Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Laws of the Spontaneous Orders

It seems to me that those who study a subject should be primarily interested in determining what the laws underlying the object of study are. The proper work of a physicist is to discover the laws of physics. The proper work of a chemist is to discover the laws of chemistry. The proper work of a biologist is to discover the laws of biology.

This is equally true of the humane sciences -- and of the humanities. The proper work of an economist should be to discover the laws of economics. How many, though, in fact do that, rather than trying to impose their own ideologies on the science? The same could be said of social scientists, political scientists, etc. They need to focus on IS and keep the SHOULDS out of it. Biologists find it ridiculous when someone brings "should" into biology in the form of intelligent design or creationism, but nobody seems to find it ridiculous when economists do the same. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises observed that,

"The laws of the universe about which physics, biology, and praxeology [the study of human action] provide knowledge are independent of the human will, they are primary ontological facts rigidly restricting man's power to act.
Only the insane venture to disregard physical and biological laws. But it is quite common to disdain praxeological laws. Rulers do not like to admit that their power is restricted by any laws other than those of physics and biology. They never ascribe their failures and frustrations to the violation of economic law" (Human Action, 755-56).

This is no doubt because few economists are in fact trying to even understand economic law. They are instead trying to find out how they can manipulate this or that element of the economy. The result is dismal failure. Worse, they even use the wrong methodology -- mathematics. Math is great for simple systems, like physical systems, but almost useless for complex systems like economies. Some statistics is no doubt useful, but even statistics can be misleading -- and often are. What Hayek warned us about scientism is doubly true of mathematics: it provides a false view of reality when it comes to complex systems. True, there have been impressive advancements in complex systems mathematics, but even with those, we only ever get grossly over-simplified models that bear almost no relation to reality. If we treat the models as conceptual starting-off points, then they are useful. But when we use them as too many who use math do and assume that the math is a precise description of a precise reality, rather than a precise approximation of reality (something John Pierce, in "An Introduction to Information Theory," warned against). That mathematicization of the field of economics is what in no small part led to this current depression, the same way scientism led to the Great Depression and the various failed experiments in socialism.

In the end, we necessarily come to know about the laws of economics using methods appropriate to its level of complexity. The same is true of any of the social/humane sciences, as well as of the humanities. And we need to learn what these laws are so that we are not forever falling into error. The knowledge of such laws may not ever tell us what we should or should not do (that is the realm of moral laws), but they can tell us what is and is not possible. However, as Mises observes:

"Despots and democratic majorities are drunk with power. They must reluctantly admit that they are subject to the laws of nature. But they reject the very notion of economic law. Are they not the supreme legislators?… In fact, economic history is a long record of government policies that failed because they were designed with a bold disregard for the laws of economics.
It is impossible to understand the history of economic thought if one does not pay attention to the fact that economics as such is a challenge to the conceit of those in power. An economist can never be a favorite of autocrats and demagogues. With them he is always the mischief-maker.…
In the face of all this frenzied agitation, it is expedient to establish the fact that the starting point of all praxeological and economic reasoning, the category of human action, is proof against any criticisms and objections.… From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning. Precisely defining assumptions and conditions, they construct a system of concepts and draw all the inferences implied by logically unassailable ratiocination" (Human Action, 67).

And anyone who knows the history of Leftist thinking knows that they have even tried to deny the validity of biology for human behavior. So they don't even have to "reluctantly" admit to being subject to the laws of human nature, having denied such laws exist. But what else is the role of the human sciences and the humanities but to find out what those laws are, and what the laws of the spontaneous orders to which we give rise are? Or to what laws give rise to spontaneous orders in the first place are?

This then opens up an interesting question: what theories are truly valid for what spontaneous orders? And what do we mean by "valid"? I mean by valid, what theories deal with the nature of the spontaneous order they are theories of qua spontaneous order? Theories give rise to immanent criticism of the spontaneous order. Keynes and Mises provide different theories of economics, meaning they are trying to figure out what IS the case. One theory is right, the other is wrong, but both are proper to analyzing economics as such. Marx, on the other hand, by his own admission, does not provide a theory valid to analyzing economics. When he admits that he's not interested in what is, but in what should be, he admits to being an ethicist, with a theory applicable to the ethical spontaneous order, and not an economist.

Let me put this in another way. Literature has many theories literary analysts can use. Some, such as Aristotle's theory, New Criticism, Structuralism, and Poststructuralism, are all theories of literature qua literature. Others, however, are imported theories. Marxism, feminism, and queer theory are all ethical theories used to analyze the content of works of literature. None of these can be used to determine whether or not a work of literature is a great work of literature qua literature -- but the first set of theories can be. The first set help us to understand how a work of literature comes to mean, how it provides information to the reader/listener/viewer. The second set only tell us things about the content, about how characters interact, what the author may have meant or intended (or meant despite his intentions). If we try to say one of these other theories is in fact the true theory of literature, we are trying to impose another rationality, another theory applicable outside the spontaneous order, to that particular order. That would be like saying, for a work to be literature, it must be feminist. Though there are no doubt some out there who would like that, we should all recognize that this is a ridiculous requirement. Yet, we make the same claim for other spontaneous orders -- the economy being a favorite. Outside theories might help us understand the specific content of a given work, but they cannot be used to understand the spontaneous order of literature qua literature. When we do, the result too often sounds conspiratorial in a rather grandiose, irrational sense.

THere is much work to be done, across the several spontaneous orders, if we are to find the laws of those orders. The good news is that they will all be there to be discovered, for they do no change. Different sets of rules make for different kinds of orders -- and that fact alone should make us excited for the possibilities.
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