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Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

In Arts & Letters, Books, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on December 17, 2014 at 8:45 am

Literature and Liberty

A Christmas gift available here at Rowman & Littlefield’s website, here at Amazon, here at ebay, and here at Barnes & Noble.   

The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.

Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.

Here’s what others are saying about Literature and Liberty:

By subtitling his book “Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism,” Allen Mendenhall situates his work within an exciting methodological approach that is still off the radar screens of most academicians.  Not since the appearance of Edward Said’s Orientalism has a new literary approach invited us to read texts from a vantage point that jolts us into recognition of deep-seated ideological undercurrents that had previously remained unnoticed, or were simply passed over in silence. … It is a pleasure to now add Mendenhall’s deftly argued and passionately engaged volume to my list of recommended readings in libertarian scholarship.— Jo Ann Cavallo, Professor of Italian and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Columbia University

The much celebrated interdisciplinarity of contemporary criticism often amounts to nothing more than the absence of grounding in any traditional intellectual discipline, literary or otherwise. By contrast, Allen Mendenhall’s book is genuinely interdisciplinary. With solid credentials in law, economics, and literature, he moves seamlessly and productively among the fields. Covering a wide range of topics—from medieval history to postcolonial studies—Mendenhall opens up fresh perspectives on long-debated critical issues and raises new questions of his own.Paul A. Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English, University of Virginia

Freedom is all around us, but we sometimes need expert guides to help us see it. This is exactly what the brilliant Allen Mendenhall has done with his outstanding collection of essays on the way great literary fiction interacts with the themes of human liberty. In taking this approach, he is turning certain academic conventions on their heads, finding individualism and property rights where others look for social forces and collectivist imperatives. He helps us to have a rich and deeper appreciation of the libertarian tradition and its expanse beyond economics and politics.Jeffrey Tucker, CEO of Liberty.me, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, and Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

In Literature and Liberty, Allen Mendenhall aims to expand the marketplace of ideas in literary studies to include the entire spectrum of free-market theories. His goal is to break Marxism’s monopolistic hold over economic ideas in the study of imaginative literature. In his diverse chapters, he convincingly offers multiple transdisciplinary approaches to libertarian theory that literature scholars could adopt and build upon. Celebrating individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism, Mendenhall focuses on commonalities and areas of agreement with respect to free-market theories. This approach increases the probability that the ideas in this ground-breaking volume will be widely embraced by thinkers from various schools of pro-capitalist thought, including, but not limited to Classical Liberalism, the Austrian School, the Judeo-Christian perspective, the Public Choice School, the Chicago School, the Human Flourishing School, and Objectivism.Edward W. Younkins, Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration and Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality, Wheeling Jesuit University

Allen Mendenhall is both an attorney and an advanced student of literature. He also has an excellent knowledge of modern economics. … [A]s Mendenhall notes, non-Marxist treatments of economics and literature have been slow to develop. His new book, Literature and Liberty, goes far toward supplying this lack. It shows how much work can be done, and good work too, when law and literature are studied from the perspectives offered by a real competence in economic ideas. … Every part of the book shows the fully interdisciplinary character of Mendenhall’s understanding of his subjects and his large knowledge of the historical periods he treats. Only the rare reader will be unable to learn from Mendenhall. … The kind of interdisciplinary work that Mendenhall advocates is an exciting enterprise, and one hopes that he will have much more to do with it.— Stephen Cox, Professor of Literature, University of California, San Diego, and Editor in Chief, Liberty

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Edward W. Younkins

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Economics, Fiction, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics on February 12, 2014 at 8:45 am
Edward W. Younkins

Edward W. Younkins

AM:       Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.  I’d like to start by asking why you chose to write Exploring Capitalist Fiction.  Was there a void you were seeking to fill?

EY:          The origins of this book go back to the Spring of 1992 when I began teaching a course called Business Through Literature in Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA program.  Exploring Capitalist Fiction is heavily based on my lectures and notes on the novels, plays, and films used in this popular course over the years and on what I have learned from my students in class discussions and in their papers.

The idea to write this book originated a few years ago when one of Wheeling Jesuit University’s MBA graduates, who had taken and enjoyed the Business Through Literature course, proposed that I write a book based on the novels, plays, and films covered in that course.  I agreed as I concluded that the subject matter was important and bookworthy and that the book would be fun for me to write and for others to read.  I went on to select twenty-five works to include in the book out of the more than eighty different ones that had been used in my course over the years.  I have endeavored to select the ones that have been the most influential, are the most relevant, and are the most interesting.  In a few instances, I have chosen works that I believe to be undervalued treasures.

