See Disclaimer Below.

Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category

What Can Libertarians Contribute to the Study of Literature?

In Arts & Letters, higher education, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Taxis and Cosmos: A Clarifying Table

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 3, 2019 at 6:45 am

This table is meant to clarify the distinction between taxis (“made order”) and cosmos (“grown order”), two forms of order as described by F. A. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty: Volume One, Rules and Order (The University of Chicago Press, 1973). According to Hayek, “Classical Greek was more fortunate in possessing distinct single words for the two kinds of order, namely taxis for a made order, such as, for example, an order of battle, and kosmos for a grown order, meaning originally ‘a right order in a state or a community.’”[9]

Taxis Cosmos
Made Order[1] Grown Order[2]
Constructionist[3] Evolutionary[4]
Exogenous[5] Endogenous[6]
Planned / Designed Spontaneous
Simple Complex
Concrete Abstract
Purposeful Purposeless[7]
Centralized power Dispersed / weakened power


[1] “The first answer to which our anthropomorphic habits of thought almost inevitably lead us is that it must be due to the design of some thinking mind. And because order has been generally interpreted as such a deliberate arrangement by somebody, the concept has become unpopular among most friends of liberty and has been favored by authoritarians. According to this interpretation of order in society must rest on a relation of command and obedience, or a hierarchical structure of the whole of society in which the will of superiors, and ultimately of some single supreme authority, determines what each individual must do.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

[2] “The grown order … is in English most conveniently described as a spontaneous order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37. “Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known to anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. … Since we can know at most the rules observed by the elements of various kinds of which the structures are made up, but not all the individual elements and never all the particular circumstances in which each of them is placed, our knowledge will be restricted to the general character of the order which will form itself. And even where, as is true of a society of human beings, we may be in a position to alter at least some of the rules of conduct which the elements obey, we shall thereby be able to influence only the general character and not the detail of the resulting order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 41.

[3] “[This] view holds that human institutions will serve human society only if they have been deliberately designed for these purposes, often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence of its having been created for a purpose, and always that we should so re-design society and its institutions that all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 8-9.

[4] “[This] view, which has slowly and gradually advanced since antiquity but for a time was almost entirely overwhelmed by the more glamorous constructivist view, was that that orderliness of society which greatly increased the effectiveness of individual action was not due solely to institutions and practices which had been invented or designed for that purpose, but was largely due to a process described at first as ‘growth’ and later as ‘evolution,’ a process in which practices which had first been adopted for other reasons, or even purely accidentally, were preserved because they enabled the group in which they had arisen to prevail over others.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 9.

[5] “[The] authoritarian connotation of the concept of order derives … entirely from the belief that order can be created only by forces outside the system (or ‘exogenously’).” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[6] “[The authoritarian connotation of the concept of order] does not apply to an equilibrium set up from within (or ‘endogenously’) such as that which the general theory of the market endeavors to explain.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[7] “Most important … is the relation of a spontaneous order to the conception of purpose. Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when ‘purpose’ would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation and restoration of that order. The ‘purposive’ in this sense as a sort of ‘teleological’ shorthand’, as it as been called by biologists, is unobjectionable so long as we do not imply an awareness of purpose of the part of the elements, but mean merely that the elements have acquired regularities of conduct conducive to the maintenance of the order—presumably because those who did act in certain ways had within the resulting order a better chance of survival than those who did not. In general, however, it is preferable to avoid in this connection the term ‘purpose’ and to speak instead of ‘function’.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 39.

[8] All citations in this post are to this version of the book.

[9] Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 


Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.


[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

John William Corrington on the History of Gnosticism

In Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Philosophy, Religion, Western Philosophy on March 20, 2019 at 6:45 am

In two essays from 1976, John William Corrington supplies his brief version of the history of Gnosticism. Both essays appear in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below:

The first essay examines how our empirical knowledge of the world, or experience, is necessarily bound up in the sum of our memory and interpretation of events and hence of our comprehension of history. Our experience is also an element of consciousness insofar as consciousness is the mind’s awareness of itself in relation to the phenomenal world.

The structure or makeup of consciousness is an ordered pattern of symbols. The structure of Gnostic consciousness is shaped by a hatred or dissatisfaction with the concrete reality of the world and an attempt to remake the world in the image of a false reality. Gnostic thought is regressive because it seeks to unite all things in an ideal state of unification that recalls the state of the infant in the womb whose radical break from the womb resulted in alienation and a sense of disorder.

