Diffusion of Virtues

A quick response to Sam’s excellent critical piece.

As I mention in the about page, I’m honestly not sure if I believe McCloskey’s theory. But to be fair, she hasn’t really made her case yet—her last Bourgeois book demolished the alternate theories rather thoroughly but did not really make a systematic argument for her own theory. She said hand-wavy things like “the remainder (after the other theories are cleared away) is <her theory>.”

That said, I think I disagree with this:

practically speaking the line of causality must have run from institutions to values and not the other way around. Institutions determine the social relations that feed into our aesthetic and moral reaction functions.

I’m not so sure about this. The model in my head is always a diffusion of innovations one.

I think institutions are formed by the accumulation of practices and values; though it’s obviously a two-way street, as the already accumulated practices and values influence the probability of any given new practice/value diffusing. But at the risk of falling into the “endogeneity of everything”, I think institutional change must occur because of feedback from below. I think the case of China (as I understand it) is one where emboldened entrepreneurs were pushing the line until eventually the people at the top yielded a great deal rather than fighting it off as much as they had been.

I think that the institutions that existed at the onset of the Industrial Revolution could result in a ton of people wanting to be actors and writers mostly (which is what we have now) or it could result in people aspiring to be merchants and tinkerers (which is what happened at the time) and there are big material consequences to how our rhetoric shapes our aspirations in this regard.

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