Saturday, November 10, 2012

Creating Order, or Working in Order?

Poets and other writers of literature fancy themselves the creators of order, imposing their own order on the chaos of language (a  belief which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining why so many writers support leaders who promise they can impose order on the chaos of society).

However, writers are wrong to think this. First, language is not chaos. The language they use evolved in a spontaneous order. That language follows the rules of grammar and syntax -- a deep grammar which is instinctual and, thus, genetically inherited; an evolving surface grammar and syntax which evolves more quickly in the linguistic order.

Further, the cultural context the writer is working in is also a spontaneous order. They were born into this evolving order, which they can affect through their actions, but cannot design. This cultural context affects the content of their works.

And of course, literary artists are all working within the literary order. They have to participate in the literary order first as readers, then as writers. They write in dialogue with the other writers of that order. Here, too, there is no utter chaos, but a complex, evolving order.

Does this mean there is no heroic literary genius? That Goethe is merely a social contruct? Or at best a marionette suspended between the strings of his genes/instincts and social order into which he was born? Hardly. Yes, our genes and instincts influence our actions. The actions of our neurons, through, create our minds, which in turn affect our neural activity. Yes, our various social orders influence our actions, and with our neurons, co-creates our minds. But this mind is, in this suspension, nevertheless free. It plays in the rules provided it, which it provides to itself from its genes and neural architecture and which it co-creates in its actions in the social environment, but the presence of rules hardly eliminates freedom or the emergence of individual differences. Good rules create more degrees of freedom. However, bad rules have the opposite effect.

What is a good rule? What is a bad rule? Consider the rules of sonnet writing. They are good rules because they can and do result in innumerable truly new poems, truly new expressions. But suppose that I created rules for poetry that stated that what specific word had to be used at the end of each line, what the topic necessarily had to be, what each noun had to be, what each verb had to be, etc. How many different kinds of poems could be written? Very few. Such would constitute bad rules.

The same applies to society. General rules generate freedom; specific rules are oppressive. The same is true in poetry as in society.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Affecting Popular Culture

Culture has a significant impact on the spontaneous orders, including attitudes toward them.

The popular T.V. show Big Bang Theory, for example, has fostered a boom in students majoring in math and physics in college. This is no small thing. That will affect the scientific order and the technological order directly, and the market economy through the technological order, creating waves through the catallaxy.

We can write white papers, or even popular nonfiction pieces to reach general audiences, but in doing so we will mostly be preaching to the choir.

But when we write screenplays and teleplays, when we write plays and novels, when we write short stories and even poetry, then we reach a wider audience. Then we really change minds.

If we want to really effect change in culture, we need the economics equivalent to Big Bang Theory. We need the popular sitcom Spontaneous Orders, with an Austrian-school economist, a neoclassical economist, and a Keynesian, with their friend who is a business owner. Admittedly, that's a little explicitly like Big Bang Theory, but I think you get my meaning.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Libertarian Literature

There is a new page listing libertarian fiction at Thinking Machine Blog. But why stop at libertarian fiction? Why not libertarian poetry, libertarian plays, libertarian movies? As far as poetry, there are the works of Frederick Turner, including his two epic poems. And then there is my own poetry on

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rent-Seeking in Shakespeare

At The Freeman, Sarah Skwire has a piece on Shakespeare's Henry V and rent-seeking. It is a lovely beginning, but the theme definitely needs to be developed -- especially through the entirety of the "Henriad."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constrained and Unconstrained Poets

The economic way of thinking begins with understanding that human choice is all walks of life is always exercised against a background of constraints.

The reality of choice within constraints implies that we face trade-offs in making decisions.

Peter Boettke, Living Economics, pg. 22
F. A. Hayek argues that there are two kinds of individualism, one which embraces the "constrained vision" and the other which embraces the "unconstrained vision." The former Hayek identifies with the "tragic sense of life."

If we look at poetry, we can see these two visions at play in formalist poetry vs. "free verse" poetry (which I will, for simplicity's sake, use to mean any and all kinds of "unconstrained" poetry, including dadais and surrealist poetry, among others).

Formalist poets understand that constraints are not necessarily restricting, but are a necessary condition for freedom. The world is full of constraints, and interesting rules/constraints can create new possibilities you may not have thought of had you been writing a free verse poem. A sonnet thus makes one more entrepreneurial, because you have to be alert to new possibilities, because you have constraints in what you can say next (or, in revision, perhaps what you said before). In formalist peotry there are a number of constraints that force you to make choices -- many more choices than you have to make in free verse, for example.

Free verse poets believe constraints restrict their freedom. Free verse poetry and many of the experiments of literary modernism and postmodernism were attempts at shedding constraints -- and are in fact an attempt to deny the existence and validity of constraints. Surrealism attempts to deny the validity of making a decision -- or at least, conscious decisions -- and therefore atttempts to create an "act" without decision, direction/goal, or structure. The surrealist artists all considered themselves to be the artistic expression of Marxism. And Marxism is, of course, the height of the unconstrained vision of man.

Of course, not all constraints are the same. There are natural and imposed constraints. There are internally imposed and externally imposed constraints. There are predictable and unpredictable constraints. Formalist poetry embraces a combination of natural (rhythms and rhymes) and imposed (this or that particular rhyme scheme or rhythm), internally imposed (by our choices) and externally imposed (by our traditions, within which we necessarily work), and predictable (in a heroic couplet the last word of the second line necessarily rhymes with the first) and unpredictable (having to rhyme may send the writer into a different direction than (s)he first thought the poem was going). But note that the formalist poet is making use of both simultaneously, and is not using one at the expense of the other.

Many of the experiments with modernism and postmodernism insisted that they were rejecting the artificiality of formalism and embracing a more "natural" kind fo poetry. The surrealists thought they were being natural, unpredictable, and internal, for example. There was an assumption that nature was chaotic/unpredictable -- and that man imposed order from the outside. Self-organization theory helps us to see that a kind of predictable-unpredictable, internal-external natural order can exist. Thus, a good formalist poem is much more like a self-organizing natural system than is a surrealist poem. Neither is more natural than the other, but the former embraces more aspects of reality than does the latter .

On the other hand, one can go in the other direction and have externally imposed, predictable art -- but this is propaganda and/or is a product of censorship. In the visual arts, Futurism tried to embrace the completely "imposed"/non-natural. Language, being a spontaneous order itself, always necessarily embodies both elements, making a purely "unnatural" poetry all but impossible -- except perhaps in various Dadaist experiments.

This suggests, then, that the kinds of poetry flourishing at a given time are likely to reflect the way the poets understand the world - as being naturally constrained or naturally unconstrained. Does this mean there are more formalist poets with the tragic view of life? Perhaps. One would expect to see this in the world views they express in their art, regardless of explicit political statements. The same would, perhaps, be true of "unconstrained" poets as well.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Who Would Miss It?

Should government fund the arts? To do so would seem to imply that someone in government is capable of deciding what constitutes art good enough to fund. And if someone in government can decide that, they can decide if art is bad too. Given the amount of money spent by Americans on art voluntariy, it's perhaps not necessary. Usually what it means when someone wants the government to support "the arts" is that they want government to support "their arts." And given the tiny amount the U.S. government spends on the arts, who would miss it?

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Invisible Order

If you're literary and your writing needs some order, there's always The Invisible Order for libertarian editorial solutions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Civilization, Capital, and the Moral Order in The Road

There is an excellent piece at on The Apocalyptic Vision of The Road, which reviews Cormac McCarthy's book The Road. Ben O'Neill analyzes the disappearance of the moral order and the varieties of capital in the novel.

Cormac McCarthy is also the author of All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and several other novels. He is also a trustee and writer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Institute, an important center for the study of complexity, and which has been one of the main drivers in the push for complexity economics, of which Austrian economics is a long-time contributor. So it should perhaps not surprise anyone that one can find good economics in his novels. Just be ready for a very dark read.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Elaine Scarry on the Literary Order and the Moral Order

Elaine Scarry on how the literary order affects and contributes to the formation of the moral order. The more literate we became, the more moral people became. How does this happen? Scarry suggests it comes about because of literature's
invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.
She argues that Medieval literature gave rise to new institutions -- and as any Austrian economist will tell you, institutions matter for what kind of spontaneous orders will emerge.

