Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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.

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