the world view I had already developed before encountering it. The world is a complex set of self-organizing emergent processes. Spontaneous order theory says the economy is a complex, self-organizing emergent process. Thus, Austrian economics best fits how I understand the world to be.

I did not start off life as a libertarian. I did not start off on my libertarian path through either reading Ayn Rand or the Austrian economists. I ended up on that path, and ended up accepting the Austrian school of economics, precisely because they fit the way the world works – at least, the way I increasingly understood the world to work, as a complex, evolving, self-organizing emergent process. The result is that I now write papers on spontaneous order theory, have a view of human action that is basically Misesian in nature, and have found a home in a school of economics that fits the way the world works as whole. My recent discovery of Lavoie's work has only confirmed my connection to Austrian economics, as he brings much postmodern literary theory into the Austrian school, which obviously fits well into my interest in Austrian economics and literature. In the end, the fact that Austrian economics fits the way the world actually works is why I’m an Austrian economist.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Speculations about Baudrillard

The emancipation of the sign: remove this ‘archaic’ obligation to designate something and it finally becomes free, indifferent and totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence. The same operation takes place at the level of labour power and the production process: the annihilation of any goal as regards the contents of production allows the latter to function as a code, and the monetary sign, for example, to escape into infinite speculation, beyond all reference to a real production, or event to a gold-standard. The floatation of money and signs, the floatation of ‘needs’ and ends of production, the floatation of labour itself—the commutability of every term is accompanied by speculation and a limitless inflation (and we really have total liberty—no duties, disaffection and general disenchantment; but this remains a magic, a sort of magical obligation which keeps the sign chained up to the real, capital has freed signs from this ‘naïvety’ in order to deliver them into pure circulation).

—Jean Baudrillard, from “Symbolic Exchange and Death”

Baudrillard’s hyperreality is fascinating. I’ve written about it here and here. I have reservations about Baudrillard, but I think his theories could be useful to libertarians and Austrian economists. What follows is merely speculation. I’m seeking feedback, not advancing an argument that I’m invested in.

What Baudrillard calls the “political economy of the sign,” economists call the “subjective theory of value.” Claiming that his term is inadequate because its signification is allusive and coded, Baudrillard seems to multiply the subjective theory of value until it (and what it evaluates: the good or service for which people exchange currency) becomes something else, something re-signified. In so doing, Baudrillard seems to mimic or participate in the very semiotic processes that he is describing.

The re-signified version of the subjective theory of value can no longer be called the subjective theory of value because the re-signified version is, to a degree, counterfeit; the same can be said of the materiality (the thing used to facilitate or complete an economic transaction) constituting the monetary unit described by the subjective theory of value. Strictly speaking, the re-signified version of this theory is itself a replacement copy of the theory, just as money and other units of exchange are merely signs standing in the place of “worth.”

The subjective theory of value holds that a thing does not possess inherent worth. Instead, worth arises because of the social value that attaches to a thing. Worth, or cost, is the price which one person is willing to pay and which another person is willing to sell. Standing in contradistinction to the labor theory of value, which Baudrillard seems to pooh-pooh (perhaps because of his disaffiliation with the Marxism of his youth), the subjective theory of value maintains that worth or cost depends upon the ability of a thing to satisfy the wants of consumers. A consumer is satisfied to the extent that a thing is useful to him. Utility here is measurable in psychological and not just “practical” terms; a person may want something because it makes him feel good. What seems to bother Baudrillard is the extent to which consumers exchange goods (themselves mediated by signs and representations) to become plugged into a symbolic network rather than to satisfy an immediate need. The satisfaction is what comes with the entrance into a symbolic order.

A thing, according to this conception of value, is not worth a lot simply because a lot of people mix their labor with it. Nor is a thing worth a lot because of some essential properties or qualities it contains. Rather, thing A is worth a lot because people think it is worth a lot: because people are willing to exchange something they own (thing B or C or D) in order to own thing A.

For Baudrillard, the subjective theory of value (a term he never uses) has vast implications for the sign in the postmodern world, just as the sign has vast implications for the subjective theory of value in the postmodern world. Because the worth or value of a thing is not tied to labor, it is, in a way, as Baudrillard suggests, subject to infinite speculation and free from all reference to production. Media of exchange (e.g., money) float outside the real—which is to say, outside of material things. They became simulacra for some temporary and contingent concept of value. Perhaps more importantly, the media of exchange are themselves distorted and fabricated by structures of symbols marking various exchanges. Fiat money brings about the complete arbitrariness of the sign, which is entirely divorced from use value. The ability of a green piece of paper (speaking in terms of American dollars) to become exchangeable for products depends upon social signification; the economy itself is dominated by signs and images, which are, after all, what producers and consumers exchange for products.

One could argue that Baudrillard reverses the privilege of consumption and production in the determination of value. At the very least, he insists upon the priority of the sign over the referent of utility. In such an economy, people wittingly or unwittingly exchange fabrications, models, and replicas. Simulacra such as fiat money represent the absence of the referent while supplying a new and different referent only symbolically related to the prior referent; put differently, simulacra signify copies of that which is not there.