In the second essay, Corrington points out that there have been many Gnostic schools and sects over time. The attempt to understand early Gnostics presupposes something innate or universal in the human condition because it necessarily involves a projection of our own experience and empirical knowledge of the world onto past figures, events, and modes of thought.

The Gnostics expressed in symbols their experiential knowledge of the divine that was a source of freedom from the hated reality of the concrete world. Corrington here maps different forms of Gnosticism and describes important Gnostic figures throughout various times and places. The structured symbols of Gnosticism that ordered Gnostic consciousness, he suggests, rectified the sense of alienation that derived from the unintelligibility and disorder of the cosmos.

Gnosticism considered ideal unity to be the desired end of empirical knowledge. The drive for ideal unity is evident in modern ideologies such as National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, and other forms of totalitarianism that seek to realize an eschatological state of an eternally perfect order or ultimate reality here on earth. The Gnostic field of symbology fulfills a desire for perfect order or ultimate reality that has never been actualized concretely.

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta identifies the common law as a central feature of the jurisprudence of former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes treated the common law as if it were an epistemology or a reliable mode for knowledge transmission over successive generations. Against the grand notion that the common law reflected a priori principles consistent with the natural law, Holmes detected that the common law was historical, aggregated, and evolutionary, the sum of the concrete facts and operative principles of innumerable cases with reasonable solutions to complex problems. This view of the common law is both conservative and pragmatic.

Vannatta’s analysis of Holmes opens new directions for the study of conservatism and pragmatism—and pragmatic conservatism—demonstrating that common-law processes and practices have much in common with the form of communal inquiry championed by C.S. Peirce. For more on this subject, download “Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Pragmatism in the fall of 2018.

La defensa de Hayek de las comunidades descentralizadas

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Transnational Law, Western Philosophy on January 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

Originally published (and translated into Spanish) here at Mises Wire.

Mi charla de hoy trata sobre descentralización y epistemología. Para comenzar, deseo rechazar cualquier experiencia especializada en este tema. Soy un abogado de formación que ama la literatura y obtuvo un doctorado en inglés. Sería una exageración llamarme un filósofo o un teórico político, por lo tanto, esta declaración de responsabilidad de anclaje me impide navegar en los mares filosóficos.

He dividido mi argumento, tal como es, en dos partes: lo impersonal y lo personal. El primero es un caso filosófico de descentralización; el último involucra consideraciones privadas sobre relaciones humanas íntimas en torno a las cuales las comunidades de propósito común se organizan y conducen. Al final, los dos enfoques se refuerzan mutuamente y producen, espero, consideraciones benévolas y humanas. Sin embargo, presentarlos como señales separadas a diferentes audiencias cuya tolerancia a la apelación de los sentimientos puede variar.

Lo impersonal

El argumento impersonal se reduce a esto: los sistemas descentralizados de orden son más eficientes y, por lo tanto, más deseables, porque explican y responden mejor al conocimiento disperso en diversas comunidades con costumbres, ambiciones y valores únicos. Los sistemas de abajo hacia arriba, heterogéneos y gobernados por instituciones locales que reflejan el conocimiento, el talento y las opciones nativas sirven a la humanidad con mayor eficacia que los sistemas de arriba a abajo centralizados que no responden a las normas y costumbres locales.

La ley policéntrica, o policentrismo, es el término que uso para describir este arreglo organizativo. Otros nombres que se sugieren no expresan el dinamismo del policentrismo. El federalismo, por ejemplo, confunde debido a su asociación con los primeros federalistas estadounidenses. Además, presupone, incluso en su articulación por parte de los antifederalistas inadecuadamente denominados, una autoridad central demasiado fuerte, en mi opinión, debajo de la cual las autoridades locales sostienen que son subordinados iguales. El localismo, por su parte, sufre de asociaciones con políticas económicas proteccionistas y anticompetitivas. Otros nombres, como confederación, ciudad-estado o anarcocapitalismo, también tienen sus inconvenientes.

Así que me quedo con el policentrismo como la etiqueta operativa para el sistema de trabajo de las autoridades pequeñas y plurales que busco describir. El principal valor de este sistema es su propensión a moderar y verificar la ambición natural y el orgullo que lleva a los humanos no solo a las aspiraciones de poder y grandeza, sino también a las instituciones coercitivas y las maquinaciones que inhiben la organización voluntaria de los individuos en torno a normas y costumbres compartidas. Un orden policéntrico óptimo consiste en múltiples jurisdicciones en competencia de escala humana y razonable, cada una con sus propios poderes divididos que impiden la consolidación de la autoridad en la forma de un gobernante o tirano supremo (o, más probablemente en nuestra época, de un directivo, administrativo, y burocrático Estado) y cada uno con un documento escrito que describe las reglas e instituciones que rigen al mismo tiempo que afirma un compromiso central con objetivos comunes y una misión orientadora. Sin embargo, hablar de un orden policéntrico óptimo es problemático, porque los órdenes policéntricos permiten que distintas comunidades seleccionen y definan por sí mismas el conjunto operativo de reglas e instituciones que cumplen con sus principales ideales y principios favorecidos.

