Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

Few phrases capture F. A. Hayek’s vision of emergent order more concisely than “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” the second chapter of The Constitution of LibertyFree societies, in this vision, are perpetual discovery processes. One may wonder, however, how we evaluate what it is that these processes discover. Inspired by Hayek, James Buchanan appeared to believe that the evaluation itself emerges from the very same process. Hayek is harder to pin down on this question, but in The Constitution of Liberty appears to be a simple rule consequentialist.

Hayek and Buchanan’s view of social becoming as a discovery process is immensely valuable, but the frameworks by which they defend or evaluate this process leave much to be desired.

Continue reading “Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization”

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The Schismatic’s Mirror

Featured Image is Works of Mercy

We live in a schismatic era; the spirit of our age is division, negation, standing against rather than for.

Schism is an act of violence; the schismatic tears their community asunder. Violence is not inherently bad. Surgery is violent, and so is setting a broken bone. Violence, in short, can serve a medical purpose.

But surgery must be conducted under the right conditions if we don’t want surgical incisions to turn septic. If the man with the hammer too often sees everything as a nail, our current situation too often inclines us to reflexively reach for the bone saw. Amputations can be lifesaving. But it isn’t the best way to treat a flu.

When we encounter a schismatic, we are too much like Narcissus encountering Echo:

In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing.

Instead we ought to see them for what they are to us: a mirror to ourselves, to the ugliness and the beauty of our shared situation.

Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely.

(…)

Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.

The schismatic rejects to protect themselves from ugliness, but the ugliness was a reflection of something already a part of themselves. Their rejection is propaganda by deed; it invites others to join them. And the spirit of our age, impoverished as it is, seems to offer few defenses but to reject them right back.

I believe that we need, instead, to accept them. Most of all, we must accept that we are a part of the world and the age that we share with the schismatics. We must accept responsibility for our part of that world. We must be able to love the schismatic, and what they reject, and ourselves; to be able to take responsibility but also to bend our stiff necks in humility.

Martin Gurri, my father, observes:

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

In reading this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he was reaching for the bone saw, too. But some other tools in the medical bag are hinted at, though left untouched.

Why not probe deeper into the nature of authority? Why not search (frantically or calmly) for “higher-level arguments”. Seeking to justify opinions already held can be a great provisional starting point on a longer journey. If we can have the courage to face doubt, and a willingness to press on when the certain becomes uncertain.

The narrowness of the age is rivaled only by the breadth of resources available to us. Most of the great classics are available online, free of charge. Pictures of great art can be accessed that way as well. And an army of scholars and enthusiasts on every topic under the sun are a few keystrokes away, to talk to and to learn from.

Accept the schismatic character of the age. Love the nihilists as yourself. And then accept responsibility for the serious pursuit of answers to your questions. The road to wisdom was never an easy trek, but it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

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Mistrust and Misunderstanding

Featured image is The Weighing of the Heart Ritual, from the Book of the Dead of Sesostris.

There’s a path dependence to trust. We trust the people we already know, we guess at the trustworthiness of people we meet for the first time based on what we’ve learned from people we already trust.

There’s a path dependence to understanding. Our pre-established understanding of our situation, and the range of possible situations we might encounter, heavily influences how we read each new situation we enter into.

There are political implications for each. To extend our trust is to empower, to withhold it is to deny options or access. To read a situation one way means to affirm that some responses to it are called for, and deny others.

These things cannot be profitably examined apart from one another for long. How we understand the games that life throws us into is the basis of who we trust, but the web of trust we are within is what pulls us into the specific games we find ourselves playing, and shapes our understanding.

We understand our situation based in part on what we are told by peers, family, and authorities (such as teachers when we are children), because we see them as peers, family, and authorities. Our understanding is shaped by trust which is shaped by our understanding.

To extend our trust is ultimately to make a leap of faith, whatever our understanding of the person and their role. We are always capable of making that leap, to trust people we’re initially inclined to believe are untrustworthy.

When we analyze these things in merely formal terms, it’s hard to understand how we can ever grow beyond our initial position. Faith and spirit do not lend themselves very readily to formal treatment. A good faith effort at conversation, approached in a spirit of openness to the new and unfamiliar, likely contains no formal differences from its opposite. Anything we can take as a signal of good faith or openness can just as easily be interpreted as a cynical maneuver to get an interlocutor to let their guard down.

One can understand, then, why many people think Gadamer is simply doubling down on the cage of our nature when he affirms the power of tradition:

That which has been sanctioned by tradition and custom has an authority that is nameless, and our finite historical being is marked by the fact that the authority of what has been handed down to us—and not just what is clearly grounded—always has power over our attitudes and behavior.

When in reality few are more optimistic about our ability to reach new understandings than Gadamer:

The fact that we move in a linguistic world and grow up into the world through an experience preformed by language does not at all remove the possibilities of critique. On the contrary, the possibility of going beyond our conventions and beyond all those experiences that are schematized in advance opens up before us once we find ourselves, in conversation with others, faced with opposed thinkers, with new critical tests, with new experiences. Fundamentally in our world the issue is always the same as it was in the beginning: in language we are trained in conventions and social norms behind which there are always economic and hegemonic interests. But this is precisely the world that we as humans experience: in it we rely on our faculty of judgment, that is, on the possibility of our taking a critical stance with regard to every convention.

It may seem like a paradox, but it is precisely our starting point, path dependency and all, that makes it possible for us to arrive at understandings which are radically different from them. You cannot go on a long journey without starting from somewhere—but obviously your starting point makes some end points more or less likely.

I agree with Paul that the essentially contested nature of trust and understanding have, as I said above, political implications. He draws on the work of Miranda Fricker, who shows her debt to Rawls by making justice the prism through which the political is viewed. But justice—that is, determining who is owed what, and how much, and in what way—is not prior to the hermeneutic problem. It is rather the other way around. The very notion of justice is “sanctioned by tradition and custom” with “an authority which is nameless”. We can see this clearly in Fricker’s formulation, which presupposes the heritage of late 20th century liberalism. We cannot get around the thrownness of our understanding by appealing to some notion of justice intended to stand outside of it. No understanding can stand outside of this thrownness.

It seems trivially true that our webs of trust and the understandings that make them possible create relationships of domination. But we should not be seduced into thinking that such relationships are one-directional; the dominion of the cartel of mutual trust against the untrusted. The narrative of the hegemony over the narratives of the oppressed. No, just as often trust and heterodox narratives are weaponized against the trusting and the orthodox.

The Catholic priest abuse scandal was just a special case of the basic fact that the people we trust are overwhelmingly the most likely to hurt and exploit us. According to one source, 68% of child abuse cases are perpetrated by a family member, and 90% are done by someone the child knows. Priests and other high status officials in a community command a trust that is dangerous not only because potential victims let their guard down, but because victims are by default less credible than the victimizers.

Moreover, any understanding can become a tool of domination. Look at the communists. They believed that they had the one, true understanding, which would allow them to overthrow exploitation. How’d that work out for them?

When we demand that people yield to our understanding over theirs, when we claim that ours is the path to righteousness and theirs is a pretense for protecting their interests, this can be described as an attempt to dominate. After all, our reading of a situation has political implications—and so rhetoric, ethics, and politics can all be collapsed into various struggles for power. If we choose to embrace cynicism whole cloth.

Acknowledging the truth of all this while avoiding vulgar cynicism requires, I think, an embrace of faith and of spirit. As I said elsewhere:

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

Whether or not a given conversation, a decision to extend or withhold trust, to spend our time trying to understand something new or simply apply what we already understand—whether any of these are better treated cynically or idealistically depends upon the spirit in which they are pursued. We cannot trust everyone, and we cannot understand everything. We cannot even completely understand the concepts we are already most familiar with; our time on this Earth is simply too short, and our concepts are too rich in implications and too broadly interconnected with other concepts.

Every attempt to abolish privileged (or prestigious) roles or frameworks will fail, because it is in the nature of the game to create such privileges. To put it differently, they are a necessary part of how humans act in concert; we could not achieve our greatest accomplishments without making ourselves vulnerable to our worst abuses.

So I must conclude that Fricker draws some useful distinctions, but the direction of her inquiry (as Paul represents it in any case) seems wrongheaded. The problem is much larger than whether or not we have good reasons to mistrust someone, or whether we misunderstand the plight of the oppressed because we haven’t formulated enough concepts.

But that’s probably just a convenient fiction I am holding onto in order to advance the hegemony of my web of trust.

Adam Knew His Wife Eve

And she acquired not the Lord, as she hoped, but a murderer.

It is an odd euphemism, isn’t it, for sex. “To know” someone has for millennia elicited stifled giggles from the adolescent male, “in the biblical sense,” knowwudimean? It is doubly strange because the Bible, especially the Christian Old Testament, blushes not to describe sexual activity in ways that would make Chaucer blush. The story of Onan and his brothers is so explicit that it is simply off-limits in mixed company (Genesis 38). Translators of the prophets often notoriously smooth over certain images to prevent hyperventilation among the Ladies Aid set, whose fundraisers pay translator salaries (Isaiah 64:6). And some images are untouchable (Ezekiel 16).

So why to know as a euphemism?

It’s not a euphemism: it’s the story of sexual dominance. The bible is describing exactly what Radical Feminists are expressing, as Paul Crider reports in his latest post. The bible is describing the fall from a graceful relationship, in which the woman came out of man to help him have dominion over the earth, a relationship which seems best to describe as a willing partnership, unfettered by coveting, which is the sin of the self which drives all the other sins. Now, instead of a willing partnership, which was to have dominion over the earth, in part, by filling it up, multiplying, the primary relationship of a man to a woman is that of sexual dominance: Adam knew his wife Eve.

God had set them in a garden, where he gave them leave to eat the fruit of any of the trees of that garden, even the Tree of Life, but they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Except the translation is difficult, and can’t express what this tree is for.

A little Hebrew: the noun knowledge might be a verb (I hereby make the case that it is), which changes the nouns following, i.e., “good and evil” from a genitive relationship into the direct objects of the verb. Thus, we would render the phrase as “You may not eat of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil.”

It becomes, therefore, parallel to Adam knowing his wife Eve.

But first, why would God not want his creatures to know good and evil? I think a second question helps answer this one, and also furthers us into understanding just what in the hell happened at that tree: how would they know what good and evil are, so that they could choose between right and wrong?

Ah, but it’s not about intellectual information: they would first trust God to teach them, then they would learn information as they set themselves to the task of having dominion over the earth, also known as wisdom, reasoning with each other, and their many and varied offspring, as to the best course for developing the resources of the earth for the good of all. Instead, knowing good and evil is about acquisition. It is a rare usage, which makes this entire post tenuous, at best, but it is a usage nonetheless that when one acquires property, one knows it, to the effect that one has control over it and exercises authority over it. That is what this tree is for: to exercise authority over good and evil.

With application to sexual activity, a counterexample is helpful. The Son of God became flesh, John says, and made his dwelling among us, not by the will of a man, but by the will of God (John 1:12-14), a reference to Jesus’ origins which are much discussed through the heart of John’s Gospel, the Jews of whom called Jesus a Samaritan, which is equivalent to calling Mother Mary a whore.

And so, to know someone sexually is for the male to overcome the female (no furtive giggling, you there in the back row), for him to acquire her for the sake of begetting. The story of Jacob acquiring his two wives, the daughters of Laban, through fourteen years of labor, exemplifies this, and their desire to acquire him, one over the other, is made plain when, in the etiological Sadie Hawkins dance, after purchasing the rights to Jacob from Rachel by means of mandrakes, Leah runs up to Jacob, saying, “You must come into me tonight, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes!” (Ah! The romance of youth!) (Genesis 30:14ff).

At the beginning, Eve was certainly aware of this relationship change, seeing it as plain as day that her husband had acquired her in a relationship of domination, thinking that she was due her own acquisition in the process: “I have acquired a man, Yahweh (the Lord)!” And she called him Acquisition (Cain), the progenitor of human culture, starting with murder.

Human culture has its primeval foundation in sexual domination, which the Lord pronounced against them, either as part of the curse for reaching out to acquire domination over good and evil, or as a mere description of the consequences of the same. He says, “You, Woman, shall desire to be over your husband [in a dominating relationship], but he shall lord it over you.” Yes, the willing partnership is now dissolved, and a grappling of domination has taken its place.

All respect is due, then, to the Radical Feminists, who have seen and named the sexual relationship as it is, agreeing in whole with the picture presented in the first part of the Christian Bible, especially when they condemn pornography and prostitution as vehicles to perpetuate the domination of the man over his woman. We shall see, having progressed so far as to produce the Radical Feminists, whether our society can unloose what our mother and father wrought.

The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

Continue reading “The Hermeneutic Situation”

Frames

‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

How the Entrepreneur Creates and is Created

Featured image is Sir Francis Baring, by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Entrepreneurs are not as free or powerful as we like to imagine, nor can they be entirely subsumed into the larger forces of history.

In Knowledge and Coordination, Dan Klein points to “The Verger,” a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, as a great telling of entrepreneurship in practice. The titular character goes in search of a cigarette and realizes that there is nowhere he can buy one in the vicinity.

“That’s strange,” said Albert Edward.

To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked reflectively up and down.

“I can’t be the only man as walks along this street and wants a fag,” he said. “I shouldn’t wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little shop here. Tobacco and sweets, you know.”

He gave a sudden start.

“That’s an idea,” he said. “Strange ‘ow things come to you when you least expect it.”

Klein uses this as an example of entrepreneurship on the model of his mentor, Israel Kirzner. Kirzner is an economist in the Austrian school, who emphasizes the role of alertness and frameworks in entrepreneurship. The Austrian school more broadly defends entrepreneurship as a creative act.

For neoclassical economics, however, this sort of arbitrage is more a feature of the situation than the individual. The shop that the protagonist sets up is like one of the corner stores that is very common in New York City. A lower density neighborhood may have relatively few of them, but then see an influx of people and suddenly gain a few more. The situation creates the arbitrage opportunity, not the entrepreneur.

Continue reading “How the Entrepreneur Creates and is Created”