Although Baudrillard seems to rely on the subjective theory of value, he also suggests that this theory, like everything else, is plugged into a dominant order of signs and representations. Baudrillard’s semiotics would suggest that identifiable, material referents of value have disappeared beneath layers of distortions, copies, or replications, and therefore that “value,” if such a term may be strategically employed here, is based upon (even as it constitutes) signs and symbols of value. Value, in other words, has been lost through symbolic acts within the realm of exchange and commodities. Therefore, the world today is immersed in an economy of representation; some representation is controlled, some is random, but all of it masks the absence of a basic reality because it has become an order of simulation: a hyperreality.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Llosa on Literature and the Search for Liberty

Llosa on Literature and the Search for Liberty.

"A story's significance as a piece of art cannot be divorced from its message, any more than a society's prospects for freedom and prosperity can be divorced from its underlying principles. The writer and the man are one and the same, as are the culture and its common beliefs."

"All individual freedoms are part of an inseparable whole. Political and economic liberties cannot be bifurcated. Mankind has inherited this wisdom from millennia of experience, and our understanding has been enriched further by the great liberal thinkers, some of my favorites being Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises."

The Tragic View of Human Nature

Is tragedy the literature of Austrian economics? That may be going a step too far (comedy was famously described as "tragedy plus time"), but there is little question that the Austrian school view of human nature is the tragic view. That is how Hayek described it. This is contrasted with the Unrestrained View of human nature. Let me ask: is there such a thing as a literature that expounds the unrestrained view? Or is all literature tragic? If there is no literature of unrestrained human nature, what does that say about that world view?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

A nice little piece on Atlas Shrugged. Of note:

“So long as we have not yet reached the state of censorship of ideas,” she once said, “one does not have to leave a society in the way the characters did in Atlas Shrugged. . . . But you know what one does have to do? One has to break relationships with the culture. . . . [D]iscard all the ideas—the entire cultural philosophy which is dominant today.”
Thoughts on that?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I was in Portsmouth, NH for the weekend for a Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conference, at which we discussed my paper, "The Theater of Tensions," on theaters as organizations on the borderlands of the artistic, economic, democratic, and philanthropic orders. I got some good feedback on it, and I will be revising (and expanding) on it for submission to Studies in Emergent Order. I still have not convinced Gus diZerega (whose work on democracy as a spontaneous order I highly recommend) that the arts are a spontaneous order, so I apparently still have some work to do in that area. (Not that I didn't intend to do just that, anyway!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

David Mamet on Culture and Society

David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge, makes several points about culture relevant to the ongoing discussion.

"Culture predates society, as it evolves before consciousness" (11).

"the evolution of a culture takes place not through the disappearance of those lacking a beneficial adaptation and the interbreeding of its possessors, but through imitation" (11).

"cultural adaptations predate and are the basis for that more conscious, more sophisticated agglomeration called society, which might be said to be the appurtenances growing out of culture" (12).

He points out that culture allows those within the culture to be able to better predict the actions of fellow members of that culture (11-12). Of course, the same can be said of the emergent properties of the catallaxy as well. But these are two different levels of predictability: the smaller culture vs. the larger society. We are sometimes confused at the differences from one culture to the next at how people conduct business, then discover that cultural differences explain the differences.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What If Theatres Played Moneyball?

What if theatres played moneyball? An excellent question. How might theatres use economics to become better at what they do? I may have some more ideas on this after this weekend's conference, where I will be getting feedback on my paper "The Theater of Tensions," which discusses theaters as institutions on the borderlands of the economic, artistic, philanthropic, and democratic orders.

Yes, Culture is a Base

I will stick with Dario Fernandez-Morera’s numbering in response.

1.& 2. From my readings of cultural criticism, it is in fact culture as I have defined it which is being discussed rather than “society.” You are correct that in a sense “Culture is the new “base” because it underlies all else” while “All else is superstructure.” I do believe that is an accurate description of reality. In that sense, the move from the “relations of production” to culture is a welcome move, as it more accurately represents reality (it is historically wrong and patently absurd to assume “relations of production” are primary, while all anthropological evidence does show culture to be primary). However, I would disagree that that means that if we “Get the culture right and other things can be explained, including the economy.” The so-called superstructures all have their own emergent realities which can and need to be explained in their own terms. The task of pure economics is to understand the self-organizing emergent process known as the economy. However, as Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright try to make clear in Culture and Enterprise, cultural studies can help us understand some of the differing details. And, more, if those doing cultural studies understood economic, that would improve their work as well. Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright are interested in the two disciplines learning from each other, having the work of each inform the other.