La teoría de precios de F.A. Hayek proporciona un punto de partida útil para analizar los beneficios de los modos de ordenamiento humano descentralizados y de abajo hacia arriba que representan el policentrismo. Esta teoría sostiene que el conocimiento está disperso en toda la sociedad e incapaz de ser comprendido por una sola persona o grupo de personas; por lo tanto, la planificación económica centralizada fracasa inevitablemente porque no puede evaluar o calcular con precisión las necesidades sentidas y las actividades coordinadas de personas lejanas en comunidades dispares; solo en una economía de mercado donde los consumidores compran y venden libremente de acuerdo con sus preferencias únicas, los precios confiables se revelarán gradualmente.

La teoría del conocimiento de Hayek se basa en la falibilidad y las limitaciones de la inteligencia humana. Debido a que la complejidad del comportamiento y la interacción humana excede la capacidad de una mente o grupo de mentes para comprenderla por completo, la coordinación humana requiere deferencia a órdenes emergentes o espontáneas, arraigadas en la costumbre, que se adaptan a las necesidades y preferencias dinámicas y en evolución de los consumidores cotidianos. La articulación de la teoría de los precios de Hayek contempla la sabiduría colectiva y agregada, es decir, el conocimiento incorpóreo o incorporado, y advierte contra los grandes diseños basados ​​en la supuesta experiencia de una clase selecta de personas.

Michael Polanyi, otro político y un ardiente antimarxista, expuso teorías relacionadas sobre el policentrismo, el orden espontáneo, la planificación central y el conocimiento, pero se centró menos en la teoría económica y más en el descubrimiento científico, la investigación independiente y el intercambio libre y sistemático de investigación e ideas. Desde su punto de vista, el avance científico no procedió a medida que avanza la construcción de una casa, es decir, de acuerdo con un plan o diseño fijo, sino mediante un proceso análogo a, en sus palabras, “la disposición ordenada de las células vivas que constituyen un organismo pluricelular.” 1 “A lo largo del proceso de desarrollo embrionario”, explicó, “cada célula persigue su propia vida, y sin embargo cada una ajusta su crecimiento al de sus vecinos para que emerja una estructura armoniosa del agregado.”2 “Esto”, concluyó, “es exactamente cómo cooperan los científicos: ajustando continuamente su línea de investigación a los resultados alcanzados hasta la fecha por sus colegas científicos”.3

Polanyi trabajó para demostrar que “la planificación central de la producción” era “estrictamente imposible”4 y que “las operaciones de un sistema de orden espontáneo en la sociedad, como el orden competitivo de un mercado, no pueden ser reemplazadas por el establecimiento de una agencia de pedidos deliberada.”5 Describió las ineficiencias de las estructuras organizativas puramente jerárquicas dentro de las cuales la información se eleva desde la base, mediada sucesivamente por niveles posteriores de autoridad más altos, llegando finalmente a la cima de una pirámide, a una autoridad suprema, que luego centraliza dirige todo el sistema, comandando las órdenes hacia la base. Este proceso complejo, además de ser ineficiente, es susceptible de desinformación, y de una falta de conocimiento confiable en el terreno de las circunstancias relevantes.

Si bien Polanyi señala casos mundanos de ordenación espontánea, como pasajeros en estaciones de tren, sin dirección central, parados en plataformas y ocupando asientos en los trenes, 6 también examina formas más complejas de adaptación de comportamiento a las interacciones interpersonales que, a lo largo del tiempo y a través de la repetición, emerge como hábitos y reglas entendidos tácitamente que ganan aceptación por parte del cuerpo corporativo más grande.

