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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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Notes:

  • 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.

Why Universities Must Embrace Free Speech—Or Else

In Academia, America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Communication, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship on August 22, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The Federalist.

Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, calls his latest book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, a “reminder”—a term suggesting that we’ve forgotten something or that there’s something so important that we shouldn’t forget it. This something is the purpose of the modern university, which is, or should be, a refuge for open dialogue, rigorous debate, and the free exchange of ideas.

Safe spaces, trigger  warnings, speaker disinvitations, speech zones, no-platforming, physical assaults against speakers—these are sure signs that some university cultures have become illiberal and intolerant, prioritizing indoctrination, orthodoxy, conformity, narrow-mindedness, censorship, and dogmatism over the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and wide dissemination of ideas.

Universities are not one-size-fits-all. The multiplicity among and between institutions of higher education in the United States, from community colleges to liberal-arts colleges to state flagship universities, makes generalizations about them impossible. Modern universities, however, are decidedly committed to research on the nineteenth-century German model. Whittington’s chief subject is this modern university, not religiously affiliated colleges guided by a core mission to spread and inspire doctrinal faith through formal education.

This is a very different model than, say, the distinctly Catholic university contemplated by Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University that is predicated on the belief that scientific and philosophical knowledge is intimately tied to the revealed truths of the church. Whittington’s key focus appears to be on those institutions classified as doctoral research universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The gravest problem at such institutions is their coercive restrictions on speech.

Newly Relevant Free Speech Concerns

“My concern here,” Whittington says, “is with a particular problem on college campuses that is not new but newly relevant,” namely that “we are in danger of giving up on the hard-won freedoms of critical inquiry that have been wrested from figures of authority over the course of a century.” An ascendant intolerance jeopardizes free speech at universities, which have as their principal objective the formation and transmission of knowledge that itself depends upon free speech and inquiry.

To cultivate a liberal atmosphere tolerant of diverse views, universities must make room for marginalized voices and controversial ideas, submit received customs and conventions to continuous and critical examination, and welcome good-faith arguments that challenge cherished cultural norms and undermine accepted wisdom. Only by subjecting their beliefs to sustained scrutiny may scholars sharpen and refine their claims and achieve mutual understanding. Only by protecting the speech of dissenters from the shaming and retaliation of those who hold majority or dominant views may universities nurture the empathy and humility necessary to maintain constructive, scholarly conversations.

“[T]he value of free speech,” submits Whittington, “is closely associated with the core commitments of the university itself. The failure to adequately foster an environment of free speech on campus represents a failure of the university to fully realize its own ideals and aspirations.” More than that, such failure “subverts the very rationale for having a university and hampers the ability of universities to achieve their most basic goals.” To value the university is to value the free speech that characterizes the university’s goal and function.

In four succinct chapters, Whittington maps the history of the modern American university, demonstrating how free speech is integral to its mission and indispensable to the search for knowledge and understanding. The Jeffersonians’ opposition to the Sedition Act, and John Stuart Mill’s case against compelled silence in On Liberty, present seminal defenses of free expression that gave substance to the modern university’s commitment to vigorous deliberation and civil debate.

Universities Must Decide Where They Stand

Whittington shows that the free-speech ideal has always been contested on campus, its concrete manifestations differing from school to school and context to context. The tension, moreover, between protecting provocative speech and providing for student safety isn’t new. University administrators have long struggled to balance the promise of robust speech with the need for security in light of potentially violent backlash to offensive, incendiary utterances.

To those who abuse the system by inviting notorious speakers to campus to shout odious words that lack intellectual content and are meant only to shock and incite, Whittington offers this wisdom: “When we are making decisions about whom to invite to campus to speak, the goal should be neither to stack the deck with our closest allies nor to sprinkle in the most extreme provocateurs. The goal should be to make available to the campus community thoughtful representatives of serious ideas.”

The Charles Murrays of the world might enjoy more campus appearances, and more serious attention, if there were fewer speaking invitations to those grandstanding Milo Yiannopouloses, whose (typically) puerile messages and (typically) sophomoric style lack substantive intellectual content. Rather than Milo, why not invite one of the many conservative scholars who seek with sincerity and integrity to contribute to the sum of knowledge, but have been disenfranchised and dismissed by left-leaning faculty?

It’s not contradictory to celebrate free speech while urging restraint in selecting competent, well-meaning speakers. A dedication to pushing the limits of acceptable discourse is not, after all, the same as a dedication to learning the true and the good. Discerning the difference, however, is a task for the informed audience, not the campus censors. Suppressing foolish and fallacious ideas deprives students of the opportunity to learn what constitutes foolishness and fallaciousness.