3. It may seem obvious once pointed out, that saying “provides information for the action of entrepreneurs is simply a reformulation, and not a very ingenious one, of the obvious, pointed out by Mises and others: the entrepreneur looks for the most favorable conditions he can find that justify his actions,” but it was not obvious at the time that Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright wrote Culture and Enterprise (2000). From the point of view of understanding economic actions – from the point of view of doing science, in other words – we do need to understand all of the elements involved in entrepreneurial discovery. If those studying entrepreneurship have not taken cultural elements into consideration, their scientific understanding is not as rich as it could be. More, as L & C-W point out, the very nature of entrepreneurship is affected by culture. They give the examples of the differences among American, Chinese, and Japanese entrepreneurs, pointing out that both American and Chinese entrepreneurs are more individualistic than are Japanese entrepreneurs, and the Chinese are, in addition, more nepotistic. The Japanese would prefer to work in large companies together in a company which treats them like family, and are more likely to be entrepreneurial in that context. The Chinese prefer not to work for anyone, but would rather work for themselves and hire family. I am grossly oversimplifying their own summary of work done in this area, but it should give an idea of the importance of understanding culture to understand some of the details of business creation, which are bound to have importance in the way people relate to business and interact with and within those businesses. That affects, in turn, the kinds of patterns which will emerge in the spontaneous order of the economy. The little details contribute to our understanding of any particular economy, even as the structural framework of the economy remains essentially the same from economy to economy.

4. I do not disagree that the law of marginal utility applies regardless of culture – or of species (I agree that Mises did not realize how much overlap there is between human and many non-human species in their actions and that therefore many laws of economics can be found in non-human species). However, the law of marginal utility does not apply in trying to sell pork to devout Jews and Muslims, coffee to Mormons, beer to fundamentalist Baptists, dog meat to most Europeans and those of European descent, horse meat to most Americans, or any meat to a vegan. The reason it does not apply in these cases is due to cultural differences. You cannot ignore those cultural differences if you want to understand the economies of the cultures in question. A great example is Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Norway’s developmental agency saw a lake teaming with fish, built a fish processing plant, and saw it fail. Why? Well, it turns out (which this article still manages to miss) that the people who live near the lake think that fishing is such degrading work that they would rather stay poor than fish. To them, only the lowest of the low fish. For us, and obviously for the Norwegians, it makes perfect sense to build a fish processing plant near a lake full of fish, because we think fishing is a perfectly good occupation. However, this well-intended plant is now empty and idle precisely because cultural factors were ignored. This suggests that understanding a culture could tell us precisely where something like marginal utility will necessarily fail.

5. They also fade upon convergence to truth. I hope that’s the case here. :-)

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Problem with Culture 2

The Problem with Culture 2

The well thought out comments from Troy make this interesting.

1. “Culture” is now used in humanities criticism (“cultural criticism”) in the same fashion as “society” or, earlier, “material relations of production” (which “society” replaced as “relations of production” lost its allure in the face of Marxist Leninist societies where learned professors and leaders well versed in Marxist theory–his “German Ideology”--put it in practice). In other words, in this sort of analysis other entities are made to depend on culture; culture rules and so do the practitioners of cultural criticism; all is dependent on culture; all is conditioned by culture, etc. etc.: “Culture underlies all our other social structures including the economy.” Get the culture right and other things can be explained, including the economy. Culture is the new “base” because it underlies all else. All else is the “superstructure” because it is underlied by “culture,” the new base.

2. So the point is not that one cannot make de jure distinctions between culture and society. One can, just as one can make distinctions between culture and civilization. But as Cervantes said, “this matters little for our story.” What matters much for our story is that culture functions de facto for practitioners of cultural criticism the way society, social formations, relations of production, etc. etc. used to function once upon a time (then, by the way, many of the things that constitute “culture” from movies to “material culture”--a desperate way to conflate things here-- used to be part of the superstructure).

3. To say that culture provides information for the action of entrepreneurs is simply a reformulation, and not a very ingenious one, of the obvious, pointed out by Mises and others: the entrepreneur looks for the most favorable conditions he can find that justify his actions (he follows the economic Law of Marginal Utility).
4. But the laws of economics do not depend on culture. They apply regardless of cultural conditions. In this, as in many other things, Mises’ Kung Fu is the strongest. Take, for example, the Law of Marginal Utility again. It applies to farming in Fiji as much as to entrepreneurship in the U.S. The farmer in Fiji who does not watch out for it will be punished by economics as much as the entrepreneur in the U.S. The poor, near starvation person in Somalia, is as subject to it as the crack dealer in Chicago. What changes is not economic law but the means for its application or disregard. That obviously changes, since in Fiji the means include growing mangoes (or whatever it is that they grow in Fiji) and watching for the behavior of insects and making an educated guess on weather conditions, and in the other they might not include mangoes but something else. I would go further than Mises. The laws of economics transcend species. Higher level (this is important because decision making to choose, I repeat, choose, a course of action is needed for human or otherwise thinking action) predators on the African savannahs adhere to the Law of Marginal Utility all the time: the most effective, and therefore best predators, are the best observers of it. My Kangal dog (a guard dog and therefore closer to predation) is very good at it for certain goals (such as scaring potential intruders both human and animal by barking and acting fierce), better than my Bichon Frise (a lap dog), who barks and becomes hysterical indiscriminately when he sees something unusual.

5. We, too, in these fora, are subject to the economics of Human Action: Discussions fade under the impact of the Law of Marginal Utility.

Dario Fernandez-Morera