La centralización concentra el poder en menos personas en espacios más pequeños, mientras que la descentralización divide y distribuye el poder entre vastas redes de personas en espacios más amplios. Bajo el gobierno centralizado, las personas buenas que disfrutan del poder pueden, en teoría, lograr rápidamente el bien, pero las personas malvadas que disfrutan del poder pueden lograr rápidamente el mal. Debido a los peligros inherentes y apócrifos de esta última posibilidad, el gobierno centralizado no debe ser preferido. Nuestras tendencias como humanos son catastróficas, afirmándose a sí mismas en los comportamientos pecaminosos que ambos elegimos y no podemos ayudar. Hay, además, en un rango considerable de asuntos, desacuerdos sobre lo que constituye lo malo y lo bueno, lo malo y lo virtuoso. Si las preguntas sobre la maldad o la bondad, el mal y la virtuosidad se resuelven de forma simple o apresurada en favor del poder central, las comunidades resistentes (amenazadas, marginadas, silenciadas y coaccionadas) ejercerán finalmente su agencia política, movilizándose en alianzas insurreccionales para socavar la central. poder. Por lo tanto, el poder centralizado aumenta la probabilidad de violencia a gran escala, mientras que el gobierno descentralizado reduce los conflictos a niveles locales donde tienden a ser menores y compensadores.

Las órdenes policéntricas producen comunidades auto-constituidas que se regulan a través de las instituciones mediadoras que han erigido voluntariamente para alinearse con sus valores, tradiciones y prioridades. Su alcance y escala prácticos les permiten gobernarse a sí mismos de acuerdo con reglas vinculantes que generalmente son aceptables para la mayoría dentro de su jurisdicción.

Un hombre solo en el desierto es vulnerable a las amenazas. Sin embargo, cuando entra en la sociedad, se combina con otros que, con intereses comunes, se sirven y protegen mutuamente de amenazas externas. Si la sociedad crece y se materializa en vastos estados o gobiernos, las personas que viven en ella pierden su sentido de propósito común, su deseo de unirse para el beneficio y la protección mutuos. Surgen facciones y clases, cada una compitiendo por el poder. Las personas en las que supuestamente reside la soberanía del poder central pueden perder su poder y ser marginadas a medida que prolifera la red de funcionarios burocráticos. Las personas son desplazadas por armas y agencias del poder central. Aunque no se puede lograr progreso sin una competencia constructiva entre los grupos rivales, las sociedades no pueden prosperar cuando sus habitantes no comparten un sentido fundamental de identidad y propósito común.

El poder centralizado a primera vista puede parecer más eficiente porque su proceso de toma de decisiones no es complejo, ya que consiste en comandos de arriba hacia abajo para subordinados. Teóricamente, y solo teóricamente, la máxima eficiencia se podría lograr si todo el poder fuera poseído por una sola persona. Pero, por supuesto, en realidad, ninguna persona puede proteger su poder de amenazas externas o insubordinación interna. De hecho, la concentración de poder en una persona invita al disenso y la insurrección. Después de todo, es más fácil derrocar a una persona que derrocar a muchas. Por lo tanto, en la práctica, el poder centralizado requiere la autoridad suprema para construir burocracias de agentes y funcionarios de manera leal y diligente para instituir su directiva de arriba hacia abajo

Pero, ¿cómo genera el poder central un sentido de lealtad y deber entre estos subordinados? A través del patrocinio y los favores políticos, las pensiones, la búsqueda de rentas, el tráfico de influencias, las inmunidades, el compañerismo, el injerto, en definitiva, fortaleciendo el impulso humano para el auto-engrandecimiento, elevando a personas y grupos seleccionados a posiciones privilegiadas a expensas extraordinarias para personas o consumidores comunes. En consecuencia, la centralización como una forma de organización humana incentiva la corrupción, la mala conducta y la deshonestidad mientras se construyen redes complicadas de funcionarios costosos a través de los cuales se media y se distorsiona la información. El resultado es una corrupción generalizada, malentendidos e ineficiencia.

Incluso asumiendo arguendo de que la autoridad concentrada es más eficiente, facilitaría la capacidad de llevar a cabo el mal, así como el bien. Los supuestos beneficios del poder consolidado presuponen una autoridad suprema benevolente con un amplio conocimiento de las circunstancias nativas. Los posibles beneficios que se puedan obtener a través de una toma de decisiones hipotéticamente rápida se ven compensados ​​por los daños potenciales resultantes de la implementación de la decisión como ley vinculante. El conocimiento limitado y falible en el que se basa la decisión amplifica el daño resultante más allá de lo que podría haber sido en un sistema descentralizado que localiza el poder y por lo tanto disminuye la capacidad de las personas malas para causar daño.