The entire essay is very intersting and very thought-provoking.
Update: PJ Manney makes this argument too, in 2006, in Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy. HT: PJ Manney

Call for Papers

January 1, 2013 will see the release of the inaugural issue of "Developments in Spontaneous Orders: A Journal of Diversity, Globalization, and Entrepreneurship," a peer-reviewed journal of the EDGE Center, a social science research center at UT-Dallas.

We are seeking papers for our inaugural issue on our journal's theme(s):
  • Spontaneous Orders
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Diversity
  • Globalization
  • Science and Technology
We encourage all scholars interested in exploring how the above themes can help us better understand our social world to consider submitting original academic papers. Acceptable papers can range from case studies to theoretical explorations.

Since this is an online journal, we are accepting papers year-round. Papers will be published two at a time throughout the year, with each issue consisting of a year's worth of papers. To have a paper considered for publication on the release date, please submit by Oct. 1, 2012

Manuscripts should be sent as Microsoft Word attachments via email to Manuscripts submitted to this journal should not have been published elsewhere and should not simultaneously be submitted to another journal.

Please be sure that the first page of your manuscript contains the title of the article, the names and affiliations of all authors, any notes or acknowledgments, as well as, the complete mailing addresses of all authors. The second page should contain no author information as well as an abstract of no more than 150 words and 5 to 7 keywords.

Manuscripts should be Times New Roman 12 font. We are an interdisciplinary journal, and the writing must be intelligible to the professional reader who is not a specialist in any particular field. Manuscripts that do not conform to these requirements and the following manuscript format may be returned to the author prior to review for correction.

Papers should be between 8,000 and 11,000 words in length. The entire manuscript should be double spaced.

I encouarge everyone to spread the word and to freely repost this call for papers.
Troy Camplin, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, EDGE Center
Editor, Developments in Spontaneous Orders: A Journal of Diversity, Globalization, and Entrepreneurship

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Entrepreneurs Need Poetry

If you are an innovator or an entrepreneur, you may need a certain level of science, technology, engineering, and math -- but if you really want to know how to innovate, you need to know how to write poetry, according to Daniel W. Rasmus in his recent Fast Company article, How Innovation is More Science than Poetry.

When you learn how to write poetry, you learn that details matter, design is critical, that you need to understand the market, that structure informs, that you need to cut ruthlessly, that you need to seek collaborative criticism religiously, that you must actively explore the unknown, to observe the world with all your senses, to take copious and nonlinear notes, that you have to realize that what you end up with may not be what you intended, and that endings make all the difference.

If that sounds like what any entrepreneur should do, it's because it is -- whether that entrepreneur is in the catallaxy or the literary order.

Hierarchies and Spontaneous Orders in The Dictator

Yesterday I watched The Dictator. I especially recommend it to Hayekians who understand the difference between organizational hierarchies and scale-free spontaneous orders, because the differences between the two are pointed out in both.

The dictator of The Dictator, Aladeen, is a despotic ruler over an oil-rich poor north African country. His is a top-heavy Big Man dictatorship, and he is pursuing policies that benefit his ego, but harm the country. Of course, his hierarchical structure is ineffective at all levels, in no small part because such a structure is ineffective at such large scales. Big Man leadership does not scale to the size of countries.

But democracy is not the answer to everything, either. The shop owner, Zoey, believes she can run her store on democratic principles. The result is a store that is a mess, in which nobody respects her or the well-being of the store itself, resulting in inefficencies and theft. When Aladeen convinces her to put him in charge -- and if we ignore the absurd ways he gets people to fall in line that are played up for comic purposes -- we see that the imposition of an organizational hierarchy results in a clean, well-organized, well-managed business. But this, of course, is precisely the level at which such a network structure is appropriate. And it is also the level at which scale-free network strucutres are not appropriate.

At the end, when Aladeen tears up the new constitution, he gives a speech celebrating dictatorship, saying if America had a dictatorship, they could bail out banking cronies, etc. It was a list of every questionable thing the U.S. government has done over the past decade. However, if you are going to mistakenly believe that this means there is no real difference between democracy and dictatorship, the film twists you in another direction. Yes, government is government in many ways, but if you're going to have one, democracy is the better kind. Not, of course, that Wadiya will ever get one . . .

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Social Networks and Epics

Spontaneous order theory is primarily about networks. Hayek of course primarily talked about social networks: the catallaxy, common law, and money. Michael Polanyi discussed science as a spontaneous order. Both were talking about social network dynamics. Two Irish researchers have analyzed three epics -- the Iliad, Beowulf, and Tain Bo Cualinge -- and discovered that they have highly realistic social networks. Actually, they discovered that the Iliad has the most realistic social network of the three, while the Tain has a social network that more closely resembles the Marvel Universe. Interestingly, the Tain and the Marvel Universe seem to share the same focus on superheroes -- which makes one wonder what it is about superheroes that changes the structure of social networks. Epics and novels are certainly open to such analysis. There are a lot of opportunities in this kind of spontaneous order research in literature. Here is the original source of the paper. And here is the original paper.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stories and Social Order

In discussing the importance of cooperation, reciprocity, and punishing cheaters, Eric Beinhocker in The Origins of Wealth points out that

Our reciprocity software, however, is not hardwired---it can adapt to local circumstances. When we are in an environment in which most of our experience is of other people's cooperation and reciprocation and in which social norms give us signals that people can be trusted (e.g., people tell admiring stories about self-sacrificing, trustworthy types), then our mental cooperation software will tend to be biased toward cooperating. It also will be more surprised and more forgiving when it encounters an example of defection or cheating. In essence, our minds statistically sample the population around us, and if people are usually cooperative, then when we encounter a cheater, we will tend ot assume that the person's behavior is probably the result of an error or misunderstanding. In contrast, in a low-cooperation, high-cheating environment with social norms that don't support cooperation (e.g., the stories are all about thieves, and people tell you to "watch your back"), our cognitive cooperation software biases us toward being suspicious. We react harshly to the first signs of cheating, forgive only slowly if at all, and are likely to resist cooperating until given a isgn of cooperation from the other party first.

The local tuning of reciprocity norms can create very complex dynamics at the level of populations. High-cooperation societies can see collapses in cooperation if cheating reaches a critical mass; low-cooperation societies can get stuck in uncooperative, eocnomically impoverished dead-ends; and when people from different cooperative traditions mix, it can lead ot misunderstanding and turmoil. (269-270).
This is the argument Martin and Storr make regarding the role of stories in perverse spontaneous orders, and is similar to Sanford Ikeda's arugments on trust. Our stories create our cultures, and if our stories tell us we are trustworthy and cooperative, we will become trustworthy and cooperative. To whatever extent our stories are a reflection of our culture, they can act to reinforce our attitudes. If we are a high-trust, high-cooperation culture, this is beneficial. If we are not, reflectionist literature can be downright harmful. The same arguments, in reverse, can be made regarding literature critical of its society. Such interrelations should be investigated more thoroughly. Stories can make a huge difference in our social lives.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Literary Analysis at Cato Unbound

The literary analysis is getting thick over at Cato Unbound, with pieces by William H. Patterson and Frederick Turner. The latter was on my dissertation committee, and remains a friend. Finally, there is a response by Amy Sturgis. Plenty of good stuff to read and think about! And there's also a lot of followup here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. All is not lost.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Prophet of Bureacracy

Today is Franz Kafka's birthday. There are few people who were better able to write about the nature of life in the bureaucratic state than Kafka. In many ways this makes him a literary prophet, as the modern bureaucratic state was not yet in place when Kafka was writing.

The Castle is a book about trying to penetrate an impenetrable bureaucracy. The protagonist is simply known as K -- having been reduced to little more than a letter by the bureaucracy he has to deal with. K has been called to the Castle for a job, but nobody in the bureaucracy can find the job order. Thus, K cannot do the job he has been called to do, but neither is he allowed to leave, because he may in fact have to do the job. The entirety of the novel is K waiting and trying to get the bureaucracy to let him either work or leave. This does not sound like the premise of a compelling novel, but Kafka is one of those rare writers who can make what would apepar to be the most boring premise strangely compelling. And for anyone who has had to deal with a bureacracy, whether public or private, the situation is certainly highly relatable.