Universities must choose: “They must decide whether they are committed to a joint project of learning and the principles and practices that make learning possible. If universities are to operate at the outer boundaries of our state of knowledge and to push those boundaries further outward, they must be places where new, unorthodox, controversial, and disturbing ideas can be raised and scrutinized.”

If universities cannot be counted on to expand the frontiers of knowledge, who or what will? This weighty question should cut across partisan lines and ideological camps and unite those of disparate backgrounds in a common cause: that of human progress and achievement.

A Conversation Between Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization on September 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

In 2012, the Royal Institution of Great Britain hosted Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton for an evening of conversation and debate.  Here is the footage of that event:

Paul H. Fry on “The Institutional Construction of Literary Theory”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry on “The Social Permeability of Reader and Text”

In Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy on September 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

 

Paul H. Fry on Deconstruction, Part I

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, Teaching, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 1, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the eighth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry on “Linguistics and Literature”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics, Teaching, The Academy on August 6, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the seventh installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Holmes’s Dissent in Bartels v. Iowa

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on June 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404 (1923), is short and to-the-point, extending and confirming the principles released by the United States Supreme Court that very day in Meyer v. Nebraska,[i] a companion case to Bartels that is also short and to-the-point. In Meyer, the Court struck down a Nebraska law restricting the teaching of modern foreign-languages to students from kindergarten to eighth grade. The majority in Meyer found that the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that it infringed upon the liberty interests of teachers, who had a right to practice their profession without the interference of the state with their curriculum so long as that curriculum did not violate explicit State policy.[ii] There was, the Court reasoned, no link between the putative purpose of the law—to protect the welfare of children—and a threat to the public interest.[iii] The law was deemed arbitrary and not reasonably related to a legitimate state interest and, therefore, unconstitutional.

Holmes reserved his Meyers dissent—which maintained that this Nebraska law was constitutional—for the Bartels opinion. In Bartels, the United States Supreme Court addressed an Iowa law similar to the Nebraska regulation and reversed a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, which had upheld the criminal conviction of a teacher who taught German to his students. “We all agree, I take it,” Holmes began his dissent, “that it is desirable that all the citizens of the United States should speak a common tongue, and therefore that the end aimed at by the statute is a lawful and proper one” (Bartels 412). The pronoun “we” lacks a clear referent. Does Holmes mean “we” justices or “we” Americans? The answer is probably the latter because “we” was (and is) widely and fluidly used to signify the assembled justices on the bench.

Holmes claims that the “only question is whether the means adopted deprive teachers of the liberty secured to them by the Fourteenth Amendment” (Bartels 412). He submits that he will not judge the law according to whether it is good or right but only pursuant to the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. He states, to that end, that he may “appreciate the objection to the law” (“I think I appreciate the objection to the law”) but that the role of the judge is not to take sides on moral or political issues “upon which men reasonably might differ” (Bartels 412). “I am not prepared to say that it is unreasonable,” Holmes explains, using litotes, “to provide that in his early years [a student] shall hear and speak only English at school” (Bartels 412). If it is not unreasonable, then it is reasonable, and “if it is reasonable it is not an undue restriction of the liberty either of teacher or scholar” (Bartels 412).

Holmes’s dissent in Bartels is not known as one of his most notable or outstanding dissents. Nevertheless, it has been referenced not only by the United States Supreme Court[iv] but also by federal and state courts.[v] Although the majority opinion has never been overruled, Holmes’s dissent generally is cited favorably. My approximate calculation based on Westlaw searches is that this dissent has been cited almost 200 times in cases, administrative decisions, and federal court documents such as amicus curiae briefs.

The topic of his dissent—foreign languages in public schools—has been revisited by later courts because it remains relevant, and in that respect, it is not surprising that the dissent continues to be cited. Yet the topic alone does not explain why Holmes’s dissent in particular remains popular, especially if it is not binding precedent. There are other non-binding documents on the topic, including social science studies and law review articles, that are also relevant but that have not been cited in large numbers. Although Holmes’s reputation has something to do with the abundance of citations to his dissent, insofar as his legal opinion carries great weight among jurists, the properties of his dissent likely contribute to its ongoing appeal.