Por lo tanto, la eficiencia, en su caso, de las órdenes de mando y la política de establecimiento de un modelo de arriba hacia abajo se neutraliza por las ineficiencias resultantes y las consecuencias perjudiciales que podrían haberse evitado si los planificadores centrales no hubieran presupuesto el conocimiento de las circunstancias locales. En ausencia de una autoridad de compensación, cualquier poder centralizado puede, sin justa causa, coaccionar y molestar a hombres y mujeres pacíficos en contravención de sus distintas leyes y costumbres. Naturalmente, estos hombres y mujeres, combinados como comunidades resistentes, disputarán una tiranía injustificada e indeseada que amenaza su forma de vida y la comprensión de la comunidad. La perturbación de la armonía social y la reacción violenta contra la coerción injustificada hacen ineficientes las operaciones supuestamente eficientes del poder central.

Después de una larga consideración, se hace evidente que, después de todo, los modos centralizados de poder no son más eficientes, que de hecho son contrarios a la libertad y la virtud en comparación con sus alternativas descentralizadas. Pero esa no es la única razón por la cual el modelo descentralizado es superior.

El personal

No disfrutas del buen vino simplemente hablando y pensando en él, sino bebiéndolo, olfateando sus aromas, girándolo en tu vaso, mojando tu lengua y cubriendo tu boca con él. Una verdadera apreciación del vino es experiencial, basada en el placer repetido de probar y consumir diferentes variedades de uva con sus componentes de sabor distintivo. La mayoría de las personas desarrollan sus amores y prioridades de esta manera. No aman las abstracciones, pero aman a sus vecinos, familias y amigos. Priorizan los temas que les son cercanos y diarios. Lo han hecho desde muy temprana edad. “Es dentro de las familias y otros arreglos institucionales característicos de la vida del vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad que la ciudadanía se aprende y se practica para la mayoría de las personas la mayor parte del tiempo”, dijo Vincent 7Ostrom. “El primer orden de prioridad en el aprendizaje del oficio de ciudadanía aplicado a los asuntos públicos”, agregó, “debe enfocarse en cómo hacer frente a los problemas en el contexto de la familia, el vecindario, la aldea y la comunidad. Aquí es donde las personas adquieren los rudimentos para autogobernarse, aprendiendo cómo vivir y trabajar con los demás”.8

Aprendí a aceptar la derrota, no de las campañas electorales nacionales, las guerras en el extranjero o los bancos demasiado grandes para quebrar que fracasaron, sino del béisbol de ligas menores, cuando mi equipo de tercer grado, los Cardenales, perdió en las semifinales, y cuando mi equipo de baloncesto de primer año perdió en la final. Todavía sueño con ese campeonato de baloncesto. Mi entrenador me había puesto en el juego con el único propósito de disparar triples, mi especialidad, pero la defensa me hizo un doble equipo. No pude conseguir un disparo claro. Cada vez que pasaba el balón, mi entrenador gritaba “no” y me ordenaba que disparara. A principios de la temporada, antes de que supiera mi habilidad detrás de la línea de tres puntos, gritó “no” cada vez que tomaba un tiro.

Aprendí sobre la injusticia cuando mi maestra de primer grado me castigó de una manera desproporcionada con mi presunta ofensa, que hasta el día de hoy niego haber cometido, y sobre la gracia y la misericordia cuando mi madre me perdonó, sin siquiera un azote. Por una ofensa que había cometido definitivamente.

Aprendí sobre Dios y la fe mientras desayunaba en la mesa de la cocina de mi abuela. Ella mantuvo una Biblia sobre la mesa al lado de una estantería llena de textos sobre temas y enseñanzas cristianas. En el centro de la mesa había un pequeño frasco de versículos de la Biblia. Recuerdo que metí la mano en el frasco y saqué versos, uno tras otro, fin de semana tras fin de semana, leyéndolos y luego discutiendo con ella cuál podría ser su significado. Este modo de aprendizaje fue íntimo, práctico y me preparó para experimentar a Dios por mí mismo, para estudiar Su palabra y descubrir mis creencias acerca de Él cuando más tarde me retiré a lugares de soledad para contemplar en silencio. Estas experiencias significaron mucho más para mí que las palabras de cualquier televangelista lejano.

Cada vez que me quedaba en la casa de mis abuelos, mi abuelo se despertaba temprano y encendía la cafetera. Mi hermano y yo, al escucharlo abajo, corríamos a su lado. Compartió secciones del periódico con nosotros y nos permitió tomar café con él. Nos hizo sentir como adultos responsables, dos niños pequeños con el periódico y el café en la mano, reflexionando sobre los acontecimientos actuales y emitiendo juicios sobre las últimas tendencias y escándalos políticos. Esta educación indispensable no provino de la difusión pública o de algún proyecto costoso de alfabetización cívica orquestado por la Fundación Nacional para las Artes o la Fundación Nacional para las Humanidades. Venía de la familia, en espacios familiares, en el calor de un hogar amoroso.