I was not intentionally trying to fill a void as there are a number of similar books by fine authors such as Joseph A. Badaracco, Robert A. Brawer, Robert Coles, Emily Stipes Watts, and Oliver F. Williams, among others.  Of course, I did see my evenhanded study of business and capitalism in literature as a nice complement and supplement to these works.

AM:       I assume that you’ll use this book to teach your own courses, and I suspect other teachers will also use the book in their courses.  Anyone who reads the book will quickly understand the reason you believe that imaginative literature and film have pedagogical value in business courses, but would you mind stating some of those reasons for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet?

EY:          The underpinning premise of this book and of my course is that fiction, including novels, plays, and films, can be a powerful force to educate students and employees in ways that lectures, textbooks, articles, case studies, and other traditional teaching approaches cannot.  Works of fiction can address a range of issues and topics, provide detailed real-life descriptions of the organizational contexts in which workers find themselves, and tell interesting, engaging, and memorable stories that are richer and more likely to stay with the reader or viewer longer than lectures and other teaching approaches.  Imaginative literature can enrich business teaching materials and provide an excellent supplement to the theories, concepts, and issues that students experience in their business courses.  Reading novels and plays and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking, to learn about character, and to instill moral values.  It is likely that people who read business novels and plays and watch movies about business will continue to search for more of them as sources of entertainment, inspiration, and education.

AM:       Who are the intended audiences for your new book?

EY:          My target audiences include college students, business teachers, general readers, and people employed in the business world.  My summaries and analyses of twenty-five works are intended to create the feel of what it is like to work in business.  The premise of the book is that fiction can provide a powerful teaching tool to sensitize business students without business experiences and to educate and train managers in real businesses.  Studying fictions of business can provide insights to often inexperienced business students and new employees with respect to real-life situations.

In each of my 25 chapters I provide a sequential summary of the fictional work, interspersed with some commentary that highlights the managerial, economic, and philosophical implications of the ideas found in the work.  My emphasis is on the business applications of the lessons of particular novels, plays, and films.  This book highlights the lessons that an individual can take from each work and apply to his or her own life.  It is not literary analysis for its own sake.

I do not delve deeply into these novels, plays, and films in order to identify previously-covered and previously-uncovered themes in existing scholarship.  My book is essentially a study guide for people interested in becoming familiar with the major relevant themes in significant works of literature and film.  The book can also serve as a guide for professors who desire to expand their teaching approaches beyond the traditional ones employed in schools of business.

Of course, literary scholars can use my book as a starting point, catalyst, or reference work for their own in-depth scholarly studies of these and other works.  For example, I can envision a number of scholars, from a variety of viewpoints, contributing essays to book collections devoted to different literary works.  One possible collection that readily comes to mind would be devoted to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.  Other candidates for potential collections might include Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Norris’s The Octopus, Dreiser’s The Financer, Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Lewis’s Babbitt, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hawley’s Executive Suite, Lodge’s Nice Work, Sterner’s Other People’s Money, among others.  It would be great if some of the contributing literary scholars to these volumes would come from pro-business, pro-capitalist thinkers such as Paul Cantor, Stephen Cox, Ryan McMaken, Sarah Skwire, Amy Willis, Michelle Vachris, and yourself.  As you know most literary critics are from the left.  Those mentioned above celebrate individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism.

AM:       What can be learned from business fiction?

EY:          Fiction can be used to teach, explicate, and illustrate a wide range of business issues and concepts.  Many fictional works address human problems in business such as managing interpersonal conflict and office politics; using different styles of management; the potential loss of one’s individuality as a person tends to become an “organization man”; the stultifying effect of routine in business; the difficulty in balancing work life and home life; hiring and keeping virtuous employees; maintaining one’s personal integrity while satisfying the company’s demands for loyalty, conformity and adaptation to the firm’s culture; communication problems a business may experience; fundamental moral dilemmas; depersonalization and mechanization of human relationships; and so on.  Fictional works tend to describe human behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, and engagingly than texts, articles, or cases typically do.  Literary authors and filmmakers are likely to develop and present ideas through individual characters.  They depict human insights and interests from the perspective of individuals within an organizational setting.  Reading imaginative literature and watching films are excellent ways to develop critical thinking and to learn about values and character.

