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One is the acceptance of Hayek. Without going into the extent to which the promotion in America of Hayek's economics-over-politics was a full-blown corporate plot (or not), it seems to me the view of Hayek as a central serious thinker is far more a part of the common wisdom in America than in Europe (with a possible exception for Britain thanks to Margaret Thatcher). Hayek was adopted into mainstream American thinking because he offered apparently respectable intellectual weapons in favour of corporate liberty on "free" markets and against Keynesian State intervention, and in favour of capitalist freedom as opposed to Soviet-style planned economies. In other words, he fitted right into a Cold War narrative and at the same time an American libertarian narrative. Both of which profoundly modelled today's American mass consciousness, and both of which have been instrumentalized in favour of corporate power.
The second is a fairly common American assumption that freedom and democracy are properly American. "Our freedoms" (yikes! Shades of GWB!), "our Bill of Rights" -- which was named for, and several of its major tenets taken from, the English Bill of Rights promulgated a century earlier after the Glorious Revolution deposed James II, and formed the basis for oft-repeated references by colonial Americans to "the Liberties of Englishmen". Not that England was the only place in Europe where ideas of freedom and democracy grew during that century, between 1689 and... 1789. And the idea that Americans today enjoy freedom and democracy to a superior degree than anyone else in the "developed" world doesn't seem to me based on any more than American exceptionalism.
So when you oppose American "freedoms" to (Hayek's Soviet-style) "planning", I have a job following you into the American CW involved. The jump is then strenuous from "freedoms" to the "spontaneous action of nature", and from Hayek's anti-"planning" to "Factory Planet". We could (since you go back to Mill) think of the influence on classical economics of Enlightenment ideas about nature and natural law, and that could lead us down to the neoclassicals, and we'd be in bed with Hayek again (I'd rather not).
What does the "spontaneous action of nature" mean in economic terms? How can you have smart grids (for example) without some degree of centralized planning? If we leave it to free markets, we'll have gas and coal power plants and no smart grid...
I wrote this piece for a fairly conservative audience here in the US, taking some delight in undercutting Hayek; and thought I would share it to the Trib, but didn't re-focus it for the larger audience. My mistake.
(And I don't usually address audiences that need to be convinced that we have an ecological problem; an editor over here specifically asked for me to include stuff about how "of course, not all species are domesticated" and some other development along that line.)
And so, yes, I spoke of "our" Bill of Rights, to Americans; I should have retooled the language for publication in the Trib. I'll aim to do better next time; for now, think of the piece as being directed by an American at American conservatives, in an effort to subvert their faith in Hayekian ideology. It's good to hear he's not taken seriously, much, in Europe. I will note that some of my Eastern European students in Prague have been given heavy doses of free-market stuff in their economics classes, and think of Hayek as an important thinker.
I don't think that Americans enjoy civil liberties to a greater degree than other nations (and think quite the contrary, sometimes.) I don't know where that came through; probably through a shifting referent for "we". Sometimes I mean Americans, sometimes I mean citizens of industrialized nations, sometimes I mean humans. Shifting referents is sloppy writing.
Re: "'the spontaneous operation of nature' in economic terms." You can find instances of thinkers comparing "the spontaneous operation of markets" to the spontaneous operation of nature--suvival of the fittest through selection under competitive pressure under conditions of constrained optimization, and all of that. There is a formal similarity, but one can push these analogies too far. Or perhaps they aren't pushed far enough. In nature, selection through competitive pressure under conditions of constrained optimization takes place within a background reality that is physical and unforgiving: laws of thermodynamics, truths of chemistry, biology, mechanics. (Grasshoppers can't be scaled up to the size of dogs; it just won't work.) The same sorts of physical limits do in some ways apply to economic life, but sorting it all out is not simple. Some thoughts:
We (humans) have been led to think economic theory can ignore physical reality. Ecological Economics, in contradistinction to neoclassical economics, takes the laws of thermodynamics as givens that are relevant to economic life. The celebration of the "spontaneous operation of markets" ignores those laws, and ignores the historicity of economic life, in particular the (geologically) brief lifetime of a fossil-fuel-fed economy.
Some of the reality that economics deals with are the realities of human nature; but unlike the laws of thermodynamics, biology, mechanics and etc., humans are malleable, and they employ a variety of idea systems that further broaden the range of (what counts as) success. "What's the maximum efficient size for an economic entity?" is not as simply or easily answered as "how big can a grasshopper grow?" Some researchers have said that when a human group exceeds twelve or so people, it can no longer efficiently function as a participatory democracy, but has to delegate. If we valued participatory democracy, we'd see larger groups as inefficient. We (industrial humans) have tended to measure success with one single metric: GDP, which isn't even a good measure of material well-being. Changing what we measure would change the implicit definition of what counts as success in the "spontaneous operations" of economic life.
So here, the analogy seems to hold: efficiency could be decided by success in maintaining longevity, which (we could presume) comes from meeting the organizational goals. Except, except: there are many other factors that impede or promote group success and longevity, and they can insulate groups from selective pressure. A bit of a jump, but I hope you'll follow: sometimes I ask my European students "why did America become a superpower?" I get a range of answers: Its political institutions. Its free markets. Its corporations. Its success in coming into WW II at the end, and the oceans that kept it from having its infrastructure destroyed. Its national character and entrepreneurial spirit. And so on. Not one student has said "twelve feet of loess in the American midwest, which allowed American agriculture to achieve a degree of productivity, through soil mining, that was unprecedented in history, thus freeing up productive capacity for other pursuits." Not one has said "the enormous Energy Return on Energy Invested of Oil, which the US was in the forefront of exploiting." It seems possible that such physical factors insulated the US from (what we're calling) selective pressures, and allowed it to develop an annoyingly parochial sense of its own exceptional status.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
Industrial society is not sustainable. Unsustainable systems change--or disappear.
twelve feet of loess in the American midwest, which allowed American agriculture to achieve a degree of productivity, through soil mining, that was unprecedented in history, thus freeing up productive capacity for other pursuits.
that's exactly what i would have said, with a hat tip to the native americans, humanity's greatest ecologists, who had struck a fine balance between resource management and respect for their descendants' rights to a clean and renewable environment, for thousands of years.
"you don't know what you got till it's gone"
great discussion, thanks for sparking it off Eric, and to the many very intelligent responses.
The power of knowledge is in mortal combat with the knowledge of power. It really is that simple... That's the Edenic apple we are all munching on.
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