La señora Stubbs me enseñó modales y decoro en el cotillón, aunque nunca logró enseñarme a bailar. Aprendí la etiqueta en el campo de golf donde pasé los veranos de mi infancia jugando con grupos de hombres adultos, compitiendo con ellos mientras aprendía a hacer preguntas sobre sus carreras y profesiones, guardando silencio mientras giraban o ponían, no andando en sus líneas, sosteniendo el flagstick para ellos, otorgándoles honores en el tee cuando obtuvieron la puntuación más baja en el hoyo anterior, rastrillando los bunkers, caminando con cuidado para evitar dejar marcas de picos en los greens, reparando las marcas de mis bolas, etc.

Me enteré de la muerte cuando una niña con la que viajé a la iglesia falleció de cáncer. Tenía solo cuatro o cinco años cuando murió. Luego vino la muerte de mi bisabuela, luego mi bisabuelo, luego mi abuelo, y así sucesivamente, lo que hasta el día de hoy se me acerca. En el Sur aún abrimos nuestros ataúdes para mostrar cadáveres y recordarnos la fragilidad de la vida y la inevitabilidad de la muerte. Este ritual solemne nos mantiene conscientes de nuestro propósito en la vida, nos acerca a nuestros amigos y familiares y nos asegura que contemplamos las preguntas más graves y más importantes.

Mis dos abuelos significaban el mundo para mí. Ambos llevaban trajes y corbatas para trabajar todos los días. Se vistieron profesionalmente y con responsabilidad para cada ocasión. Los copié a temprana edad. En la escuela secundaria, mientras los otros niños se entregaban a las últimas modas y modas, usaba camisas abotonadas metidas cuidadosamente en los pantalones. Pensé que no obtendría puntos con mis compañeros disfrazándome para la clase, pero en poco tiempo muchos de mis amigos adoptaron la práctica cuando empezamos a pensar en nosotros mismos como hombres pequeños en busca de una educación. Debido a que éramos atletas, nuestra ropa no solo fue tolerada sino que finalmente se imitó. Cuando los otros equipos de baloncesto se presentaron en nuestro gimnasio, los conocimos con abrigo y corbata mientras llevaban camisetas demasiado grandes y pantalones sueltos que se hundían debajo de las puntas traseras. Nuestro equipo podría haberlos asustado por nuestro atuendo formal. Pero los sorprendimos aún más después de que nos trasladamos al vestuario, nos pusimos nuestras camisetas, irrumpimos en la cancha y luego los derrotábamos.

Podría seguir. El punto es que la experiencia sentida define quiénes somos y da forma a cómo nos comportamos. Como señaló el juez Holmes, “Lo que más amamos y veneramos en general está determinado por las primeras asociaciones. Me encantan las rocas de granito y los arbustos de agracejo, sin duda porque con ellos estuvieron mis primeros gozos que se remontan a la eternidad pasada de mi vida”.9 Lo que dice a continuación es más importante:

Pero mientras que la experiencia de uno hace que ciertas preferencias sean dogmáticas para uno mismo, el reconocimiento de cómo llegaron a ser así deja a uno capaz de ver que otros, las almas pobres, pueden ser igualmente dogmáticos respecto de otra cosa. Y esto de nuevo significa escepticismo. No es que la creencia o el amor de uno no permanezca. No es que no lucharíamos y moriríamos por ello si fuera importante; todos, lo sepamos o no, estamos luchando para crear el tipo de mundo que nos debería gustar, sino que hemos aprendido a reconocer que los demás lucharán y morirán. Para hacer un mundo diferente, con igual sinceridad o creencia. Las preferencias profundamente arraigadas no se pueden discutir (no se puede argumentar que a un hombre le guste un vaso de cerveza) y, por lo tanto, cuando las diferencias son lo suficientemente amplias, tratamos de matar al otro hombre en lugar de dejar que se salga con la suya. Pero eso es perfectamente consistente con admitir que, por lo que parece, sus argumentos son tan buenos como los 10nuestros.

Tomo estas palabras como precaución, como un claro recordatorio del horroroso potencial de la violencia inherente al intento de un grupo de personas formado por ciertas asociaciones para imponer por la fuerza sus normas y prácticas a otro grupo de personas formadas por asociaciones diferentes. La virtud distintiva de la policentrismo es dar cabida a estas diferencias y minimizar las posibilidades de violencia al difundir y dispersar el poder.