Many novels, plays, and films are concerned with the actual operation of the business system.  Some deal directly with business problems such as government regulation, cost control, new product development, labor relations, environmental pollution, health and safety, plant openings and closings, tactics used and selection of takeover targets, structuring financial transactions, succession planning, strategic planning, the creation of mission statements, the company’s role in the community, social responsibility, etc.  Assessing fictional situations makes a person more thoughtful, better prepared for situations, and better able to predict the consequences of alternative actions.  Fiction can address both matters of morality and practical issues.  There are many fine selections in literature and film which prompt readers to wrestle with business situations.

Older novels, plays, and films can supply information on the history of a subject or topic.  They can act as historical references for actual past instances and can help students to understand the reasons for successes and failures of the past.  Older literature can provide a good history lesson and can help people to understand the development of our various businesses and industries.  These stories can be inspiring and motivational and can demonstrate how various organizations and managers were able to overcome obstacles, adapt, and survive.  Fictional works are cultural artifacts from different time periods that can be valuable when discussing the history of business.  Many fictional works present history in a form that is more interesting than when one just reads history books.

Imaginative literature reflects a variety of cultural, social, ethical, political, economic, and philosophical perspectives that have been found in American society.  Various images of businessmen have appeared in fictional works.  These include the businessman as Scrooge-like miser, confidence man, robber baron, hero, superman, technocrat, organization man, small businessman, buffoon, rugged individualist, corporate capitalist, financial capitalist, man of integrity, etc.

AM:       How will your teaching approach change in your Business Through Literature course now that you have published your own book on the subject?

EY:          In the past students in this course have read, analyzed, and discussed novels, plays, and films.  Each student prepared a minimum of 6 short papers (2000 words each) on the assigned works.  Grades were based on these papers and class discussions.

I am experimenting this semester using my book in the class for the first time.  I am requiring each student to take notes on each chapter of the book to help them in bringing up topics for class discussion and in participating in class discussions.  Each student is also required to prepare and turn in three essay questions on each chapter.  These are turned in before each relevant class.  Grades for the class are based on class participation and two essay tests.

AM:       Isn’t the reverse also true that literature students ought to study economics or at least gain an understanding of business from something besides imaginative literature and film, which tend not to portray capitalists in a favorable light?

EY:          It would definitely be beneficial for literature students to study classes in business areas such as management, marketing, accounting, and finance.  It would help them somewhat if they took a course or two in economics.  Unfortunately, almost all college-level economics courses are based on Keynesian economics.  I would encourage anyone who takes such courses to read and study Austrian economics in order to gain a more realistic perspective.

AM:       You’ve written a great deal about Ayn Rand, and the chapter on Atlas Shrugged is the longest one in your book.  Rand can be a divisive figure, even, perhaps especially, among what you might call “libertarians” or “free marketers” or “capitalists” and the like.  But even the people in those categories who reject Objectivism tend to praise Rand’s novels.  What do you make of that, and do you think there’s a lesson there about the novel as a medium for transmitting philosophy?

EY:          I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who value “novels of ideas.”  There have been many good philosophical novels but none have been as brilliantly integrated and unified as Atlas Shrugged.  Rand characterizes grand themes and presents an entire and integrated view of how a man should live his life.  Rand’s great power comes from her ability to unify everything in the novel to form an integrated whole.  The theme and the plot are inextricably integrated.  Rand is a superb practitioner of synthesis and unity whose literary style and subject are organically linked and fused to the content of her philosophy.  She unifies the many aspects of Atlas Shrugged according to the principles of reality.  People from the various schools of “free-market” thought are in accord in promoting an appropriate reality-based social system in which each person is free to strive for his personal flourishing and happiness.

AM:       I want to ask about Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, the subject of chapter twelve of your book.  Why do you think this book has not received much attention?  It has been, I’d venture to say, all but forgotten or overlooked by even the most ardent fans of Hazlitt.  Is the book lacking something, or are there other factors at play here?

EY:          Hazlitt’s novel may not be “literary” enough for many people.  However, in my opinion, the author does skillfully use fiction to illustrate his teachings on economics.  I think that the book also has a good story line.  Economics professors tend to shy away from using it in their classes.  Some may be so quantitatively oriented that they cannot envision using a novel to teach economics.  Others may perceive the Austrian economics principles found in Time Will Run Back to not fit in with the Keynesian economics principles found in most textbooks (and of course they are right).

AM:       Thank you again for doing this interview.  All the best in 2014.

0739184261[1]

Edward W. Younkins. Exploring Capitalist Fiction:  Business Through Literature and Film. Lanham,

Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014.

