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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Polanyi’

La defensa de Hayek de las comunidades descentralizadas

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

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

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

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

Lo impersonal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusión

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

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

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

The Impersonal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.

What Crisis? Law as the Marriage of Science and the Humanities

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy on March 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This week the Association for the Study of Law, Culture & the Humanities convened to consider this question: “How will law and humanities scholarship fare against the pressure of the science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia?”  The question implies an adversarial relationship between science and the humanities, or law-and-humanities.  The division between science and the humanities as academic disciplines, however, is not yet 150 years old; it is misguided to pit “law-and-humanities” (a signifier that did not exist a few decades ago) against the “science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia” (another quotation from the conference program).  We do not have to go back to Plato or Aristotle or Galileo or Descartes or Spinoza or Da Vinci or Locke or Hume or Rousseau or Kant or Newton or Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Thoreau to see that what we call the humanities has not, traditionally, been divorced from the sciences—that, in fact, the humanities and the sciences are mutually illuminating, not mutually exclusive.

In America, more recently, the classical pragmatists—in particular C.S. Peirce and William James—sought to make philosophy more scientific, and in this endeavor they were mimicking the logical positivists in Britain.  Some of the most famous minds of the 20th century worked at the intersection of the humanities and science: Freud, Einstein, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Jacques Lacan, F. A. Hayek, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few.  Lately we have seen scientific thinkers as wide-ranging as Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Leon Kass celebrate or draw from the humanities.

A review of the conference abstracts suggests that most presenters will be considering this question from the political left, but their concerns are shared by many on the right, such as Roger Scruton, who recently took to the pages of The New Atlantis to address this topic in his article “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities.”  Nevertheless, forcing the separation of science and the humanities does not strike me as prudent.

By encouraging the humanities to recognize its scientific heritage and to recover its scientific methodologies, the academy would be correcting decades of wandering.  Science is indispensable to the humanities, and vice versa; the two work in concert.  The findings in one influence the findings in the other.  Evidence of this reciprocity in the context of legal studies is especially striking in America during the late 19th and early 20th century, when the law often was associated with scientific disciplines rather than with the humanities.  At this time, the theories of Charles Darwin and his progeny helped to explain the common law tradition while influencing the way that law was taught in law schools and examined by judges and most notably by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The scientific paradigms in vogue among legal thinkers at the turn of that century were neither uniform nor monolithic.  For instance, Christopher Columbus Langdell’s push to make legal education more scientific was different from Holmes’s use of Darwinism to describe the common law.  Rather than teasing out the distinctions between various scientific approaches to the law during the late 19th and early 20th century America, however, I would look at these scientific approaches as part of the same general project and as a reminder of how the humanities and the sciences can participate to bring about theoretical and practical insights.  It might be that, of all disciplines, law is the most revealing of the participatory nature of science and the humanities and, therefore, provides the best justification for instrumental and scientific approaches to humane studies.

There are groups within the humanities that resent the scientific disciplines for the funding and privilege those disciplines enjoy in the academic marketplace, but at least part of this resentment is misplaced.  The fault lies partially with the scientists who mistake merit for value: it is not that the sciences enjoy more funding and privilege because they have more merit—the academy is not a meritocracy—but it is that they have more value to consumers and the public writ large.  It may well be that the humanities have more merit, but unless consumers begin to value merit, the meritorious will not necessarily prevail in the market.  

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