What are these properties? Besides litotes, mentioned above, there is also aphorism: “No one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach many things.” These words are carefully chosen. It would be absolutist to state that no one would doubt that a teacher is forbidden to teach many things, or to state that no one doubts rather than no one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach many things, or to state that no one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach a particular thing rather than many things. This short sentence is so well qualified that it manages to articulate a pithy generalization without succumbing to embellishment or misrepresentation. Moreover, the phrase “no one would doubt that a teacher might be” is anapestic, sharing the same feet of such memorable verses as “’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.”

In the opening line to a dissent about language, the deliberate use of sigmatism, or the repetition of “s” sounds for dramatic effect, is striking: “[…] is desirable that […] citizens of the United States should speak.” It is as if Holmes defamiliarizes the “common tongue” (his words) as he writes about the “time [of youth] when familiarity with a language is established.” At the very least, he highlights the nuances of language in a dissent expressed in nuanced language and addressing the very legality of language acquisition within a public institution. In addition, Holmes empowers his dissent with a religious-like seriousness by referring to his fellow justices as “brethren,” and he appears figuratively to objectify his “mind” as something separate from his “consciousness” when he claims that “I cannot bring my mind to believe.”

These moves are not merely literary grandstanding but the instantiation of an important feature of Holmes’s philosophical pragmatism: the fallibility of human intelligence. He will not profess certainty but will formulate his reasoning only in cautious qualifications.

Holmes follows, therefore, with the declaration that the objection to the prohibition on the teaching of foreign languages in Iowa “appears to me to present a question upon which men reasonably might differ”  (my emphasis). His belief in the inherent limitations of human faculties prevents him from saying that the objection does present a question upon which reasonable men may differ.

Having introduced the theme of human knowledge, he turns to metonymy by referring to the state legislation as an “experiment” that the United States Supreme Court should not prevent from taking place. For aught that appears, either the term “experiment” or the state legislation may indicate the other; they are reversible concepts within the paradigm that Holmes establishes here. Treating the states as if they were laboratories, he gestures toward his conviction that the widening capacity of the aggregate knowledge of the community is made possible by allowing social experiments to take place on the most local levels, where the consequences of failure are minimized, whereas the failure of United States Supreme Court justices to rule properly regarding some law or another will have vast consequences that affect social coordination throughout the entire country. Subtle turns of phrase are enough for Holmes to implicate this grand philosophical notion to which he owes his most insightful dissents.

[i]262 U.S. 390 (1923).

[ii] “As the statute undertakes to interfere only with teaching which involves a modern language, leaving complete freedom as to other matters, there seems no adequate foundation for the suggestion that the purpose was to protect the child’s health by limiting his mental activities. It is well known that proficiency in a foreign language seldom comes to one not instructed at an early age, and experience shows that this is not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.” (Meyer 403)

[iii] “The power of the state to compel attendance at some school and to make reasonable regulations for all schools, including a requirement that they shall give instructions in English, is not questioned. Nor has challenge been made of the state’s power to prescribe a curriculum for institutions which it supports. Those matters are not within the present controversy. Our concern is with the prohibition approved by the Supreme Court. Adams v. Tanner [citation omitted] pointed out that mere abuse incident to an occupation ordinarily useful is not enough to justify its abolition, although regulation may be entirely proper. No emergency has arisen which renders knowledge by a child of some language other than English so clearly harmful as to justify its inhibition with the consequent infringement of rights long freely enjoyed. We are constrained to conclude that the statute as applied is arbitrary and without reasonable relation to any end within the competency of the state.” (Meyer 403).

[iv] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 518-19 (1969).

[v] Examples of federal court cases referencing Holmes’s dissent include the following: Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English, 42 F. 3d 1217, 1242 (9th Cir. App. 1994); Kramer v. New York City Bd. of Educ. 715 F. Supp. 2d 335, 342 (E.D. New York 2010); and Cary v. Board of Ed. of Adams-Arapahoe School Dist. 28-J, Aurora, Colo. 598 F. 2d 535, 540 (10th Circ. App. 1979). Examples of state court cases referencing Holmes’s dissent include State v. Hoyt. 84 N.H. 38, 146 A. 170, 171 (N.H. 1929), and Hamilton v. Deland, 198 N.W. 843, 227 Mich. 111, 113 (Mich. 1924).

 

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Daniel J. Kornstein

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Communication, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Rhetoric & Communication, Shakespeare, Writing on June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am
Dan Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein is a senior partner at the law firm of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, in New York City.  He earned his law degree from Yale Law School in 1973 and has served as the president of the Law and Humanities Institute.  He has authored several books including Loose Sallies, Something Else: More Shakespeare and the Law, Unlikely Muse, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, Thinking under Fire, and The Music of the Laws.  His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Boston Globe.  In 2002, Dan received the Prix du Palais Littéraire from the Law and Literature Society of France.  In 2013, King Michael of Romania awarded him the Order of the Crown of Romania.