 

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 4, “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 18, 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.

The following is part of a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Other installments in the series can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3.

In Chapter IV of The Road to Serfdom, entitled “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”, Hayek sets out to dispel the claim by advocates of socialist planning that controls are a necessary part of an advanced, modern economy and that without them the economy would cease to function. He recognizes that socialist claims as to the inevitability of planning can be broadly categorized into three types of argument, then proceeds to refute each. He does so thoroughly and effectively. In the course of reading his arguments, however, we unfortunately find more of the same sorts of errors that have punctuated previous chapters. Though these errors are not as numerous as those we have already seen from Hayek, they are fatal to the cause of liberty. Hayek’s flaws here confirm our earlier assertion that his view of the argument for freedom is so firmly rooted in an economic, cost/benefit framework as to make him unsuited to presenting the comprehensive defense that capitalism as a system of individual rights needs and deserves.

Hayek begins by accurately describing a circumstance quite familiar to us today: politicians who advocate central planning doing so on the claim that circumstances somehow demand controls, and that it is not a choice but a necessity that the government intervene if we are to retain a functioning economy. The familiarity one finds in reading his characterization of this mode of thinking reveals how constant and unchanging such arguments are across generations and throughout the Western world. The arguments he describes, though drawn from England in the 1940s, are replayed in the halls of the US Congress week after week, year after year to the detriment of the rights and success of private businesses, their vendors, customers, employees, investors, and all who share in the economy with them.

Distinguishing the various arguments used to support this insistence upon the need for planning, Hayek finds three purported bases for their claims: technological advancement, societal complexity, and the need for coercive monopoly.

Argument I: Technological Advancement

As to the first, he writes, “Of the various argument employed to demonstrate the inevitability of planning, the one most frequently heard is that technological changes have made competition impossible in a constantly increasing number of fields, and that the only choice left to us is between control of production by private monopolies and direction by the government” (32). The preeminence of this argument above the others may not hold the number one position that it did in Hayek’s day, as other arguments for market regulation have debatably become more prevalent, but it certainly remains one of the leading lines of thought in antitrust.

Hayek characterizes such arguments as resting largely on deterministic conceptions of economic progress, ones that in the early 20th century viewed Germany, with its coincidence of economic planning, a strong industrial sector, and large companies operating in collusion with the national government as the vanguard of human progress. He points to the roots of this thinking in Germans’ misconceptions of their own system: “It is largely due to the influence of German socialist theoreticians, particularly Sombart, generalising from the experience of their country, that the inevitable development of the competitive system into ‘monopoly capitalism’ became widely accepted” (34), Hayek offers several valid economic and historical arguments against this, refuting the suggestion by many that a free economy naturally, inevitably congeals into small number of sprawling monopolies.

Hayek points out that monopolies arising purely from efficiency and natural market forces are rare and very difficult to sustain, thus making competitive arguments the norm in a free economy. He acknowledges that most monopolies arise from government favors and protection—constituting what can best be termed coercive monopolies. “Not only the instrument of protection, but direct inducements and ultimately compulsion, were used by the governments to further the creation of monopolies for the regulation of prices and sales” (34).

He makes clear that the progress of the German economy was not such that monopolies resulted naturally and were subsequently checked by government controls, but rather that the companies in question attained their monopoly status through that very culture of political collusion. He points to the same mechanism of political influence and pull-peddling in the establishment of protectionist policies and the formation of inefficient, monopolized industries in the United States and Great Britain as well.

“That [in Germany] the suppression of competition was a matter of deliberate policy, that it was undertaken in the service of the ideal which we now call planning, there can be no doubt. In the progressive advance towards a completely planned society the Germans, and all the people who are imitating their example, are merely following the course which nineteenth-century thinkers, particularly Germans, have mapped out for them. The intellectual history of the last sixty or eighty years is indeed a perfect illustration of the truth that in social evolution nothing is inevitable but thinking makes it so” (35).

Making this and other points as to the origins of large monopolies, Hayek establishes a strong historical case against the belief that unchecked market forces lead naturally to the creation of monopolized industries. What he does not do, however, is take a stand in defense of naturally occurring, non-coercive monopolies when and where they do occur. This is to be expected. Influenced by ideas dominant in the field of economics both then and now, Hayek has already established briefly in previous chapters his support for employing antitrust policies to facilitate competition.