The Trial features a protagonist known as Joseph K. He has more of a name than does the protagonist of The Castle, but even here we see man being reduced in the face of the impenetrable something that consists of modern society. Joseph K finds himself accosted by strange men who tell him he is to attend a trial. He does not know who is trying him, or why, but he is determined to prove his innocence. Yet, over time, Joseph K becomes convinced that, since he has been accused, he must have done something wrong -- and eventually he becomes complicit in his own execution, wishing he could take the knife and kill himself for what(ever) he has done. Joseph K thus becomes complicit in his own oppression. He becomes convinced he must be guilty of something, having been accused. It does not matter what the accusation is. More, it is important that he not know what it is, as the lack of information creates the conditions such that he finds through self-examination himself guilty of something. Thus, in love with his executioners, does he willingly walk to his own execution.

One can certainly see these things in oppressive regimes. But Kafka was not a prophet of obvious oppression as we saw in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. No, Kafka was a prophet of the oppression created by those who control through red tape and withholding information. As Joseph K observes: “I see, these books are probably law books, and it is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.” He is the prophet of opporession through vague accusation, what we experience as political correctness. He is the prophet of the oppressive weight of bureacracy.

At the same time, this is a bit odd. The word "bureacracy" means "rule of the desk," and the same Kafka who said “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy” also proclaimed there to be nothing more beautiful than an office desk. But it is perhaps precisely because of this ambiguity of feeling that Kafka was able to write about bureaucracy in such a way that it continues to move and matter.
Update: It occurs to me that it may be profitable to read The Castle in light of Mises' Bureaucracy. More on Kafka at Anarchy and Culture.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bonfire of the Cliches

It seems Sarah Skwire has been busy of late. She has the lead essay in the latest Cato Unbound: Bonfire of the Cliches. She argues that we should be careful when pronouncing this or that author or work is anti-business or anti-markets. Often, the works are far more complex than that. Often, we are encountering the biases of the literary critic more than the contents of the text. Be on the lookout for more essays in this series.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Reading Each Other

Sarah Skwire has a piece in The Freeman on Reading Each Other, which talks about the value of literature for creating empathy. Indeed, literature contributes to the moral order -- but harldy in straightforward ways.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Perverse Spontaneous Orders and Stories

Nona Martin and Virgil Storr on how stories can contribute to the creation of a perverse spontaneous order/culture that further undermines and perverts other spontaneous orders in civil society. Of course, good stories can also create healthy cultures that provide the foundation for the creation of other spontaneous orders, the economies they create, and the civil society all their interactions produce.

Perhaps more work needs to be done along these lines, investigating the societal effects of stories, stories' roles in the creation of cultures, and their roles in the kinds of spontaneous orders which emerge. There is a few lifetimes of work for someone and their students.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Be Suspicious of Stories

Tyler Cowan warns us to Be Suspicious of Stories. Stories have plots; spontaneous orders do not. Of course, he is really warning against simple -- and the "moral of the story is . . ." -- stories. Of course, complex stories, such as novels, do take a long time to get through and contemplate. We should be novelists, not short story writers, of our lives.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inductive Reasoning and Stories

Plato: "Those who tell the stories rule society."

I believe those interested in learning more about stories and storytelling, about why we tell stories and want to hear stories told, have much to teach economists and other social sciences. This is one of the main places where my interests overlap. And my interest in stories and economics both are why I subscribe to the Austrian school of economics.

Mainstream economics is a deductive science (involving logic and math). And it is for this reason that it repeatedly fails to accurately describe any actual economy that has ever existed -- or will exist. The reason for this is that economies are made up of agents who primarily engage in inductive reasoning, creating very complex patterns. Inductive reasoning allows one to see complex patterns, meaning the system that emerges from agents using inductive reasoning is best understood through the same approach. An economy of deductive computers would be more likely to be understood using deductive methods. And even that would have to involve very complex math. An economic science should of course have deduction -- but it should have the right deductions. But a complex science will also need -- will indeed require -- induction as well. The most inductive school of economics is the Austrian school.

Eric Beinhocker, in The Origin of Wealth, argues that "Stories are vital to use because the primary way we process information is through induction. Induction is essentially reasoning by pattern recognition. It is drawing conclusions from a preponderance of evidence" (126). This should sound familiar to those familiar with Hayek's argument that all we can ever really do is engage in pattern predictions, not actual predictions. We are pattern-recognizing, pattern-making, pattern-predicting machines, and as such are able to deal with complexity far, far, far better than do deductive computers (or mathematical methods). And stories help us to do this.

What are stories for? "We like stories because they feed our inductive thinking machine, they give us material to find patterns in -- stories are a way in which we learn" (127). The study of literature allows us to concentrate on how stories work, how they teach us. History is primarily transformed into stories. And if you want to really drive home a point in the social sciences, you tell a story. Stories are so powerful that they can be used to override statistically significant data (induction beats deduction). I can talk about how over 90% of the population has health insurance and are happy with their insurance, but the guy with the story about the mother who dies because she doesn't have insurance wins the argument -- not because his argument is in fact better, but because he is taking advantage of the fact that humans are primarily inductive, not primarily deductive (129). As any good rhetorician knows, you need both, but the balance should lean heavily toward stories and anything else that takes advantage of our inductive reasoning. Learning how stories work thus allows us to learn how to be more persuasive in politics or when doing scholarly work for the social sciences.

Patterns and pattern-recognition are central to our thought processes and, thus, to our actions:
Humans particularly excel at two aspects of inductive pattern recognition. The first is relating new experiences to old patterns through metaphor and analogy making. [...]

Second, we are not just good pattern recognizers, but also very good pattern-completers. Our minds are experts at filling in the gaps of missing information. The ability to complete patterns and draw conclusions from highly incomplete information enables us to make quick decisions in fast moving and ambiguous environments. (127)
This again points to the importance of understanding literature. It is through literary studies that we learn about metaphors and analogies. And one of the contributions of poststructuralist theory is its emphasis on narrative gaps, at where there is incomplete information, and thus to the different ways we fill in those gaps. Why do authors leave gaps? Perhaps they do so precisely because we perceive a world full of gaps, that we learn to fill to make sense of the world. Stories reflect the world even at this level of structure.

The better we learn to understand stories, the better our inductive reasoning will become:
induction is essentially a problem-solving tool that an agent uses to further its goals. The collection of rules, shaped by feedback from the agent's environment, creates an internal model of the agent's external world. The agent then uses this internal model to make predictions about what will be the best responses to the various situations that it encounters in pursuit of its goals. (130)
Reading or hearing a story also creates this internal model such that one can learn from others' experiences. Our ability to empathize combined with this ability to create internal models allows us to experience others' experiences, to essentially have an experience without doing so in the real world. It wold certainly be safer for us to learn to avoid dangerous situations by hearing someone's story about having been in that dangerous situation than to have to each experience such a situation ourselves. The more internal models we have, the better able we are to act in the world and to understand that world. Indeed, the more stories we have, the more complex we understand the world to be. One of the dangers of this is that we can misunderstand this complexity as demonstrating incommensurablility among the different patterns. This is where many postmodernists have taken the high level of complexity in their heads. However, it may be that they don't have enough data, enough stories. It may be that one needs a truly astronomical number of stories from a variety of cultures to see both the differences and the commonalities. Without understanding both, we do not really (and cannot really) understand the social world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Social Conditions for Creativity

Philosophy is part of the gift economy, and as such, what we can learn about the sociology of philosophies is equally applicable to the other spontaneous orders (the sciences, the arts, etc.) within the gift economy.

Given this fact, consider what Randall Collins has to say about the necessary conditions for creativity. He points out that "A conflict theory of intellectual life emphasizes opposition as the generator of creativity" (162), but then notes that there were strong periods of intellectual conflict in China during which there was little creativity. Thus, agonistic relations is necessary, but not sufficient, for creativity.

We have abundant evidence that conflict is sometimes creative. The law of small numbers gives a structural shape to this struggle. The issue is to show what kinds of structural rivalry drive innovation by opposition, with associated shifts upward in the level of abstraction and critical self-reflection, and what kinds of conflict have the opposite effect on intellectual life, producing stagnation and particularism. (163)
There are two things of note in this section. One is that Collins notes the importance of institutions in whether or not a period is creative. This of course only raises the question of what institutions are important for periods of creativity. The other is that focusing on small changes is the definition of intellectual stagnation. We see this in the arts at the present time, where all the new developments of Modernism are being exhaustively investigated in Postmodernism. How, then, do we move to a new era of creativity?

It turns out that during creative eras, class is not an important factor; but when class does become an important factor in a society, creativity drops off:

I have argued that class determination is not a very useful theory for dealing with the highest levels of creativity, the sequences of abstractions produced within the core of the intellectual community; but class determination is applicable in periods when structural bases of autonomy are absent. These are typically periods of intellectual stagnation for an abstract discipline such as philosophy. What innovation occurs will be at a more concrete and particularistic level (164)

Autonomous individuals are more creative than those tied to class or other collectives.

Left to themselves, intellectuals produce their own factions and alliances. Their competition over intellectual attention space leave behind a trail of abstractions which constitute the inner history of ideas. When intellectual autonomy is low, this self-propelling dynamic is absent. Instead, new ideas occur at the moments when the class structure changes, when there are new external bases for intellectual life---new political conditions fostering religious movements, new economic and administrative conditions raising or lowering the salience of court aristocrats, state bureaucrats, or propertied gentry, and other such shifts. These changes in external conditions are much more episodic. Intellectual changes, typically in the form of concrete religious doctrines or of lifestyle ideologies, come about when a new kind of structure is created. (164-5)

Periods of social stability are bad for cultural creativity; periods of social instability are good for cultural creativity. This may go a long way to understanding the progressive-conservative division in the concept of culture. This is why creative types are typically progressive in the sense of change for the sake of change, and why conservatives defined as those who want to conserve what we have, no matter what it is, are typically perceived as anti-intellectual and anti-art. In any case, those who are freed from what has been the stable structures and institutions of a society are most creative. This is not surprising, if we consider the move from one stable era to another as a move from one equilibrium to another, through a far-from-equilibrium state.

The far-from-equilibrium state is the most creative, whether we are talking about biological processes, mental processes, or social processes. It is not impossible to remain in a far-from-equilibrium state, however. It is likely our brains are in such a state. But it is clear that our societies can be in equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium states (or even multiple equilibria or cyclical). If a society is at equilibrium, negative feedback processes have been dominating. If positive feedback processes dominate, you get boom-bust cycles and/or multiple equilibria. If you have bipolar feedback -- that is, if agonal paradoxical tensions dominate -- you get a far-from-equilibrium, or high creativity, state.

What are the social conditions and institutions that result in negative feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in positive feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in bipolar feedback dominating? And if the latter is in fact most creative, is it possible to create such conditions without having conditions like the pre-Han Warring States in China, the time of the ancient Greeks warring with Persia through the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, the wars and social upheaval of the Renaissance, and WWI and WWII giving rise to Modernism?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Happy Birthday Hayek

Today is F. A. Hayek's birthday.

Were it not for the work of Hayek, this blog would not exist.

While I was introduced to free market economics by my undergraduate Intro. to Philosophy professor, Ronald Nash, it was in Frederick Turner's "Game Theory and the Humanities" where I was introduced to Hayek, through his essay "Individualism: True and False." I had been interested in self-organizing systems before, and Hayek's spontaneous order theory fit well into that interest.

However, it was really when I went to a Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conference that I was really put on the path to becoming a Hayekian. I presented a paper comparing ecosystems to economies, and after the discussion, Steve Horwitz pointed out that I had not cited Hayek, suggesting that I should, since "We are all Hayekians here." I then found myself invited to a Liberty Fund colloquium on Hayek (not coincidentally attended by Steve). The following FSSO conference, I wrote a paper on "The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts," which, in combination with the Cantor-Cox book, lay the groundwork for this blog.

Since then, most of my published works have been on spontaneous order theory. For me, it is the sociological theory to use. I think with it as much as I think with evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. I think them both in conjunction, in fact. Without Hayek, I might have a job, but I would hardly be the scholar I am, thinking the things I do, understanding the world as it is, in its full complexity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Out of the wilderness

The New Criterion has an interesting article by Charles Murray on the conditions necessary for a renewal of the arts. Among the things he finds necessary is economic wealth. Indeed, this is something Frederick Turner finds necessary for there to be a gift economy. Without large amounts of transferable wealth, one cannot have a vibrant gift economy. And the arts and sciences are part of that gift economy.

A major stream of human accomplishment is facilitated by growing national wealth, both through the additional money that can support the arts and sciences and through the indirect spillover effects of economic growth on cultural vitality.
He also identifies cities as an important element of high cultural creativity, which should not be surprising to those who understand urban economics:

A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by the existence of cities that serve as centers of human capital and supply audiences and patrons for the arts.
He also argues that there needs to be new organizational structures. In literature, we had the novel really driving things for a while. Now, he argues, it is film. It might be interesting to think of what other possibilities there are or could be. Of course, the one who invents the next new organizational structure for any given kind of art will be considered one of the greatest artists of all time. And recognizing such things is difficult, usually taking place long after it has been established. Nevertheless, he argues, we are limited by our own evolution: "Human traditions of storytelling suggest that humans are hard-wired to prefer certain narrative conventions."

There is a lot more of interest in the piece. Interestingly, he lists a few artistic movements, mentioned by Steven Pinker, that Frederick Turner is a part of.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Separation of Art and State

David Boaz of the Cato Institute has written a piece for the New York Times on the Separation of Art and State. Much of what he says is familiar: people should not be forced to pay for art they do not approve of, and artists should not want government support since "He who pays the piper calls the tune." And since "the NEA’s budget is about 0.2 percent of the total amount spent on the nonprofit arts in the United States," it is obvious that federal funding of the arts in the U.S. wouldn't even be missed.

The Founders recognized that the divine economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of church and state). On similar grounds, it makes sense to recognize that the gift economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of art/science/philanthropy and state), and that the market economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of catallaxy/money and state).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Spontaneous Order of Canon Formation

I have previously suggested that spontaneous order theory might tell us something about how the literary canon formed. Insofar as Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is a theory of spontaneous order applied to intellectuals in general (and, thus, the gift economy), and to philosophers in particular, what he says about canon formation would therefore be a spontaneous order theory of canon formation. He deserves to be cited at length on this. He is talking about "thinkers," but this is equally applicable to artists, poets, etc.
Canons are historically situated; but let us grasp the full implications. We cannot invoke as a foil a reservoir of "deserving" but unknown thinkers in the shadows throughout history, just as "creative" as the ones whose names were trumpeted, as if there were some trans-historical realm in which their achievement is measured. Ideas are creative because they hold the interest of other people. The very concept of creativity implies the judgment of one generation upon another. Shall we say that we are studying not creativity but reputation? The distinction arises from our tendency to heroize, to reify the individual apart from the context. Although it seems to violate our sense that causes ought to be antecedent to what we are explaining, the "creativity" of a particular philosopher is not established until several generations have passed, because it literally is a matter of how sharp a focus that individual's ideas become in the long-term structure of the networks which transmit ideas. (58)

Intellectual greatness is precisely one's effect on the course of intellectual history, influencing generations downstream from one's own.

In my rankings, greatness is based on the degree to which a philosopher remains of interest to other thinkers across long periods of time. Canons do change, but only among those figures who have entered into the long-term chain of reputation in the first place. The first threshold is reputation that carries down beyond one or two generations. For this reason, the level of structural creativity is not easy to discern among one's own contemporaries. (59)

The dose of realism provided by the long-term view is a salutary (if unwelcome) antidote to our personal egotism, and to that projected egotism which we attach to our hero-ideals, the rare "genius" of generations past whom we pattern ourselves upon in our inner imagination. Intellectuals make their breakthroughs, changing the course of the flow of ideas, because of what they do with the cultural capital and emotional energy flowing down to them from their own pasts, restructured by the network of tensions among their contemporaries. The merit of their contributions, its "intrinsic worth" as well as "social impact," is a mater of how the structure develops after our own deaths. We intellectuals are true eddies in the river of time---perhaps more so than other humans, because it is our business to attend to this connectedness across the generations. (60)
He points out that the "minimal unit of intellectual change is a generation, approximately 33 years" (60), and another generation for that change to have its impact. We cannot judge our own generation because we are too close, and things are still shaking out. And we may be in an epoch of little real change. Still, there are some parlor games we can play with this idea.

If we exclude the current generation -- meaning anyone who created their major work(s) since, say, 1980 -- and take as given Collins' calculations of 1 major intellectual per generation, 2 secondary intellectuals per generation, and 7 minor intellectuals per generation within a given field (he is writing about philosophy, but is applies to all intellectual networks), we would have 3 generations of intellectuals between 1880-1980.

What are the major, secondary, and minor economists of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor poets of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor novelists of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor playwrights of that period?

And, to really cause trouble: who in each category are on the radar now?

 Let the comments war begin!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Spontaneous Order of Philosophies

I am reading Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. It's a massive tome, but I think well worth reading, particularly for spontaneous orders theorists. Given he is also the author of Max Weber: A Skeleton Key, the fact that spontaneous orders theorists (and other Austrian economists) should find his work of interest perhaps should not be that much of a surprise.

Collins is quite critical of both Marxism and postmodernism in sociology. He particularly objects to the reduction of everything to politics (as postmodernism does, in its reduction of everything to power):

The personal is political, but the politics of intellectual practice, within the inwardly focused network of specialists, is not the same thing as the politics of gaining power in the state, or the politics of men and women in their homes or sexual encounters. Winning the focus of attention within the contests among philosophers is done with specifically intellectual resources, which are social resources specific to intellectual networks. There is abundant historical evidence that when players in this arena try to win their way solely with the weapons of external politics, they win the battle at the cost of their intellectual reputations in the long-term historical community. These are not the same game; and at those times in history when one game reduces to another, the intellectual game does not so much give in as disappear, to reappear only when an inner space becomes available for it again. Without an internal structure of intellectual networks generating their own matrix of arguments, there are no ideological effects on philosophy; we find only lay ideologies, crude and simple." (12-13)

If the last statement does not sum up the current situation in philosophy -- and increasingly in the arts, literature, and even the sciences -- I don't know what does. Indeed, we can consider not just philosophy, but the intellectual networks of the arts and literature and of the sciences as well. Postmodernism reduces everything to power; power, in the master-slave interaction, is the social interaction of politics; therefore, postmodernism reduces everything to politics. Thus are we dominated by crude, simple lay ideologies.

Has philosophy disappeared from the scene, waiting for postmodernist reductionism to finally be replaced by a more complex world view that can include philosophy? Can we ask the same question of the arts? of literature? of some areas in science?

While The Sociology of Philosophies is on the spontaneous orders of the world's philosophies, a similar book on, say, literature could just as easily be written, with much the same structure as this book. He explains the canons of world philosophy; one on literature would explain those canons. One could probably do the same work on the sciences. I think doing so would really shore up spontaneous order theory as a sociological theory, and draw a connection between sociology and free market economics that desperately needs to be drawn.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Winton Bates on Progress and the Arts

Winton Bates, an Australian economists, discusses Frederick Turner's book The Culture of Hope. He discusses Turner's idea that the arts can be a force for progress. This in turn prompted him to discuss Alfred North Whitehead's book Adventures of Ideas, discussing it in light of Hayek's quote that "In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization."

If Turner is right that the arts are (or an be) a force for progress, then he is arguing that the arts are (or can be) civilizing. This civilizing aspect is beauty. Bates wonders if art is but a way of keeping communication flows open (using Bejan's idea of the constructal law). However, this would relate directly to the issue of beauty, as beauty may be the way artistic communication flows are kept most open and best flowing. In fact, Turner argues that tree-like branchiness is important to understand beauty, time, and the arts. The golden mean emerges out of the constructal law -- and the golden mean is central to our experience of beauty. The same with fractal geometry.

Perhaps our experience of beauty is the brain rewarding itself for recognizing the constructal law in nature.

And perhaps anything that is allowed to evolve according to the constructal law of nature is beautiful.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Time and Currency

Jeffery Tucker compares In Time and The Hunger Games at Laissez Faire Books. Again, we learn something about economics, but this time from looking at the problems with the film In Time.

(Congratulations, too, to Jeff for his new position as publisher and executive editor of Laissez Faire Books!)

Flowers in the Mirror

Mao Yushi analyzes the Chinese novel Flowers in the Mirror, by Li Ruzhen in The Paradox of Morality, with some interesting economic insights.

A few gems:

"negotiations in which both parties are seeking their personal gain can reach equilibrium, whereas if both parties are looking towards the interests of the other party, they will never reach a consensus."

"Money and prices play an important role in the development of society. No one should hope to replace emotions such as love and friendship with money. It does not follow, though, that love and friendship can replace money."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bricolage in Art and Entrepreneurship

Readers might be interested in the conference Bricolage in Art and Entrepreneurship.

Particularly the fact that they will be covering:

Relationship between artistic and entrepreneurial creativity

Economic and social organization of art production

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charles Dickens' Entrepreneurial Energy

Peter Klein on Dickens' entrepreneurial energy.

Why Read Shakespeare?

Why read Shakespeare? Russell Dean Schultz, at least, has an idea. The man he is responding to, Mac McCann, argues we shouldn't read Shakespeare because he's hard, and reading hard texts make it difficult to develop "critical thinking" skills.

"Critical thinking" -- the great evil of our education system. What is it? It's hard to say. It's a postmodern response to the rejection of logic, reason, and philosophy. It is an excuse to argue against reading anything of any importance whatsoever.

Why read Shakespeare? Perhaps "critical thinking" is not the skill to be developed by reading Shakespeare. Perhaps there are other reasons to read Shakespeare. Perhaps by reading things that are difficult, your reading skills will improve. Perhaps by reading Shakespeare, you will discover how much of our culture was created (or at least recorded and passed on) by Shakespeare. Perhaps by reading Shakespeare, we can learn something about what it means to be human.

Perhaps, though, those are things our public education precisely do not want to teach our children. Either that, or those teachers who don't want to teach Shakespeare are either too lazy or too stupid to understand his beautiful works. A good teacher does not find many students who hate Shakespeare. Bad teachers, though, to cause students to hate Shakespeare -- or reading in general. Teachers, don't blame Shakespeare if your students hate to read -- blame yourself.

Of course, it's much easier to blame Shakespeare.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

“The Hunger Games”: The Role of Dystopian Literature in Libertarianism

There is a nice piece on “The Hunger Games”: The Role of Dystopian Literature in Libertarianism by Christine-Marie Dixon over at Students for Liberty.

As the author notes, dystopian novels have played an important role in libertarianism. I suspect they will always have such a role, since it is easy to show the negative outcomes of government actions. Also, stories have to have problems, so we should not be surprised that most "libertarian" literature involved dystopian visions.

What would a pro-market novel that was not dystopian look like?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Theory of Mind, Mirror Neurons, Economic Coordination, and Storytelling

One of the great things about Austrian economics is that one of its main practitioners, Hayek, also wrote a book on the brain, meaning every once in a while I can indulge myself in a little neuroaesthetics.

In Hayek in Mind: Hayek's Philosophical Psychology, (Adv. in Austrian Economics, vol. 15), Chiara Chelini has an article, "Hayek's Self-Organizing Mental Order and Folk-Psychological Theories of the Mind," that I highly recommend for the simple observation Chelini makes that our theory of mind (regardless of which theory of theory of mind you choose to subscribe to) is what allows us to coordinate our actions -- coordination which gives rise to the economic spontaneous order. Because we understand others have minds and because we empathize with them, we are able to more or less figure out what others are thinking, meaning we can coordinate our actions with them. When we are more or less right, we get coordination; when we are wrong, we get discoordination. Our large number of mirror neurons aid in this, because they allow us to copy people's actions exactly (they practically compel us to, in fact), which in effect coordinates our actions with all those around us.

What does all of this have to do with literature?

How could we even understand a story if we could not identify with the characters? This is even more true when viewing a play, film, or T.V. show, since we can watch the characters' actions and faces, which allow us to understand those actions. We do so because we place ourselves into those characters' minds. More, the actors similarly place their minds into the characters' minds in order to bring them to life for the audience. Our having a theory of mind and a very large number of mirror neurons is what allows us to create stories, understand stories, and act.

In other words, the same thing that allows for economic coordination is what allows us to create stories.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How Spontaneous Orders Are Like Good Poetry

Walter Weimer, in his essay "Spontaneously Ordered Complex Phenomena and the Unity of the Moral Sciences," from Centripetal Forces in the Sciences (Gerard Radnitzky, ed.), argues that

The evolution of all spontaneous orders is an essential tension between three sets of principles that regulate change. The first principal is one of creativity or productivity. Such systems exhibit fundamental novelty, change (at the level of particulars) that cannot be predicted in advance. The second principle is that of rhythm, and the progressive differentiation of rhythm. Evolutionary differentiation is rate dependent instead of rate independent. The third principle is that development tends toward opposites, or the principle of regulation by opponent processes. The interaction of these three principles creates an essential tension, a context of constraint, between the previous form of organization, the ongoing state, and future states that may occur. (258)
Great poetry is creative (stems from creativity, and results in more creativity in the new poetry created through its influence), rhythmic (rhythm makes a poem, not line breaks; there is much prose out there with line breaks), and demonstrates counterpoint.

Paul Cantor makes a good case for understanding novels as participating in spontaneous order creation. Weimer's definition of spontaneous orders opens up poetry for the same kind of inclusion.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Monarchs and Mongrels

For a first serious post here, I thought it would be interesting to revisit one of my first real bits of thinking about connections between the literary and the economic. The first economist I ever read was Hayek. Right after Hayek, I read Smith's Wealth of Nations. While I gather this is a somewhat...non-traditional economic education, it's served me reasonably well. And in reading Smith I found someone whose brain was as filled with literary allusions, references, and quotations, as any writer I'd ever loved and admired. This paper--and I've put the introduction here, with a link to the whole megillah at the end of the post--came from the moment when I realized I'd spotted an allusion that, so far as I could discover, had gone unnoticed for ages.

So, here's Smith and Shakespeare, together again, in "Monarchs and Mongrels."

Adam Smith’s respect for literature as art and as example infuses all his work. Whether it is The Theory of Moral Sentiments and its use of the characters of Iago and Othello to discuss issues of human sympathy and fellow-feeling, the quotations from Milton and Dryden which begin his essay on “The History of Astronomy,” his references to Phaedra, the Aeneid, and the Illiad in his examination of the legal history of marriage in the Lectures of Jurisprudence, or the Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the notes from his most extended considerations of literature, Smith’s use of literature throughout his body of work is constant.

Charles Griswold’s Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment points to the strong appeal that literature had for Smith as a way to speak about important contemporary moral concerns: “Not only plays, novels, and poems but tragedies, in particular, intrigue Smith. Together they completely overwhelm his relatively rare references to properly philosophical texts. …The notion that we are to understand literature and drama as sources for moral theory and moral education is clearly and strikingly evident in The Wealth of Nations as well. (59).” This attraction towards the literary as source material for moral arguments is easily seen simply by leafing through the footnotes to any of Smith’s works. His references to literature are myriad and most have been well-documented. In addition, however, Smith’s writing--steeped in poetry, novels, and drama as it is--often draws from the storehouse of his memory to allude to literature without giving a specific reference to the work of which he is thinking. Discovery and examination of such an uncited reference can give careful readers the sense of Smith as a writer who instinctively turns to literature as a tool for his thought.

Very early in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations the reader encounters one such reference, previously unnoted in Smith scholarship, during Smith’s meditations on human nature as demonstrated in comparison with the nature of dogs. The section is a justly famous one. It is elegant in both its content and its diction as well as in its explication of the social advantages and “conveniency” that arise from the human ability to “truck, barter, and exchange,” with skills that dogs are able only to use to help themselves. Smith writes:

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species, are of scarce any use to one another. The strength of the mastiff is not, in the least, supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog. The effects of those different geniuses and talents, for want of the power or disposition to barter and exchange, cannot be brought into a common stock, and do not in the least contribute to the better accommodations and conveniency of the species. Each animal is still obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. Among men, on the contrary, the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for. (1.ii.30)

The passage has been analyzed often. What has gone unnoticed, however, is that Smith’s passage alludes to an equally well-known passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (The play may have been suggested to Smith by his use of the word “porter” early on in the passage reminding him of Macbeth’s famous Act II “porter scene.”) Suborning Banquo’s murder in Act III, Macbeth discusses human nature with the murderers for hire in almost precisely the same terms that Smith uses in the above passage.

First Murderer: We are men, my Liege.

Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valu’d file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous Nature
Hath in him clos’d; whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men. 
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.90-100)

The similarity of wording, of subject matter, even of the dog breeds mentioned make it clear that as Smith wrote his passage on dogs and human nature, Shakespeare’s lines were in his mind.
The previously unnoted allusion is interesting for more than just its help in building a more thorough record of Smith’s use of literature throughout his works, however. Smith’s allusion to Macbeth at this early and crucial point in the argument of Wealth of Nations is far more than a rhetorical flourish. It is topical, carefully considered, and significant. Smith’s allusion to Macbeth serves to forewarn the alert reader of Smith’s awareness of the market’s complexities and problems as well as its strengths.  Smith’s awareness of the corruptions to which a free market can be vulnerable are not reservations about the effectiveness of such a market. Rather, they are reservations about the damage that can be done to the market’s effectiveness by human action and imperfection. It is not the free market that is risky. What is risky is a free market that, like the monarchy of Macbeth's Scotland, has fallen victim to corruption, collusion, and misdirected self-interest that erodes human sympathy.

A much longer version of this argument is available here, with footnotes and everything.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Where's Our Dickens?

Theodore Dalrymple asks, "Where is today's Charles Dickens?" Given our current political-economic situation, we may be due a Dickens. But it should be a real Dickens -- not some ideal Dickens, like the one promulgated by leftist literary theorists, but the one who "is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook." In other words, we need a real novelists (Kundera argues that a real novelist in fact demonstrates in his work an "absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook," or else he is not a novelist).

And there is plenty to work with: politicians who at their best think they know more than is possible to know, and who at their worst willingly sell their votes to their cronies and financial supporters; bankers who happily gain through privatization of profits and socialization of loss; political philanthropy run amok; political unions on the rise; persistent unemployment created by gross (mis)management of the economy and widespread uncertainty from new programs and regulations; an educational system unworthy of a third world country. You name it, the topics for a Dickens abound.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Brief Introduction

I'm delighted to begin blogging here at Austrian Economics and Literature. As my shiny new Blogger profile will tell you, I'm a writer, a poet, and a Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. My background is in English Renaissance and Reformation literature, but I will not hesitate to go all medieval (or 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st century) on you if it seems necessary. I earned my MA and PhD at the University of Chicago and did my undergraduate work at Wesleyan University. I have published on topics from George Herbert to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my writing textbook "Writing with a Thesis" is in college classrooms across the country. 

If you've heard of my blog, Modified Rapture, it's either because of my post on How the Grinch Stole the Free Market or my post of the ten best economics pick-up lines. It is, I suspect, that kind of geeky literary/economic hijinks that persuaded Troy to invite me to blog here. I'll try to keep it up.

In addition to the hijinks, however, I plan to spend a lot of time pointing readers of this blog to literary and pop cultural works that provide complex and nuanced views of free markets and free societies. I'm much less theory-driven than Troy, so I'll be spending a lot of time jumping up and down and pointing you toward interesting source material and neglected perspectives. And I'll be doing my very best to mount a continuous campaign against the notion that free markets and literature are natural enemies.

And just so I don't leave you with only introductory material, and a completely content-free blogpost, here's a sophisticated little piece on money and value, from one of my favorite economists--Shel Silverstein.


My dad gave me one dollar bill
'Cause I'm his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
'Cause two is more than one!

And then I took the quarters
And traded them to Lou
For three dimes--I guess he don't know
That three is more than two!

Just then, along came old blind Bates
And just 'cause he can't see
He gave me four nickels for my three dimes,
And four is more than three!

And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs
Down at the seed feed store,
And the fool gave me five pennies for them,
And five is more than four!

And then I went and showed my dad,
And he got red in the cheeks
And closed his eyes and shook his head--
Too proud of me to speak!

Welcome Sarah Skwire

I would like to welcome our newest blogger, Sarah Skwire. Sarah works for Liberty Fund -- beyond that, I will let her introduce herself. I think she will be a great addition to Austrian Economics and Literature, and I look forward to all her future postings.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy Birthday Ayn Rand

Happy Birthday Ayn Rand. Milan Kundera argued that novelists make for bad philosophers outside of their novels. And good philosophers make for bad novelists (he used Sartre as an example). Regardless of where you think Rand falls on that continuum, there is little question about her impact and importance. From what she wrote in The Romantic Manifesto, I have to wonder whether or not she would approve of the work we promote here. Regardless, she identified with Mises' economics, which is reason enough to wish her a happy birthday here. Aside from the fact that one would be hard pressed to find a libertarian, including Austro-libertarians, who has not read her at some point. So, happy birthday, Ayn Rand!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Politics of Johann Wolfgang Goethe has a piece by Hans-Hermann Hoppe on The Politics of Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

Most Europeans know that he was the greatest of all German writers and poets and one of the giants of world literature. Less well known is that he was also a thorough-going classical liberal, arguing that free trade and free cultural exchange are the keys to authentic national welfare and peaceful international integration. He also argued and fought against the expansion, centralization, and unification of government on grounds that these trends can only hinder prosperity and true cultural development.
This of course is consistent with the analysis I gave of a famous passage from his Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

Overall Hoppe's piece is a great overview of who Goethe was. Goethe wasn't just a genius -- he was a universal genius. He did not just write on a variety of subjects -- he did groundbreaking work in those subjects. And that was when he wasn't writing some of the best poetry in any language.

The piece ends with Goethe's support for what was essentially a Germany made of independent states with no central government -- a structure also supported by Nietzsche (who, not coincidentally, idolized Goethe) on the grounds that such a structure actually helped keep German culture vital. Nietzsche even went so far as to suggest that there was an inverse relationship between the strength of culture and the strength of government. Something for Austrian economics literary theorists to think about, perhaps.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Culture and Rhetoric Matter

The WSJ has a nice piece on Dierdre McCloskey. She of course points out that culture and rhetoric were central to the rapid economic development of the West shortly after the Renaissance. In other words, a

shift in perceptions was central to the economic take-off of the West. "A bourgeois deal was agreed upon," she says. "You let me engage in innovation and creative destruction, and I will make you rich." A commercial class that was not ostracized or sneered at was thus able to activate the engine of modern economic growth.
Of course, now we see the commercial class ostracized and sneered at. What are the consequences of this? What will be the long-term consequences if it continues? Perhaps, as I suggested recently, we need to see a change in how the commercial class is represented in literature (broadly defined, including T.V. and film). In other words, we need to see a shift in our culture and rhetoric.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Charles Dickens, Capitalist

Peter Klein has a nice little piece on Charles Dickens, Capitalist over at The Beacon. Indeed, I had heard all my life how anti-capitalist Dickens was, but when I finally did read one of Dickens' novels -- Oliver Twist -- I was overwhelmed by how overtly pro-capitalist and anti-government (it is particularly damning of government welfare programs) it was. One could make a career of recovering Dickens from the Marxist interpretations.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Recovering the Past of the English Language Spontaneous Order

Language is a spontaneous order, a fact we forget, being embedded in it and often failing to note the changes which take place, so slow does language (often) change. However, it is noted in this piece that English language pronunciation was undergoing rather rapid change during the Renaissance. Both typically slow, but sometimes rapid, change is typical of transformative complex adaptive systems, among which are spontaneous orders. By remembering the fact that the system changes content, we can rediscover such things as Shakespeare's language -- and the puns and rhymes we have lost over the past 400 years.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Among the Finest Inventions of the Human Mind

In Book I, Ch. 10 of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, we have the following famous dialogue between Wilhelm and Werner:
"Well, here is The Youth at the Parting of the Ways; it has just come into my hand,” said Wilhelm, drawing out a fold of papers from the rest; “this at least is finished, whatever else it may be.”

“Away with it, to the fire with it!” cried Werner. “The invention does not deserve the smallest praise: that affair has plagued me enough already, and drawn upon yourself your father’s wrath. The verses may be altogether beautiful; but the meaning of them is fundamentally false. I still recollect your Commerce personified; a shrivelled, wretched-looking sibyl she was. I suppose you picked up the image of her from some miserable huckster’s shop. At that time, you had no true idea at all of trade; whilst I could not think of any man whose spirit was, or needed to be, more enlarged than the spirit of a genuine merchant. What a thing it is to see the order which prevails throughout his business! By means of this he can at any time survey the general whole, without needing to perplex himself in the details. What advantages does he derive from the system of book-keeping by double entry! It is among the finest inventions of the human mind; every prudent master of a house should introduce it into his economy.”

“Pardon me,” said Wilhelm, smiling; “you begin by the form, as if it were the matter: you traders commonly, in your additions and balancings, forget what is the proper net-result of life.”

“My good friend, you do not see how form and matter are in this case one; how neither can exist without the other. Order and arrangement increase the desire to save and get. A man embarrassed in his circumstances, and conducting them imprudently, likes best to continue in the dark; he will not gladly reckon up the debtor entries he is charged with. But on the other hand, there is nothing to a prudent manager more pleasant than daily to set before himself the sums of his growing fortune. Even a mischance, if it surprise and vex, will not affright him; for he knows at once what gains he has acquired to cast into the other scale. I am convinced, my friend, that if you once had a proper taste for our employments, you would grant that many faculties of the mind are called into full and vigorous play by them.”

“Possibly this journey I am thinking of may bring me to other thoughts.”

“O, certainly. Believe me, you want but to look upon some great scene of activity to make you ours forever; and when you come back, you will joyfully enroll yourself among that class of men whose art it is to draw towards themselves a portion of the money, and materials of enjoyment, which circulate in their appointed courses through the world. Cast a look on the natural and artificial productions of all the regions of the earth; consider how they have become, one here, another there, articles of necessity for men. How pleasant and how intellectual a task is it to calculate, at any moment, what is most required, and yet is wanting, or hard to find; to procure for each easily and soon what he demands; to lay-in your stock prudently beforehand, and then to enjoy the profit of every pulse in that mighty circulation. This, it appears to me, is what no man that has a head can attend to without pleasure.”

Wilhelm seemed to acquiesce, and Werner continued.

“Do but visit one or two great trading-towns, one or two sea-ports, and see if you can withstand the impression. When you observe how many men are busied, whence so many things have come, and whither they are going, you will feel as if you too could gladly mingle in the business. You will then see the smallest piece of ware in its connexion with the whole mercantile concern; and for that very reason you will reckon nothing paltry, because everything augments the circulation by which you yourself are supported.”

Werner had formed his solid understanding in constant intercourse with Wilhelm; he was thus accustomed to think also of his profession, of his employments, with elevation of soul; and he firmly believed that he did so with more justice than his otherwise more gifted and valued friend, who, as it seemed to him, had placed his dearest hopes, and directed all the force of his mind, upon the most imaginary objects in the world. Many a time he thought this false enthusiasm would infallibly be got the better of, and so excellent a soul be brought back to the right path. So, hoping in the present instance, he continued: “The great ones of the world have taken this earth of ours to themselves; they live in the midst of splendour and superfluity. The smallest nook of the land is already a possession, none may touch it or meddle with it; offices and civic callings bring in little profit; where, then, will you find more honest acquisitions, juster conquests, than those of trade? If the princes of this world hold the rivers, the highways, the havens in their power, and take a heavy tribute from everything that passes through them, may not we embrace with joy the opportunity of levying tax and toll, by our activity, on those commodities which the real or imaginary wants of men have rendered indispensable? I can promise you, if you would rightly apply your poetic view, my goddess might be represented as an invincible, victorious queen, and boldly opposed to yours. It is true, she bears the olive rather than the sword; dagger or chain she knows not; but she, too, gives crowns to her favourites; which, without offence to yours be it said, are of true gold from the furnace and the mine, and glance with genuine pearls, which she brings up from the depths of the ocean, by the hands of her unwearied servants."

This sally somewhat nettled Wilhelm; but he concealed his sentiments, remembering that Werner used to listen with composure to his apostrophes. Besides, he had fairness enough to be pleased at seeing each man think the best of his own peculiar craft; provided only his, of which he was so passionately fond, were likewise left in peace.

“And for you,” exclaimed Werner, “who take so warm an interest in human concerns, what a sight will it be to behold the fortune which accompanies bold undertakings distributed to men before your eyes. What is more spirit-stirring than the aspect of a ship arriving from a lucky voyage, or soon returning with a rich capture? Not alone the relatives, the acquaintances, and those that share with the adventures, but every unconcerned spectator also is excited, when he sees the joy with which the long-imprisoned shipman springs on land before his keel has wholly reached it, feeling that he is free once more, and now can trust what he has rescued from the false sea to the firm and faithful earth. It is not, my friend, in figures of arithmetic alone that gain presents itself before us; fortune is the goddess of breathing men; to feel her favours truly, we must live and be men who toil with their living minds and bodies, and enjoy with them also.”
This is of course the passage where Goethe (actually, Werner, as we cannot attribute the beliefs of a character to their author) famously proclaims that one of the greatest inventions of mankind to be double entry bookkeeping. Don Lavoie would seem to agree:
The practice of accounting, that is, of the calculation of profit/loss accounts in terms of money outlays and receipts, both ex ante and ex post, has enabled human beings to orient their productive activities to one another in such a manner as to permit social production as a whole to be carried on with a very high degree of complexity." ("Economic Chaos or Spontaneous Order? Implications For Political Economy of the New View of Science," Cato Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter 1989, pg. 630-1)
We see, though, that this is a passage that discusses the poet's relationship to commerce, and Werner chastises Wilhelm for his negative portrayal of commerce, arguing that, instead, the poets ought to view such a vital activity as truly beautiful. Werner points out that commerce is in fact orderly (compare this to the socialist complaint about it being disorderly, to which Lavoie was in part giving answer with his comments on accounting, which is similar to the point made by Werner), that commerce brings out the best in men, makes them benefit themselves and others, and bring forth the earth's riches while bringing the world peace (as suggested by the goddess of commerce being described as having an olive branch rather than a sword). In the end, Werner argues, commerce is not about arithmetic, but about human gains.

How is all of this brought about? By accounting -- by double entry bookkeeping. This allows each business to order itself, and thus to bring about a spontaneous economic order. Of course, this cannot be done without money prices. As the Austrian economists argued, economic calculation cannot be accomplished without money prices. This is accomplished through "the system of book-keeping by double entry! It is among the finest inventions of the human mind; every prudent master of a house should introduce it into his economy." Doing so would no doubt help us all order our own economies quite a bit better than the slap-dash way we do it. Goethe recognized, through his character Werner, that this one development, which did in fact take place at the foundation of modern capitalism, has allowed us to order our lives, create wealth for everyone, and materially improve everyone's lives. Without money prices, one cannot have double entry bookkeeping, and without double entry bookkeeping, we could not have economic order.

It seems apparent Wilhelm is not quite convinced, but he does at least have a certain decency about him: "he had fairness enough to be pleased at seeing each man think the best of his own peculiar craft; provided only his, of which he was so passionately fond, were likewise left in peace." A very libertarian thought.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spontaneous Orders are the Stories We Make

I am reading Don Lavoie's "Economic Chaos of Spontaneous Order? Implications for Political Economy of the New View of Science" (Cato Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter 1989), and it is like reading something from Frederick Turner (whose work I cannot recommend enough, and not just because he was a dissertation adviser). He sees the "new science" of complexity, emergence, chaos theory, self-organization, information theory, and related theories as an exciting development -- not least because they confirm Austrian insights. Consider, then, these paragraphs:

As Polanyi’s work on science as a spontaneous order shows, the modernist conception of the nature of knowledge is fundamentally flawed. Modernism treats the process of science as if it were a matter of an isolated mind confronting and mastering the natural world. A single scientist follows given methods to bring nature under his rational control. The new view of science urges instead that it is the dialogue taking place in the scientific community as a whole which is the proper locus of analysis for the philosophy of science. It is the uncontrolled “dialogical” process that brings knowledge to the participants, not the strictly controlled “monological” methods of any particular scientist. The process of mutual interpretations and criticisms going on in the scientific community is a good example of an order that emerges out of an apparently haphazard chaos. The process works best precisely when it is not under any one mind’s control but is allowed to evolve by its own logic, taking advantage of the variety of perspectives it contains. A healthy scientific community cannot be designed in detail, it can only be cultivated by setting up conditions where the freedom of individual scientists to pursue their own hunches is protected.

The “order” we find in a spontaneous order process may be closely akin to that of a story whose plot we can “follow” without claiming to be able to anticipate it from the outset. Here the theory of narrative as it has been developed in the study of history and fiction is relevant to scientific explanation. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has shown, the articulation of history has an irreducibly narrative character, and good history shares many of the attributes of good fiction. Essentially to impart the subjective meaning and significance of events in history involves us not in a mechanistic search for determinate laws but in the uniquely human act of storytelling.
There is so much to work with in just these two paragraphs. For example, the way he describes spontaneous orders as a dialogue supports the idea of the arts as spontaneous orders. The artistic canons emerge in the unfolding of history, and are the story of that history, the history of the art in question. Multiple interpretations and criticisms are of course the core of literary analysis -- and literary production. In many ways Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are different interpretations of William Faulkner's novels. Economists would do well to read more novels and watch more plays and movies. And to learn how to interpret the text of the world.

Monday, January 16, 2012

An Interview with J. Neil Schulman

Our very own Allen Mendenhall interviews J. Neil Schulman at Prometheus Unbound. And he gives us a shout out!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Systemic Resources and Work

Each economy has its own systemic resource. In the market economy, it is money. In the gift economy, it is reputation. In the democratic economy, it is votes.

Within the artistic order, an artist's fellow artists’ acknowledgement of them as an artist of note, not money, is their most important systemic resource. In this sense, the arts resemble the scientific order, where scientific reputation is the coin of the realm. The same is true with philanthropy -- a good reputation keeps the money coming in, so you can continue to do good. The arts, philanthropy, and science are in the gift economy, suggesting that reputation may be the systemic resource of all spontaneous orders in the gift economy.

But how does one gain systemic resources?

The artist gains reputation by producing works that other artists deem worthy of being influential on their own works. The scientist gains reputation by publishing scientific works that other scientists agree are true. The philanthropist gains reputation by doing good works.

How does one gain money? By doing work in the economy -- by providing work someone is willing to pay for.

How does one gain votes? Through rhetoric, campaigning, voting on bils (if one is elected) -- in other words, through political work.

No matter the systemic resource, then, one gains it through work.


What would we think of a novelist who gained reputation because her father had written great novels, not because her own novels were good? What would we think of a scientist who gained reputation because of the discoveries of his mother, not because he discovered anything? What would we think of a philanthropist who gained reputation because her mother was altrustic, not because she gave to anyone?

What would/do we think of a politician who was elected because he had the same name as his father?

This being the case, one can begin to see why it is that some people have a real problem with inheritance. They wonder why this should be the one systemic resource that is heritable.

Or consider a different situation. What would we think of a painter who gained reputation because the scientific community decided to give it to them, even though they had not produced any artistic works? What would we think of a scientist who gained reputation because the philanthropic community decided to give it to them, even though they had not produced any scientific works? What would we think of a philanthropist who gained reputation because the artistic community decided to give it to them, even though they had not done any good works?

What would/do we think of a politician who gained votes because of money?

This being the case, we can begin to see why it is that some people have a real problem with welfare. The systemic resources of one spontaneous order should not be used to influence the work (or lack of work) done in the others.

I think we can also see why artists in particular are such snobs in relation to money's influence on the arts. Indeed, I think we can begin to see why it is that those in the gift economy tend to be anti-market (and anti-government). They don't want other orders influencing their. They should, of course, grant the other orders the same courtesy.

At the same time, one does have to eat. The artist, the scientist, the philanthropist (a little more obviously, since much of the good they do involves money) all have to eat, and thus all have to have money. The problem with being in the gift economy is that one is not guaranteed to get monetary gifts in return. We in the gift economy end up having to work twice as hard -- working in both the market and the gift economy. Such, though, is life. We all live in multiple orders.

Now, one does not have to agree with people who oppose inheritance -- or even welfare -- but I think it helps to understand where such opposition comes from. It comes from how we understand the relationships between various systemic resources and work. The opposition, too, to usury comes from the perception that the person gaining interest from the loan hasn't worked for it. We forget that the person who borrowed the money has in fact bought something: time.

Of course, money is more tangible than the other systemic resources I discussed. (Votes, I suppose, are more tangible than reputation, but less so than money.) And money itself is capable of becoming its own spontaneous order within the market economy (and would create a much healthier catallaxy were it to become so). These things matter. Yet, understanding the relations between work and systemic resources does give us, I think, some insight into the problems some people have with certain institutions.