El orden policéntrico que defiendo no es utópico; es concreto y práctico, y está ejemplificado por las instituciones mediadoras y las autoridades subsidiarias, tales como iglesias, sinagogas, clubes, ligas pequeñas, asociaciones comunitarias, escuelas y membrecías profesionales a través de las cuales nos expresamos, políticamente o de otra manera, y con cuyas reglas voluntariamente aceptamos.

Cuando encendemos nuestros televisores por la noche, somos muchos de nosotros de esta parte del país, perturbados por el aumento de la conducta lasciva, la retórica divisiva, el comportamiento malicioso y la decadencia institucionalizada que son contrarias a nuestras normas locales pero sistémicamente y fuertemente forzado sobre nosotros por poderes extranjeros o externos. Apagar la televisión en protesta parece ser nuestro único modo de resistencia, nuestra única manera de disentir. Disgustados por la creciente evidencia de que nuestros políticos han reunido el aparato del poderoso gobierno federal para alcanzar la fama y la gloria personal, muchos de nosotros nos sentimos explotados y sin poder. Sin embargo, frente a las burocracias estatales masivas, las grandes corporaciones, los medios parciales, los periodistas tendenciosos y los militares al mando, ejercemos nuestra agencia, brindando alegría y esperanza a nuestras familias, amigos y vecinos, atendiendo a circunstancias concretas que están bajo nuestro control directo. La promesa de comunidad nos revitaliza y refresca.

Recientemente paseé por Copenhague, Dinamarca, un brillante domingo por la mañana. Aunque las campanas de la iglesia sonaban por las calles, haciendo eco en los edificios y las aceras de adoquines, silenciando las conversaciones y sobresaltando a algunas palomas, las iglesias permanecieron vacías. No vi adoradores ni servicios de adoración. Algunas de las iglesias habían sido reutilizadas como cafés y restaurantes con camareros y camareras pero no pastores ni sacerdotes; los clientes bebían su vino y comían su pan en mesas pequeñas, pero no había rituales de comunión ni sacramentos.

Un mes después, también un domingo, volé a Montgomery, Alabama, desde Dallas, Texas. A medida que el avión descendía lentamente bajo las nubes, las pequeñas figuras de casas de muñecas y los edificios modelo debajo de mí cobraron vida, convirtiéndose en personas y estructuras reales. Contemplé las docenas de iglesias que salpicaban el paisaje plano y ensanchado, que crecía cada vez más a medida que nos acercábamos al aeropuerto. Y observé, sentado allí, el stock todavía impulsado a través del espacio, que los estacionamientos de cada iglesia estaban llenos de autos, que había, a esta hora temprana, cientos, si no miles, de mi gente allí antes que yo, adorando al mismo Dios. Adoré, el mismo Dios que mis padres y abuelos y sus padres y abuelos habían adorado; Y sentí, en ese momento, profunda y profundamente, por primera vez en años, un sentimiento raro pero inconfundible: esperanza no solo para mi comunidad, sino también para la comunidad.

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, La lógica de la libertad: Reflexiones y réplicas (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), pág. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid en 136.
  • 5.Ibid en 137.
  • 6.Ibid. a los 141 años.
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), pág. X.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law”. Harvard Law Review, vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes a los 41.

Writers on Writing (Red Dirt Press, 2019)

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, liberal arts, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing on January 23, 2019 at 6:45 am

My latest book, Writers on Writing, is available for purchase here at Amazon and here at Red Dirt Press’s website.  From the publisher:

As a lawyer, Allen Mendenhall asks questions. As a writer, he’s interested in the craft. Combine these two and you get this, a collection of writers discussing writing. Writers on Writing: Conversations with Allen Mendenhall is an anthology of penetrating interviews with prominent and diverse authors who discuss arts, literature, books, culture, life, and the writing process with Allen Mendenhall, editor of Southern Literary Review and associate dean at Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. Featuring the telling insights and sage advice of novelists, historians, poets, professors, philosophers, and more, Writers on Writing is not just an informative guide or a useful resource but a fount of inspiration. Readers will find in these pages authentic voices, frank exchanges, and unique perspectives on a wide variety of matters. Aspiring and established writers alike will learn from this book.

Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.


The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.



  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

What, Then, is Creativity?

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Teaching on January 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Last week a student asked me, “What is creativity?” I was unsure how to respond. I felt like the speaker from Leaves of Grass musing about a child, who, fetching a handful of grass, asks him what the grass is. “How could I answer the child?” the speaker wonders. “I do not know what it is any more than he.”