What Hayek and others of this persuasion fail to note, however, is the two-fold case for free market monopolies: the profound economic value they offer and the protection of individual rights. As rare as these monopolies are, they do occur. When they arise, they do so because a company has achieved such a profound degree of efficiency that no other company is able to compete in the same market and must exit the market place.

Such monopolies have not attained their status through force or the rule of law, but through so consistently providing the best product for the money that their appeal in a market overwhelms all potential competitors. It may not conform to the idealized, Platonic notion of ‘competitive markets’ to which modern economics has become so hidebound, but that is a paltry explanation to offer people as an apology for why the company they patronize had to be divested of its assets for offering them too much value, and for why they are now better off having to pay higher prices for the same goods and services. To the contrary: the achievement of the kind of superlative efficiency that defines free market monopolies, from which the customers and general population gain as surely as the company itself, should not be condemned but praised.

More than this, the proper defense of free market monopolies is based in the property rights of the owners of the company—be they the operators themselves, or shareholders of a publicly traded company. No matter the extent to which their operations do or do not conform to economists’ notions of which market forms are to be favored, neither they nor policymakers nor the general public have the right to take from them that which is rightfully theirs in the name of creating a more efficient allocation of resources.

In today’s debates, a derivative line of thinking from the technology argument usually takes the form, ‘If one company gains such a technological advantage as to offer its goods and services at a price and quality with which no other company can compete, shouldn’t the government intervene?’ Faced with such a question, any defender of liberalism—that is, anyone who value’s man’s life and individual rights above subservience to some ill-defined collective ‘good’—should offer a resounding “Absolutely not!” As in his earlier chapters, though, Hayek makes no mention of rights here and is thus unable to offer this kind of principled defense—or, for that matter, any defense.

Argument II: Societal Complexity

The second argument for the inevitability of planning addressed by Hayek is loosely related to the first, with an added macroeconomic dimension. He writes,

“The assertion that modern technological progress makes planning inevitable can also be interpreted in a different manner. It may mean that the complexity of our modern industrial civilisation creates new problems with which we cannot hope to deal effectively except by central planning” (35) [Emphasis mine].

This argument should be strikingly familiar to those in modern America, ringing from both right and left as both sides of the political spectrum apologize for our massive regulatory system with vague, arbitrary claims to the effect that there exists some unnamed, undefined essential quality to today’s economy that so fundamentally differentiates it from that of earlier periods as to require the forcible regulation of trade. What is this fundamental difference? How and at what point did it emerge? What about the complexity of the economy negates the organizational virtues of the price system? Blank out. The apologists have no causal explanation, only inherited and unchallenged bromides.

“What they generally suggest is that the increasing difficulty of obtaining a coherent picture of the complete economic process makes it indispensable that things should be coordinated by some central agency if social life is not to dissolve in chaos” (36).

Such unsubstantiated conjectures and baseless arguments never require much to be toppled, but fortunately Hayek provides a more than adequate shove, making the case that greater complexity in an economy is not an argument in favor of central planning, but rather an argument against it. The more complex an economic system, the more valuable it becomes that each party, knowing their own costs and values, conducts their own planning, achieving order through the natural coordination of prices, each communicating information as to the supply and demand of resources in an open economy.

Argument III: The Need for Coercive Monopoly

The last argument in favor of planning somewhat reverses the trend of the first two, justifying planning as a means of imposing monopolies rather than preventing them, and revealing the crux of the statists’ argument to be not the protection of competition throughout the economy, but the socialist planner’s ability to pick and choose when and in what sectors competition will prevail.

“There is yet another theory which connects the growth of monopolies with technological progress, and which uses arguments almost opposite to those we have just considered; though not often clearly stated, it has also exercised considerable influence. It contends, not that modern technique destroys competition, but that, on the contrary, it will be impossible to make use of many of the new technological possibilities unless protection against competition is granted, i.e., a monopoly is conferred” (37).

This particular argument for government planning is less common, as its applications are less frequent throughout economies. The most notable circumstance in which this argument is presented is with respect to so-called ‘natural monopolies’ (a term used by economists that ambiguates other kinds of natural monopolies produced in a free market, as we described earlier) in the utilities sectors of modern economies. Large-scale enterprises such as electric companies that require heavy, permanent or semi-permanent installations of infrastructure such as power grids are described by those who teach this model of the ‘natural monopoly’ as incapable of making such investments without a guarantee from the local government that all competition will be prohibited within the municipality.

The history of the electric power industry in the Unites States, however, shows a different story—one in which the major driver of the ‘natural monopoly’ model was not the inefficiency of competitive markets, but rather the political collusion between state legislatures and early power industry executives who were, in many cases, given no choice but to keep legislators happy with rewards and employment or face losing the investments they had already made.