AM: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new book with me, Dan. The name of the book is Loose Sallies, and as you state in your introduction, it’s not about fast women named Sally. For those who haven’t read the introduction or purchased the book yet, could you begin by discussing the book generally and say something in particular about your chosen genre: the essay.

Loose SalliesDJK: Thank you, Allen, for this opportunity. Those of us who occasionally write are, as you know from your own experience, always delighted to have a chance to explain a bit about how and why we scribble. Loose Sallies is a collection of essays written over the past 25 years mostly about topics of general interest. The first 75 pages is about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and why that remarkable process and its end result are still so important to us today. The rest of the book ranges over a wide variety of topics, from our precious civil liberties to profiles of some famous judges and lawyers to current controversies. It should, I hope, appeal to everyone.

AM: Phillip Lopate has said that the essay is a “diverting” type of literature and that its hallmark is intimacy. You call the essay “intimate, informal and reflective, as if you are sitting at home in your living room or dining room and having a pleasant, sometimes provocative, sometimes stimulating, but always, one hopes, insightful and enlightening conversation.” I agree. The essay is my favorite genre because it’s the genre of the person. You can’t know a person until you’ve met the persona he creates in his essays—and if you don’t write essays, you may not know yourself. Who are your favorite essayists, and what is it about their essays that you find compelling?

DJK: My favorite essayists are the obvious ones: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Addison & Steele, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, Mencken, Macaulay, Emerson, V.S. Pitchett, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, George Will, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Joseph Wood Krutch. My favorite living essayists are Lopate and Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar magazine. All these writers make their essays compelling by their clarity of thought and uniqueness of expression and their ability to communicate original, stimulating ideas, making us see familiar things in a new light. Epstein, for example, can write on literary personalities as well as personal topics we all think we know about but do not really. Everyone in my pantheon of great essayists is a superb writer with a distinctive and memorable style.

AM: I recently interviewed James Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University, here on this site, and he talked about lawyer poets and said that “our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law.” You have something to say about this seeming double life. “Writing,” you say, is “part of my double life. I have a life other than the lawyer’s life I lead on the surface. The two sides—law and writing—reinforce and complement each other.” I’ve heard the phrase “the two worlds” problem used to describe the lawyer who is also a writer. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, does it?

DJK: A lawyer IS a writer. Writing is most of what a lawyer does. To be a good lawyer, one needs to be a good writer. Verbal facility, sensibility to language, and lucid thinking are prerequisites for both. A legal brief and a piece of expository writing have much in common. Both have a point to make to persuade the reader. Both rely on effectively marshaling evidence to demonstrate the correctness of a particular perspective. The topics may differ, but the skill and technique are similar. The problem facing the lawyer-writer is more one of time and energy and desire than anything else. Law is a demanding profession, which means taking time off to do anything else cuts into one’s otherwise free moments. But if you want to write, you make the time.

AM: I’m curious, when did your love of literature begin? Did you have an “aha!” moment, or did the love evolve over time?

DJK: I cannot recall ever not loving literature. My paternal grandfather was a printer at Scribner’s and when I was a little boy he gave me four books by Robert Louis Stevenson that my grandfather had himself set in type in 1907. I gave Treasure Island to my son and Kidnapped to my daughter, and still have the other precious two volumes on my shelves.

I remember my father taking me as a youngster to the Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street to get my first library card. In those days, the main building had a circulation department, and my father’s choice for my first library book was, of course, Tom Sawyer, a good choice for a ten-year old boy.

I remember as a teenager reading as much as I could in addition to books assigned in school. There were nights spent, in classic fashion, with a flashlight under the covers after bed time.

Inspiring teachers helped too.

AM: You’ve written a lot on Shakespeare. How did your fascination with him come about?

DJK: Like most people, I first met Shakespeare in high school English classes. Luckily for me, around the same time New York had a summer program of free Shakespeare in Central Park, which continues to this day. Starting in the summer of my junior year in high school — 1963 — I began to see two of Shakespeare’s plays every summer. It was at one of those performances — Measure for Measure in 1985 — that the passion grabbed me. I was 37 years old and had been practicing law for 12 years. As I sat watching Measure for Measure, I realized for the first time how much the play was about law, and that recognition — the “fascination” you refer to — set me off on a project that would last years. First, I wrote a short essay about Measure for Measure for the New York Law Journal, our daily legal newspaper. Then, months later, I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice and wrote another essay. From there, one thing led to another, and before long, I had the makings of a book.

I reread the plays I had read as a student and read many others for the first time. Then I read as much as I could find about Shakespeare and the law. The result was my 1994 book called Kill All The Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal.

I am still fascinated by Shakespeare. Each time I read or see one of his great plays, I get something new out of it.

AM: Many essays in Loose Sallies concern politics, law, government, and current events. You discuss the Founders, Holmes, Bill Clinton, Hugo Black, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand—all sorts of people and even some decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. You manage to do so without coming across as overtly political, polemical, or tendentious. How and why?

DJK: It is a question of style and goal. Every one of the essays has a thesis, some of which may even be controversial. The idea is to persuade your reader to accept your thesis, and that requires care and sensitivity, logic and demonstration, not name-calling or verbal table-pounding. If I am “overtly political, polemical or tendentious,” I will probably not convince anyone who does not already agree with me. A writer has to be smoother and subtler. We live in a country right now riven by political and cultural partisanship. Public controversy today between “red” and “blue” is almost always shrill. A reader tires of it; it becomes almost an assault on our sensibilities. To reach people’s hearts and minds, you have to credit both sides of an issue but explain patiently and show convincingly why you think one side is more correct than another. I am not running for public office so I have no “base” to appeal to. But I can at least try to keep the tone of the debates I engage in civil and pleasant.

AM: Do you consider the essays on these topics literary essays?

DJK:Most of the essays in Loose Sallies are not about so-called “literary” topics. True, one is about the literary style of Supreme Court opinions, and two discuss Justice Holmes’s opinion-writing style. But they are exceptions. So I do not think the essays for the most part are “literary” in that narrow sense. Nor do I think they are “literary” by way of being precious or mannered. I genuinely hope, however, that they are “literary” in the sense of being clear, crisp, well-written statements on a variety of topics of interest to all Americans today.

AM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Loose Sallies has been enjoyable for me. I keep it on my desk in the office so that, when I need a ten-minute break, I can open it and read an essay. I slowly made my way through the entire book in this manner: a break here, a break there, and then, one day, I was finished. I really appreciate all that you have done not just for the law, but for arts and literature. It’s nice to know there are lawyers out there like you.

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing on January 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Independent Review.

“Television rots your brain.” That’s a refrain many of us grew up hearing, but it isn’t true. So suggests Paul Cantor in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, his second book about American film and television.

Cantor has become a celebrity within libertarian circles. He is Clifton Waller  Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia and recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, Harvard University.  What’s remarkable about his appointment at Harvard is that it is in the Department of Government, not the Department of English. That doesn’t surprise those of us familiar with his breadth of knowledge and range of interests.

Recognized as an interdisciplinary scholar, Cantor attended Ludwig von Mises’s seminars in New York City before establishing himself as an expert on Shakespeare.  Besides publishing extensively on literature of various genres and periods, he has been a tireless advocate for Austrian economics, even though Marxist theories and their materialist offshoots dominate his field. In 1992, the Mises Institute awarded Cantor the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian Economics, and his work at the intersection of economics and literature resulted in Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which he edited with Stephen Cox (while contributing nearly half of the book’s contents).

Like that work, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture owes much to the theories of Friedrich Hayek, in particular the concept of spontaneous order. It is a reflection of spontaneous order that the most beloved films and television shows did not spring perfectly from the mind of some genius working in complete isolation.  Rather, they emerged out of the complex interactions between producers and consumers and the collaborative efforts of scores of diligent workers. Viewer feedback facilitated modifications and improvements to films and television, which  advanced in meliorative stages.

Hayek discusses spontaneous order to refute the belief that government intervention and central planning ought to force order onto the marketplace. Cantor discusses it to refute the belief that artistic creation stands outside of commercial exchange. Examining depictions of freedom and coercion in a wide variety of films and television shows, he highlights the disparity between elitist and populist understandings of American culture, which he links to “top-down” and “bottom-up” models of order, respectively. His position is that the popularity and artistic appeal of film and television appear to be proliferating despite the objections and insults levied by the cultural elite, who, it should be added with not a little irony, nonetheless probably watch a great deal of television.

Against the cultural elite and their promotion of patrician—and mostly  European—standards for the arts, Cantor maintains that the marketplace enables  creative and experimental forms of expression that aren’t so different from earlier aesthetic media such as the serialized novel or popular plays. He reminds us that “nineteenth century critics tended to look down on the novel as a popular form, thinking it hardly a form of literature at all,” and adds that it “was not viewed as authentic art, but rather as an impure form, filled with aesthetically extraneous elements  whose only function is to please the public and sell copies” (p. 7). This once “vulgar” medium has lately been celebrated as one of the highest and most impressive categories of art. The form and content of great American novels—whether by Twain or Cooper or Salinger or Pynchon—should remind us that popular novels have been elevated as canonical even though they have rejected the standards and conventions that highbrow critics insisted were necessary for a work to constitute “literature.” Twain and Cooper recognized that highbrow presuppositions and expectations for novels derived from influential Europeans, so they set out to forge a uniquely  American literature free from Old World constraints.

Because film and television are commercial, they allow ordinary Americans  (as opposed to academics and the cultural elite, including and especially the neo-Marxists) to determine aesthetic standards and trends by indicating what does and does not interest them. Authors and television producers, in turn, become responsive and attuned to the demands of their consumers; they become, in short, entrepreneurs who must struggle against the status quo, defy the odds, and push the limits of artistic acceptability.

The elite disparage this process and advocate for aesthetic criteria divorced from the tastes and pleasures of the general public. As Cantor explains, “Elitists who profess to believe in democracy nevertheless have no faith in common people to make sound decisions on their own, even in a matter as simple as choosing the films and television shows they watch” (p. xiv). The elite would have film and television removed from the marketplace, but without the marketplace there would be no film or television.

Films and television shows might just become the masterpieces of the future; they might have already provided us with canonical “texts.” It is too early to say whether they have contributed substance to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Greatness, after all, takes time to ascertain.

Orwell, Dr. Johnson, and Hume adhered to the “test of time” measure of  greatness by which a work of art or literature is evaluated according to its ability to compete and survive in the literary marketplace over the course of generations.  This measure requires the sustained consensus of consumers as opposed to the esoteric judgments of elite critics. A work’s ability to attract vast and diverse audiences and to do so long after its production is what makes the work great.

It might seem odd to think of Cantor’s subjects—South Park and The X-Files, for  instance—alongside important literary works of the Western canon. And yet the groundlings who paid a penny to enter into the pit of the Globe Theatre, where they would stand and watch performances of Shakespeare’s plays, probably didn’t think they were witnessing greatness, either. Harold Bloom once said, “Cultural  prophecy is always a mug’s game,” and Cantor is wise not to prophesy about the enduring merit of any films or television shows. Cantor’s point is not that the products of film and television will be considered masterpieces one day, only that they might be.

For the record, I consider it extremely unlikely that South Park or The X-Files will achieve classic status, but I would not extend that speculation to such films as Casablanca or the Star Wars trilogy. Cantor himself takes pains to distinguish first-rate works from run-of-the-mill entertainment by invoking “traditional criteria for artistic excellence” (p. xxii). We should not take him to mean that film and television are media superior to that which came before them; instead, he considers them as substantially similar to their artistic antecedents, except that their  features signal an evolution in artistic preferences. The allure of art comes not from its alienation from popular culture, but from its ability to incorporate popular culture in ways that do not impede its power to speak beyond its moment.

To be sure, American film and television have produced an overwhelming amount of trash, but so did novel serialization. Not all novelists who published their work in contiguous installments in magazines and periodicals held the stature of Charles Dickens or Henry James or Herman Melville. Cantor points out that we forget about the thousands of bad novels from the Victorian era and extol only around one hundred novels from that period, which supposedly represents a  zenith in culture. Among the thousands if not millions of films and television shows that have been produced over the past century, perhaps a few will rival the works of Dickens, James, and Melville.

If Cantor weren’t such a generous and careful scholar, he might have become the bête noire of sophisticates and lambasted in the pages of The New Criterion for his embrace of the purportedly lowbrow. His command of economics and literary history, however, has spared him from such condemnation and even gained him a devoted following. To do justice to his latest book would require a more comprehensive treatment of his arguments about the figure of the “maverick” in film and television or about the value of collaborative work and coauthorship in  generating exceptional products. Yet these arguments demand more attention than a review can give.

The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary  voice. He has expanded the study of Austrian economics into the fields that need it most. He himself is a maverick, reading and writing industriously to break up the habits of thought and monopolies on ideology that mark literary scholarship.  Would that we had more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom flourishes. There is hope in the idea that artists can turn to the market to cultivate their talents and supply us with the arts we demand. No English department or cultural guardian can rob us of the entertainment that we enjoy.

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