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Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Introduction

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.

This piece commences a series of analyses on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For those unfamiliar with the work, first published in 1943, it details the famed Austrian economist’s observations, drawn from having lived in Austria in the years after World War I, witnessing firsthand the culture of political ideas that preceded and led to the rise of Nazism there, and then, some decades later, living in England, teaching at the London School of Economics, and observing the rise of similar ideas at work in English political culture at the onset of her own period of experimentation with socialism.

Britain was, at the time, feeling the onset of what would become a set of devastating postwar economic ailments: the loss of many colonies—sold off one by one to finance the war, severe physical destruction (though not as bad as on the Continent), a trade imbalance skyrocketing the prices of much-needed American goods, and an economy of permits and privation in basic commodities. The end of the war would bring the sweeping 1945 victory of Labour and greater troubles with the onset of the Brain Drain, a period of bitter class resentment, and nationalizations of industry. Shortly after the second edition of The Road to Serfdom was printed in 1946, England was facing strikes, falling exports, and almost £200m lost every week as dollar convertibility was introduced in 1947.

In the midst of it all was a growing culture of socialism in both major parties. As Hayek wrote, “the socialism of which we speak is not a party matter, and the questions which we are discussing have little to do with the questions at dispute between political parties” (3). Though Labour would be its more avowed exponents, the fundamentals of socialist ideology were well enough embedded so as not to be challenged at any basic moral or systematic level by either side. What’s more, many Britons would see this as a proud new political and economic identity for a Britain without an empire. Historian Norman Stone writes,

“the British were pleased with themselves, supposing also that their example was one to be widely followed as some sort of ‘third way’ between American capitalism and Soviet Communism… combining the ‘economic democracy’ of Communism and the ‘political democracy’ of the West: socialism without labour camps…. People who argued to the contrary [such as Hayek—ed.] were in a small minority… but even in the later 1940s these supposedly half-demented figures were starting to have reality on their side. It struck with a ferocious blow, in the second post-war winter. The money began to run out, and the government became quite badly divided as to priorities.”

It is easy to imagine how remorsefully vindicated Hayek must have felt in those first few years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom—affirmed and disappointed in the way that all those who warn of impending danger are wont to feel.

Though the book would be praised by proponents of liberalism from the time of its publishing to the present and cause a stir among his peers in academia, policymakers would be, as they ever are, roughly a generation late in feeling the aftershocks of this groundbreaking statement. By the time began its creep into the political lexicon, Hayek had moved on from the LSE, going on to teach at the University of Chicago (in its Committee on Social Thought, as the School of Economics vehemently opposed his hiring under their banner), the University of Freiburg, the University of California, and the University of Salzburg, where in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Since the onset of the 2007 recession, sales of The Road to Serfdom, along with other works that challenge the fabric and assumptions of modern Western philosophy, political culture, and economics such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, have skyrocketed. In 2010, 66 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.

As this and other such works grow in popularity, it is important to take a second look at them, assessing both their virtues and faults, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. The analysis that follows sets out to do just that. It is an overall favorable assessment, as this author agrees with many of Hayek’s basic political premises. However, for that reason, it will also more scrupulously critique and highlight perceived flaws, ambiguous wording, platitudes, and those floating abstractions common in political treatises that, though they seem plausible at first glance, prove deeply flawed when translated into concrete practice. Though these analyses will strive to give an adequate overall summary of what Hayek himself writes, the reader is encouraged to read Hayek’s words along with these critiques and to judge for himself their validity.

It is broadly understood that those concerned with the cause of liberty must be vigilant in our criticisms of its destroyers, but it is no less essential—if not more so—that we be judicious toward those authors and works on which we base our own beliefs, as every philosophy is a structure and every flaw in that structure a weakness. The closer our faults are to our foundations, the greater our vulnerability. As more and more libertarians and capitalists turn to works such as Hayek’s to form understandings and shape their beliefs, let us look carefully to what ideas we are resting upon. We have nothing to lose but our contradictions.

Note on citations: all page references, unless otherwise stated, are based on the February 1946 edition published by George Routledge & Sons LTD.

Introduction

Hayek’s introduction effectively sets the tone for the rest of the work by illustrating his own unique perspective, having come “as near as possible to twice living through the same period—or at least twice watching a very similar evolution of ideas,” (1) then giving us a brief summary of what wisdom that twice-lived experience has offered him: an understanding of the linkages between the spread of socialist ideas, the various debates it engenders in countries operating on similar philosophical premises, and the eventual rise of dictatorship.