What is creativity? How could I answer the student? I did not know what it was any more than he. My ignorance on this subject nevertheless inspired me to seek understanding, perhaps even a definition, and then to proffer brief, explanatory remarks. Here they are, principally for his benefit but also for mine—and for that of anyone, I suppose, who cares to consider them.

Every human, I think, is the handiwork of God. If humans are created in God’s image, and God is our creator, then humanity’s creativity is, or might be, a limited, earthly, imperfect glimpse into the ways and workings of God. “We too,” said Paul Elmore More, “as possessors of the word may be called after a fashion children of the Most High and sons of the Father, but as creatures of His will we are not of His substance and nature, however we may be like Him.”[1]

Inherently flawed and sinful, humans cannot create what or as God creates and cannot be divine. Our imagination can be powerfully dark, dangerous, and wicked. The Lord proclaimed in the Noahic covenant that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”[2] Construction of the Tower of Babel demonstrated that the unified power of ambitious men laboring together may engender impious unrestraint.[3]

Humans, however, being more rational and intelligent than animals, are supreme among God’s creation and bear the divine image of God. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” asks the psalmist, adding, “and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with glory and honour.”[4]

Saint Peter—or the author of Second Peter if that book is pseudographical—called humans potential partakers in the divine nature who have escaped the corruption of the world.[5] Saint Paul implied that followers of Christ enjoy something of Christ’s mind, some special understanding of Christ’s instructions.[6] He also suggested that followers of Christ, the saints, will judge not only the world but the angels,[7]beneath whom, in substance, we consist.[8]

What these passages mean, exactly, is subject to robust academic and theological debate, but surely humanity’s crowning artistic achievements—our paintings, sculptures, philosophies, architecture, poetry, theater, novels, and music—are starting points for exploration. What evidence have we besides these tangible products of our working minds that we who are not divine somehow partake in divinity?

Humans are moral, spiritual, social, creative, and loving, unlike the rest of God’s animate creation, only some of which, the animals, are also sentient. Aristotle and Aquinas, to say nothing of the author of Genesis, rank animals lower than humans in the hierarchy of living beings because, although sentient, they lack a discernable will, conscientiousness, consciousness, and capacity for reason that humans definitively possess. Moreover, animals provide humans with the necessary sustenance to survive, and our survival is indispensable to the advancement of knowledge and intelligence, themselves essential to the enjoyment and preservation of God’s creation.

All human life is sacred because of humanity’s godly nature,[9] which is a privilege with coordinate duties and responsibilities: to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue, or care for, the inferior creatures of the earth.[10] However awesome humanity’s creative faculties are, they are not themselves divine, and cannot be. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” intones the prophet, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[11]

Russell Kirk titled his autobiography The Sword of Imagination. A sword is a bladed weapon with a sharp, lethal point and sharp, lethal edges. It’s the symbol of medieval warriors and Romantic knights. The imagination, powerful like a sword, can be wielded for the forces of good or evil. It’s unsafe. But it can be channeled for moral and virtuous purposes.

Only God can have created something from nothing. That the cosmos exists at all is proof of an originating, ultimate cause, of some supreme power that is antecedent to all material life and form. Human creativity, by contrast, is iterative and mimetic, not the generation of perceptible substance out of an absolute void.

Human creativity builds on itself, repurposing and reinvigorating old concepts and fields of knowledge for new environments and changed conditions. We learn to be creative even if we are born with creative gifts and faculties. Imitative practice transforms our merely derivative designs and expressions into awesome originality and innovation.

Creativity, then, is the ability of human faculties to connect disparate ideas, designs, and concepts to solve actual problems, inspire awe, heighten the emotions and passions, or illuminate the complex realities of everyday experience through artistic and aesthetic expression. The most creative among us achieve their brilliance through rigorous training and a cultivated association with some master or teacher who imparts exceptional techniques and intuitions to the pupil or apprentice; every great teacher was a student once.

Or so I believe, having thought the matter through. It may be that I know no more about creativity than I do about grass. But I know, deeply and profoundly, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and for that I am infinitely and earnestly grateful.



[1] Paul Elmore More, The Essential Paul Elmer More (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), p. 55.

[2] Genesis 8:21.

[3] Genesis 11:5-7.

[4] Psalm 8:4-5.

[5] 2 Peter 1:4.

[6] 1 Corinthians 2:16.

[7] 1 Corinthians 6: 2-3.

[8] Psalm 8:4-5.

[9] Genesis 9:6.

[10] Genesis 28.

[11] Isaiah 55:9.

%d bloggers like this: