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

Mises.org 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.