The summary of events transpiring in the half-century leading up to World War II that Hayek describes is perhaps most powerful and most distinctive for its recognition of the role of ideas in man’s life. Hayek superbly recognizes the consequential nature of ideas in human life, writing “If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognise the danger in time can we hope to avoid it” (2).

In this short passage, just a few paragraphs in, Hayek has already distinguished himself from the long and destructive philosophical and political tradition of determinism and, more subtly and implicitly, by viewing the connection between man’s ideas and actions, rejected the mind-body dichotomy, which has long divided philosophers and intellectuals between those who concerned themselves with the workings of man’s mind, dismissing his physical actions as inconsequential marginalia, and those concerned with man’s physical nature but who view the content of his mind as meaningless.

These abstract philosophical notes are crucial, allowing us to establish several inferences as to what misguided political camps and ideologies Hayek will successfully avoid being mired in. By denying the metaphysical premise of determinism (whether in its environmental or genetic forms), Hayek embraces the concept of free will and the essential premise that ideas matter, inviting us to commence his work with the presumption that what wisdom we glean from it individually might be actionable and applicable in our own lives and experiences. This quickly separates him from the philosophical premises of the Left (or, to indulge a common but unbearably ironic label, “progressivism”), whose policies largely rest upon some variant of determinist metaphysics, leading them perpetually to the conclusion that man, left to his own free will, is doomed to irrationality, but that the ideal society is achievable through the right amount of systematic tweaking and statist controls. It already begins to become clear what premises lead Hayek to become the symbol of liberalism he is today.

In embracing the importance of the mind and the function of ideas, however, he does not assume a mysticist rejection of reality. To the contrary, he presents to us the implicit proposition that the “ideas we have created” will have very real consequences, and that to change our fates we must scrutinize and perhaps alter our ideas and those of our culture. It rests on the recognition that man is not immune from his own illogic and that, to paraphrase Rand, while the practice of reason may be evaded, the consequences of evading reason cannot be. This acknowledgment separates him from the premises that underlie much of conservative political thought, also concerned with the perfection of man, but oriented toward controlling his thoughts and beliefs, viewing the force of government as a means of instilling values in the minds of its people to produce a more moral citizenry.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a warning, and all warnings are fundamentally rejections of the determinist premise.  What’s more: it is an intellectual warning connecting certain ideas and beliefs to their metaphysical consequences. While common logic, particularly among those who recognize the practical benefits of liberty, would suggest that that which one values should be left free to flourish, to the contrary, both progressives and conservatives seek to control those aspects of man which they most value—progressives, man’s body; conservatives, man’s mind—relegating its opposite to a status of expendability.

If all philosophy can be thought of as the great duel between two men—Plato and Aristotle—both sides of the political spectrum in Hayek’s time, as in our own, are operating on a fundamentally Platonic premise that divides man’s physical and spiritual nature. True liberalism is fundamentally a diversion from this view in favor of the Aristotelian view of man as a unified entity, to be treated and thought of as such, his life and fate as his own, and his right to dispose of them as he sees fit unchallenged. Thus, Hayek, as an exponent of such liberalism, whether he recognizes and describes it as such himself, begins with this philosophical framework. Whether he maintains it in the chapters to come is a separate question, but his grounding is thus far solid.

Wasting no time, Hayek soon enters the fundamental comparison of his book: that of the ideological roots of Nazism and the rise of socialist thought in Britain precisely at a time when the two nations are at war.

Much equivocating in classrooms, editorial pages, and student coffee shops has transpired in the last seventy-plus years as to the differences between Nazism and true socialism, with socialist apologists quibbling about how Nazis abused what was a noble ideal in socialism. Most engage in such momentous evasions and distortions as to treat socialism and fascism as in any way opposites, portraying what is in fact a genus-type distinction as fundamentally inimical, when they are, in fact, merely differences in application of the same basic premises.

Hayek tolerates none of this, observing,

“Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies… As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny” (3).

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that little has yet changed in Western intellectualism when Hayek describes the parallels between Germany after World War I and England during World War II: “There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious ‘realism’, and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends’… It does not affect our problem that some groups may want less socialism than others, that some want socialism mainly in the interest of one group and others in that of another. The important point is that, if we take the people whose views influence developments, they are now in this country in some measure all socialists” (2-3).