Intriguingly, however, Hayek makes only a passing mention of this obvious and most frequent application of the ‘natural monopoly’ argument. He opts instead to dismiss most instances of its application (rightfully) as “a form of special pleading by interested parties” (37), then to proceed into a bizarre hypothetical about England allowing only one make of automobile if it meant lower prices on all automobiles. He presents this as a potentially valid application of the idea, arguing only that such cases are “certainly not instances where it could be legitimately claimed that technological progress makes central direction inevitable. They would merely make it necessary to choose between gaining a particular advantage by compulsion and not obtaining it—or, in most instances, obtaining it a little later, when further technical advance has overcome the particular difficulties” (38).

Hayek the economist seems to consider such an interventionist policy at least plausible, if debatably desirable. But what of Hayek the liberal political theorist? Under what conditions would he find such a policy acceptable? Would the strict prohibition of initiating force, so frequently invoked among libertarians, be the standard? Not quite. “[I]t must be admitted,” Hayek writes, “that it is possible that by compulsory standardisation or the prohibition of variety beyond a certain degree, abundance might be increased in some fields more than sufficiently to compensate for the restriction of the choice of the consumer” (38) [Emphasis mine.].

Let us ask: what level of abundance would you require to surrender your right to choose how you wish to dispose of your income? What is the exchange rate between degrees of efficiency and the right to trade freely? And for producers: how compensated will you feel at the knowledge your automobile is less expensive when your business is being shut down by the government for offering customers too much diversity in the marketplace? Many who read this in today’s mixed economy will likely have similarly mixed feelings and mixed premises in their responses to these questions. Thus, let us reframe the issue to put it in stark relief.

Imagine that you live in a society that enacts such a policy of homogenizing the nation’s automobiles. The government is left to decide who will remain in the automobile business in the ways it usually decides such matters. The last businessmen to grovel will be the first to go. There is no more choice in make or model. Competition in quality and unique features is gone. You, however, are left with a less expensive automobile, your neighbors are left with less expensive automobiles, and the supply of them to the general public skyrockets. (This is a fantasy, remember, so you’ll forgive me if I pretend a government program is successful even if only in the short term.)

Now imagine that instead of automobiles, the product is healthcare.

How much are you willing to trade of your rights for greater efficiency? What is your price? And how strong a defender of economic freedom is Mr. Hayek? The answer is clear and tragic.

Hayek establishes here firmly and conclusively that he is not, in fact, much of a political theorist. He is ultimately a dryly calculating economist plotting your rights on a utility curve.  Though many of Hayek’s admirers will no doubt reject this assessment, it is difficult to argue with his own words as he lays out his fundamental basis for liberalism as such. “[T]he argument for freedom,” according to Hayek, “is precisely that we ought to leave room for the unforeseeable free growth” (38).

To anyone who values man’s fundamental rights; who believes that those rights are derived from his nature and not subject to popular will; who thinks that freedom is rightfully his; who rejects force as a necessary or proper ingredient in human social relationships; who recognizes that the history of human innovation and progress has rested on the freedom of man’s mind to study and master the world around him; who claims the prerogative to pursue his own self-interest; who retains his self-esteem; who holds his own happiness as the purpose of his life: the only proper answer, the only moral answer is “Absolutely not!”

The argument for freedom, Mr. Hayek, is the assertion of man’s right to his own life, a life that is its own justification. Nothing else is required and nothing else will do.

Hayek’s fourth chapter, “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”, thus leaves us back at the low-point of Chapter I. It is impossible, based on the philosophical framework established in the introduction and first four chapters, that Hayek could at this point offer a proper defense of liberalism. Though I hesitated to make the comparison earlier, hoping he might redeem himself, it is fair to say now that Hayek is scarcely better than many of the pragmatist politicians today who argue for capitalism as a practical benefit, make no mention of its moral values, and ultimately treat principles as loosely-held guiding ideas with little more substance than campaign slogans. He may be much farther toward the liberal end of the spectrum than many of them; it would be inaccurate to say otherwise. Ultimately, though, half-hearted, half-formed defenses of freedom by advocates who lack the tenacity to defend their professed values only facilitate their destruction.

The real Road to Serfdom is paved with incomplete defenses of liberty, and once one has allowed them to serve as the foundation for the defense of a free society, matters of degree are only matters of time.

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 »

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 »

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