More familiarity ensues when Hayek notes how Germany was once held in England and other Western countries as an ideal to be pursued and how that idealized conception has since been transferred elsewhere: “Although one does not like to be reminded, it is not so many years since the socialist policy of [Germany] was generally held up by progressives as an example to be imitated, just as in more recent years Sweden has been the model country to which progressive eyes were directed” (2). One so often sees the case of Swedish socialism invoked as a statist ideal in today’s world, since the recession of 2008, but it is often forgotten how old this example is—mentioned here by Hayek in the 1940s, discredited for its proclaimed cultural superiority by Ayn Rand in the 1960s, but still going strong as part of statist mythology today.

In support of his parallel, Hayek rightly rejects the concrete superficial details of German National Socialism to which the broader abstraction of ‘fascism’ is so unproductively and irrationally married in the minds of most who refer to and write of it. More than any other ideology, the word ‘fascism’ has attained a pejorative quality that has overcome its literal meaning and distorted the popular understanding of it to such an extent that most today will readily proclaim that they reject it, but remain utterly incapable of defining it. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedias are similarly unhelpful, as much victims of the disintegrated epistemology of their times as those who reference them.

(This is not the place to go into a fuller explanation of the meaning of fascism, but those interested would do well to refer to my previous essay on the subject, “Understanding Fascism”.)

Thus, in Hayek’s understanding of National Socialism will be found no deterministic German racial explanations, recognizing both the influences of German fascist thought on the English and the early role played by Thomas Carlyle and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Scot and an Englishman, on the formation of fascist ideas.

A cautious approach is wise here, as while no racial explanation to the effect that some innate German-ness led to National Socialism can be held as rational, the role of culture and philosophy in German society is indispensable to understanding its rise. Hayek goes on to write, “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism. It was the prevalence of socialist views and not Prussianism that Germany had in common with Italy and Russia—and it was from the masses and not from the classes steeped in the Prussian tradition, and favored by it, that National-Socialism arose” (7).

True as much of that is, to say “the socialist element produced totalitarianism” is perhaps only to scratch the surface by acknowledging that one political idea was connected to another It does not explain why the socialist element was accepted in the first place. For that, one must look to German culture. To that end, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels offers an incomparable philosophical genealogy of Nazism that would serve as a necessary complement to Hayek’s work, assuming Hayek continues down the path he is setting out here.

Perhaps the most detrimental statement in Hayek’s introduction is said rather in passing. After having written that “by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes watch similar phases of intellectual development… They suggest, if not the necessity, at least the probability, that developments will take a similar course” (1), “some of the forces which have destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here” (2), and “our chance of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger” (2-3), Hayek betrays the premise upon which he has built up his whole work by conceding, “All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my argument mainly on such parallels” (3).

Certainly it must be admitted that parallels between such developments are not deterministic or without mitigating factors, not immune to changes in trajectory. But to suggest that they “are, of course, deceptive” is perilously asserting a skepticist rejection of the principle of causality and the recognition in earlier statements of the role of ideas. Hayek would do well to apply the same social scientific rigor to the subject of politics that he does in economics, recognizing that just as effects of supply and demand on prices are assessed by holding constant certain variables, so the effect of ideas presumes a measure of ceteris paribus, but this does not negate the principle demonstrated by such models or demand of the author some token measure of self-doubt.

In all, Hayek’s introduction is strong and offers much to think about, hope for, and consider proceeding onward into his analyses. His overall support for the importance of ideas, propensity (if somewhat unconfidently) toward conceptual integration and a comparative approach to political ideologies, and positive views of individual man and political freedom make for a promising start. Hayek even provides sound reasoning for why England should be interested in engaging in such self-critical analysis, arguing,

“[T]his will enable us to understand our enemy and the issue at stake between us. It cannot be denied that there is yet little recognition of the positive ideals for which we are fighting. We know that we are fighting for freedom to shape our life according to our own ideas. That is a great deal, but not enough. It is not enough to give us the firm beliefs which we need to resist an enemy who uses propaganda as one of his main weapons not only in the most blatant but also in the most subtle forms. It is still more insufficient when we have to counter this propaganda among the people under his control and elsewhere, where the effect of this propaganda will not disappear with the defeat of the Axis powers… It is a lamentable fact that the English in their dealings with the dictators before the war, not less than in their attempts at propaganda and in the discussion of their war aims, have shown an inner insecurity and uncertainty of aim which can be explained only by confusion about their own ideals and the nature of the differences which separated them from the enemy. We have been misled as much because we have refused to believe that the enemy was sincere in the profession of some beliefs we shared as because we believed in the sincerity of some of his other claims” (4).

Likewise, we begin to see his potential faults: a propensity to begin at the level of politics without looking more deeply toward philosophical and cultural ideas, and a creeping skepticism that may lead him to an unconfident defense of his comparative approach and, thus, the warning he seeks to achieve with it. Whether these virtues and potential faults continue, only time and further reading will reveal, but as for the introduction, Hayek hits all of his marks: providing context, provoking questions and challenges, establishing a conceptual framework, and enticing our curiosity. A solid start to a modern defense of classical liberalism.

Flourishing and Synthesis

In Uncategorized on February 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Edward W. Younkins

Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2011

That Edward W. Younkins is well and widely read is apparent in light of the diverse, mutually illuminating subjects he brings together in this short but impressive book: Aristotle, Ayn Rand, and the Austrian economists Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. These thinkers, and the schools they represent, are participatory, not wholly separate or distinct, in their celebration of capitalism. Each thinker has, to be sure, his or her own colorful methodologies and idiosyncrasies; but the differences among them are often overstated and under-analyzed, or treated with such closed minded certainty that insistences on ideological purity preclude searches for significant commonalities.

The ideas championed by these thinkers are not only reconcilable, Younkins suggests, but complementary and profoundly, sometimes intimately, connected. “By combining and synthesizing elements found in Aristotle’s writings, Austrian Economics, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and in the writings of neo-Aristotelian classical liberal philosophers of human flourishing,” Younkins explains, “we have the potential to reframe the argument for a free society into a consistent reality-based whole whose integrated sum of knowledge and explanatory power is greater than the sum of its parts” (16). In an era of groupthink and infighting among those who profess individualism and liberty, reason and freethinking, the clarification of intersections between various lines of individualist thought is happy indeed. It’s refreshing to read a book that aims to build rather than demolish, coordinate rather than exclude. Differences of opinion are important, and there are certain issues on which reasonably and rationally minded people—Aristotelians, Objectivists, and Austrian economists included—will disagree. But differences of opinion are not all that matter.

Truth matters; knowledge matters; the future matters. To the extent that this book integrates the shared ideas and vocabularies of different thinkers, it, too, matters a great deal. It is, after all, through shared ideas and vocabularies, arrived at independently, over time, in disparate times and places, that individuals glean and confirm truth. Younkins seeks, to this end, nothing less than a reevaluation of existing paradigms in pursuit of perennial themes reflecting and describing truth. His is a work of synergy and fusion; his is a work of revivification.

Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society opens with a “Preface” and an “Introduction” written by Younkins. Readers of this journal will not find anything original or surprising here. These sections, while noteworthy, merely lay the foundation for what is to come. They contain no footnotes, but provide extensive recommended reading lists and summarize unifying premises among the book’s principal foci: Aristotle, Rand, Menger, Mises, and Rothbard. In sweeping strokes, Younkins explains that later thinkers depended upon and revised earlier thinkers—that Rand, Menger, and Mises, for instance, borrowed from Aristotle even as they modified and reworked Aristotle. In conjunction with the “Conclusion,” which recapitulates the most important theses and arguments of the book, these sections “bookend,” as it were, the more substantive, detailed, and thorough chapters. Read the rest of this entry »

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

In American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Essays, Ethics, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following appeared here at Prometheus Unbound and here at Mises.org.

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some 28 books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out 24 years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great-grandnephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free-market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of 20th century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor.

He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

Allen Mendenhall Interviews J. Neil Schulman, Prometheus Award–Winning Author of Alongside Night

In Artist, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Imagination, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on January 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman is a novelist, actor, filmmaker, journalist, composer, and publisher.  Among his many books are Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza, both of which won the Prometheus Award.  Visit his website at http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com/.

 

The following interview originally appeared here at Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature.

AM:  Right off the bat, it strikes me that I don’t know what to call you.  Will Neil work?

JNS:  Sure. It’s J. Neil Schulman in credits, and Neil in person.

AM:  Anyway, thank you for doing this interview, Neil.  You’ve had a fascinating and unique career.  You’ve written novels, short fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and other works.  Which of your works is your favorite and why?

JNS:  Every artist gets asked this question sooner or later. I asked it of Robert A. Heinlein when I interviewed him in 1973, and his answer was, “The latest one I’ve been working on.”

I’ve only completed one movie so far — Lady Magdalene’s — so it’s a Hobson’s Choice on that one. Ask me again when I’ve made two! But a lot of people also seem to like the script I wrote for The Twilight Zone, “Profile in Silver.”

I’ve written three novels. My first, Alongside Night [editor’s note: free in pdf], seems to be my most accessible and popular. I consider my second novel, The Rainbow Cadenza, to be my most layered, literary, and richest in explicit philosophy. My third novel, Escape from Heaven, is my favorite. It may not be as timely as my first novel or literary as my second novel, but it’s the one that’s closest to my heart…both the funniest thing I’ve ever written, and the one which is most deceptively simple. It appears to be a lightweight piece of comic fantasy, but it’s full of ideas that if examined more closely turn both traditional theology and rationalist philosophy on their heads.

Short stories? I’ll pick a few: “The Musician,” “Day of Atonement,” and “When Freemen Shall Stand” — all in my collection Nasty. Brutish, and Short Stories — and my latest short story, “The Laughskeller,” published on my blog, J. Neil Schulman @ Rational Review.

AM:  Your worldview is, in a word, libertarian.  Why is that?  How does libertarianism come across in your writing?

JNS:  In my nonfiction essays it comes across explicitly. In fiction, drama, and comedy, I try to examine libertarian themes without preaching. I was probably most subtle doing this in The Rainbow Cadenza. The utilitarian politics advocated by the chief villain, Burke Filcher, is so self-consistent that a lot of readers have thought this character speaks for the author. In fact, I wrote the novel to attack utilitarianism as a nullification of the natural individual rights I believe in. The novel reduces utilitarianism to absurdity — it’s a formal satire of it.

Alongside Night is less subtle, though I’m probably more successful in the new movie script than the 1970s novel when it comes to letting the audience make up its own mind. I have learned some refinements of my craft in the last three decades.

Alongside Night by J. Neil SchulmanAM:  I recently noticed that you commented on a post at the Austrian Economics and Literature blog edited by my good friend Troy Camplin.  Tell me about the influence that Austrian economics has had on you.

JNS:  I would say that Austrian economics — and more fundamentally, the analytical tools of praxeology and games theory — have been fundamental to my work for my entire professional career. They’re not the only tools in my kit, but they get shopworn as much as any of them. Austrian economics is most explicit in Alongside Night, projecting the social and political consequences of fiat money hyperinflation — but I used games theory in plotting “Profile in Silver” and applied praxeology to the afterlife in Escape from Heaven. Read the rest of this entry »

Speculations About Baudrillard

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on November 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post originally appeared here at Austrian Economics and Literature.

The emancipation of the sign: remove this ‘archaic’ obligation to designate something and it finally becomes free, indifferent and totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence. The same operation takes place at the level of labour power and the production process: the annihilation of any goal as regards the contents of production allows the latter to function as a code, and the monetary sign, for example, to escape into infinite speculation, beyond all reference to a real production, or event to a gold-standard. The floatation of money and signs, the floatation of ‘needs’ and ends of production, the floatation of labour itself—the commutability of every term is accompanied by speculation and a limitless inflation (and we really have total liberty—no duties, disaffection and general disenchantment; but this remains a magic, a sort of magical obligation which keeps the sign chained up to the real, capital has freed signs from this ‘naïvety’ in order to deliver them into pure circulation).

—Jean Baudrillard, from “Symbolic Exchange and Death”

Baudrillard’s hyperreality is fascinating. I’ve written about it here and here. I have reservations about Baudrillard, but I think his theories could be useful to libertarians and Austrian economists. What follows is merely speculation. I’m seeking feedback, not advancing an argument that I’m invested in.

What Baudrillard calls the “political economy of the sign,” economists call the “subjective theory of value.” Claiming that his term is inadequate because its signification is allusive and coded, Baudrillard seems to multiply the subjective theory of value until it (and what it evaluates: the good or service for which people exchange currency) becomes something else, something re-signified. In so doing, Baudrillard seems to mimic or participate in the very semiotic processes that he is describing.

The re-signified version of the subjective theory of value can no longer be called the subjective theory of value because the re-signified version is, to a degree, counterfeit; the same can be said of the materiality (the thing used to facilitate or complete an economic transaction) constituting the monetary unit described by the subjective theory of value. Strictly speaking, the re-signified version of this theory is itself a replacement copy of the theory, just as money and other units of exchange are merely signs standing in the place of “worth.”

The subjective theory of value holds that a thing does not possess inherent worth. Instead, worth arises because of the social value that attaches to a thing. Worth, or cost, is the price which one person is willing to pay and which another person is willing to sell. Standing in contradistinction to the labor theory of value, which Baudrillard seems to pooh-pooh (perhaps because of his disaffiliation with the Marxism of his youth), the subjective theory of value maintains that worth or cost depends upon the ability of a thing to satisfy the wants of consumers. A consumer is satisfied to the extent that a thing is useful to him. Utility here is measurable in psychological and not just “practical” terms; a person may want something because it makes him feel good. What seems to bother Baudrillard is the extent to which consumers exchange goods (themselves mediated by signs and representations) to become plugged into a symbolic network rather than to satisfy an immediate need. The satisfaction is what comes with the entrance into a symbolic order.

A thing, according to this conception of value, is not worth a lot simply because a lot of people mix their labor with it. Nor is a thing worth a lot because of some essential properties or qualities it contains. Rather, thing A is worth a lot because people think it is worth a lot: because people are willing to exchange something they own (thing B or C or D) in order to own thing A.

For Baudrillard, the subjective theory of value (a term he never uses) has vast implications for the sign in the postmodern world, just as the sign has vast implications for the subjective theory of value in the postmodern world. Because the worth or value of a thing is not tied to labor, it is, in a way, as Baudrillard suggests, subject to infinite speculation and free from all reference to production. Media of exchange (e.g., money) float outside the real—which is to say, outside of material things. They became simulacra for some temporary and contingent concept of value. Perhaps more importantly, the media of exchange are themselves distorted and fabricated by structures of symbols marking various exchanges. Fiat money brings about the complete arbitrariness of the sign, which is entirely divorced from use value. The ability of a green piece of paper (speaking in terms of American dollars) to become exchangeable for products depends upon social signification; the economy itself is dominated by signs and images, which are, after all, what producers and consumers exchange for products. Read the rest of this entry »

Konrad Graf on Action-Based Jurisprudence

In Austrian Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Libertarianism, News Release, Politics on August 14, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Konrad Graf, who, with me, contributes to Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature, has published the following essay in Libertarian Papers“Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics, and Legal Practice.”  Here is the abstract to the piece:

Action-based legal theory is a discrete branch of praxeology and the basis of an emerging school of jurisprudence related to, but distinct from, natural law. Legal theory and economic theory share content that is part of praxeology itself: the action axiom, the a priori of argumentation, universalizable property theory, and counterfactual-deductive methodology. Praxeological property-norm justification is separate from the strictly ethical “ought” question of selecting ends in an action context. Examples of action-based jurisprudence are found in existing “Austro-libertarian” literature. Legal theory and legal practice must remain distinct and work closely together if justice is to be found in real cases. Legal theorizing was shaped in religious ethical contexts, which contributed to confused field boundaries between law and ethics. The carrot and stick influence of rulers on theorists has distorted conventional economics and jurisprudence in particular directions over the course of centuries. An action-based approach is relatively immune to such sources of distortion in its methods and conclusions, but has tended historically to be marginalized from conventional institutions for this same reason.

This piece is striking for a number of reasons, not least of which is the way it came about.  As the Mises Economics Blog explains,

This is an interesting, provocative analysis of libertarian theory that highlights the strength of the Mises Institute’s approach and model of openness. First, this piece was inspired by the author’s participating in a Mises Academy course.

Second, the author is not a professional scholar or academic. In days past such authors–who are often the source of new ideas–would be shut out by credentialism and the iron grip certain institutions had over the few avenues of publication. The open model of the Mises Institute’s Libertarian Papers–rigorously double-blind peer-reviewed but open to private scholars as well as academics, as its focus is on ideas–breaks free of this hidebound model.

Third, the article is 75 pages long, much longer than many journals can accept. But this is no problem for the Libertarian Papers model as it is online, not centered on paper.

To sum up, this provocative piece was stimulated by the Mises Institute’s being on the forefront of technology (Mises Academy), not to mention the gargantuan volume of free, online resource such authors are able to draw on (Mises.org), and then was offered a publishing platform (Libertarian Papers) despite its length and the author’s private, “non-credentialed” status. In my view, this is all to the good and a testament to the heroic work done by the Mises Institute.

Libertarian Papers is edited by Stephan Kinsella.  Visit Kinsella’s website here.  Visit Mises Academy (which inspired Graf’s article) by clicking here.

Excerpt from “Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Conclusion”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Conservatism, Humane Economy, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Politics, Pragmatism, Transnational Law on August 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

A few months ago, the Libertarian Alliance, a London-based think tank, published my paper on transnational law.  Below is an excerpt from that paper.  The piece is available for download through SSRN by clicking here, or on the website of the Libertarian Alliance by clicking here.

In 1957, reviewing Philip Jessup’s Transnational Law, James N. Hyde wrote that “[t]ransnational law is not likely to become a term of art for a new body of law.”25  Mr. Hyde was wrong.  There has been a proliferation of relatively new law journals bearing “transnational law” in their titles: Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems: A Journal of the University of Iowa College of Law, Ashburn Institute Transnational Law Journal, Journal of Transnational Law & Policy, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Transnational Law Review, and Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.  There are LLM programs in transnational law (such as the one I am in), and there are even institutes and think-tanks devoted to the study and development of transnational law.  Transnational law has in fact become the term of art for a new body of law, and here we will consider the nature and meaning of this term as well as the corpus of law it has created.  It is perhaps not coincidental that the emergence of transnational law coincided with transnational poetics26 and other transnational trends in literary criticism because the legal and literary fields always seem responsive to one another.

One of the earliest references, if not the earliest reference, to the concept of transnationalism comes from the pragmatist philosopher and student of John Dewey: Randolph Bourne.  Bourne’s use of the term “transnational” recalls William James’s notion of religious pluralism as non-absolute and non-monist.27  Bourne appears to have revised and extended James’s pragmatism to fit the political instead of the religious or philosophical context, although James himself came close to addressing the former context in “A Pluralistic Universe.”  Bourne’s essay “Trans-National America” regarded transnationalism as a cousin of cultural pluralism, the notion that differences in belief across cultures and communities may not be equally valid but can be at least equally practical.  Against essentialism, monism, and absolutism, Bourne posits a consequentialist system of polycentrism that regards multiplicity as positive and collectivism as dangerous.  Society can and should be multiple and heterogeneous, not single and homogeneous, for a one-size-fits-all polis can only materialize through the stamping out of minority views and through the erasing of distinct, regional cultures.  Put another way, Bourne transforms James’s varieties of religious experience28 into varieties of political experience.

Kenneth Burke, a literary critic, sometime student of pragmatism, and Marxist converted into a non-“ism” altogether, argued later in his life that ideology and fanaticism – by which he meant “the effort to impose one doctrine of motives abruptly upon a world composed of many different motivational situations”29 – were destructive missions incompatible with pluralism or democracy.  Burke, who remained naively critical of the free market, nevertheless refused ideologies as simplifying what cannot be simplified: human behavior.  What Burke did not realize is that free market theories, especially those of the Austrian variety, are not deterministic: they refuse to pigeonhole people or to reduce them to economic calculations; they treat humans as unpredictable and spontaneous and celebrate the sheer variety of human behavior.  My point in referencing Burke is not to systematically demolish his economic preferences but to suggest that his wide-ranging theories have positive implications for our understanding of transnationalism.  One could argue that Bourne and Burke were the earliest expositors of transnationalist theories tied to the practical world and that Jessup and others merely repackaged Bourne and Burke’s dicta.  Regardless of whether Jessup either read or credited Bourne and Burke, the theories emanating from these two literary critics would have been in circulation at Jessup’s moment in history.  Jessup, widely read as he was, probably would have encountered Bourne and Burke’s transnationalism directly or indirectly. Read the rest of this entry »

Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Addendum

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric & Communication, Transnational Law on May 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The Libertarian Alliance (London, U.K.) has published my article “Transnational Law: An Essay in Definition with a Polemic Addendum.”  View the article here, or download it from SSRN by clicking here.  I have pasted the abstract below:

What is transnational law? Various procedures and theories have emanated from this slippery signifier, but in general academics and legal practitioners who use the term have settled on certain common meanings for it. My purpose in this article is not to disrupt but to clarify these meanings by turning to literary theory and criticism that regularly address transnationality. Cultural and postcolonial studies are the particular strains of literary theory and criticism to which I will attend. To review “transnational law,” examining its literary inertia and significations, is the objective of this article, which does not purport to settle the matter of denotation. Rather, this article is an essay in definition, a quest for etymological precision. Its take on transnationalism will rely not so much on works of literature (novels, plays, poems, drama, and so forth) but on works of literary theory and criticism. It will reference literary critics as wide-ranging as George Orwell, Kenneth Burke, and Edward Said. It will explore the “trans” prefix as a supplantation of the “post” prefix. The first section of this article, “Nationalism,” will examine the concept of nationalism that transnationalism replaced. A proper understanding of transnational law is not possible without a look at its most prominent antecedent. The first section, then, will not explore what transnationalism is; it will explore what transnationalism is not. The second section, “Transnationalism,” will piece together the assemblages of thought comprising transnationalist studies. This section will then narrow the subject of transnationalism to transnational law. Here I will attempt to squeeze several broad themes and ideals into comprehensible explanations, hopefully without oversimplifying; here also I will tighten our understanding of transitional law into something of a definition. Having tentatively defined transnational law, I will, in section three, “Against the New Imperialism,” address some critiques of capitalism by those cultural critics who celebrate the transnational turn in global law and politics. Although I share these critics’ enthusiasm for transnational law, I see capitalism – another hazy construct that will require further clarification – as a good thing, not as a repressive ideology that serves the wants and needs of the hegemonic or elite.

Interview with Troy Camplin, Interdisciplinary Scholar and Author of Diaphysics

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Communication, Creative Writing, Humanities, Information Design, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Theatre, Western Kentucky University, Writing on May 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall interviews Troy Camplin.

 

Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas.  He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.  
 

 

Q:  Your interdisciplinary background seems to lend itself to commentary on this site.  Tell us a bit about that background and a bit about your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinary scholarship.

A:  I have an unusual educational background that I only made more unusual in my independent studies. My undergraduate degree is in Recombinant Gene Technology, with a minor in chemistry, from Western Kentucky University. When I am interested in something, I spend all of my time learning about it. So, as an undergrad, I not only learned about molecular biology through my classes, but also in my independent reading. I read the journals and I read even popular works on molecular biology. This led me to John Gribbin’s book In Search of the Double Helix, in which he talks a great deal about quantum physics. I didn’t know a thing about quantum physics, and I really didn’t understand what he was saying about it in that book, so I decided to read his other books on quantum physics, including In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. I cannot say I understood quantum physics much after reading that book, either, but I was hooked, and read every popular book on quantum physics I could read. In addition, I ran across several other popular science books that introduced me to what would become much more central to my thinking, including Gleick’s Chaos and Ilya Prigogine’s works on self-organization. These provided several of the seeds of my development as an interdisciplinary scholar.

Another element to my interdisciplinary development was a class I pretty much lucked into. Undergraduates have to take several required courses, of course, and one semester I wanted to take a New Testament class with Joseph Trafton (who was highly recommended, and whose class I eventually did take), but it was full. So I took an Intro. To Philosophy class just to get the hours in that section in. By chance I chose a class taught by Ronald Nash—a random choice that ended up changing my life completely.

Nash taught his class using three texts: a collection of Plato’s dialogues and two books Nash himself wrote. One of the books Nash wrote was Poverty and Wealth: A Christian Defense of Capitalism. It was through Nash that I was introduced to free market economics. I was hooked. I read everything I could find in the university library with the word “capitalism” in the title or as the subject. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Hayek, and a little book titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal  by Ayn Rand. The latter, of course, led me to Atlas Shrugged, and that led me to the rest of her work. Rand hooked me on the idea of being a fiction writer and made me interested in philosophy. I began reading the fiction writers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why) and the philosophers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why). I read and fell in love with Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, Aristotle and Nietzsche. Particularly Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, whose tragic worldviews were deeply appealing to me. Nietzsche deepened my appreciation for philosophy, and introduced me to tragedy. Read the rest of this entry »

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