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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Time and Austrian Economics



One of the distinguishing features of the Austrian school of economics is that it takes time seriously. Much mainstream economics could be described as taking place on an atemporal pin-tip. Because Austrian economists view the economy as an unfolding process, time is necessarily central to their theorizing. 

Since time is such an important element to any economic theory that views the economy as an unfolding process, we have to face the question, “What is time”? The person who has perhaps investigated this idea the fullest is Julius T. Fraser, whose theory that as the universe becomes more complex, those new entities experience time in new ways, is also a theory of the emergence of freedom.

J.T. Fraser argued in books like Time: The Familiar Stranger and Time, Conflict, and Human Values that time is experienced by different levels of complexity in different ways, and that those complex levels emerged from previous levels. That experience, he termed umwelts. He posited that there are six umwelts: atemporal, prototemporal, eotemporal, biotemporal, nootemporal, and sociotemporal. Each of the later, more complex experiences of time also contain the less complex experiences. But let us look at each.


Atemporal – The time experience of the pure, chaotic energy at the moment of the Big Bang (or inside a black hole) is that of no time passing, or atemporality.

Prototemporal – This is the probabilistic, fragmented time experience of the particle-waves of quantum physics.

Eotemporality – This is the deterministic time experience of macro-objects, the physicists’ time “t”.  Events at this level are countable and orderable, but have no preferred time direction.

Biotemporality – Living organisms have a past, present, and future in a way nonliving things do not. At this level, life-serving goals and intentions emerge. This is, of course, the beginning of a time experience which makes the most sense to us, as living things.

Nootemporality – Humans have much longer temporal horizons than do other living things. As mature adults, we are aware not just of our own births and imminent deaths, but of a time before we existed, and of a future in which we will no longer exist. Here our intentionality is aimed at concrete and symbolic goals.

Sociotemporality – Fraser points out that this level is mostly theoretical, and difficult to distinguish from the nootemporal, since it is, after all, made up of humans. It is hard to theorize because we are viewing it from the inside. With nootemporality, we can understand it through introspection. The other four, we can understand through scientific research. But the patterns of society, and the temporal experience of society, cannot be so thoroughly understood as the rest. The best we can do is understand it as any particular culture’s collective understanding of the nature of time.

Each of the above levels of time experience also represents the emergence of a new physical level of reality, each exponentially more complex than the level before. The first thing we should note is that the scientific view of time is primarily that of eotemporality, or Newtonian time. It is unfortunately applied to the biological, human, and social sciences as well. But we should be able to see that we have fundamentally different processes at each of these levels – fundamentally different processes that need to be understood on their own terms, using methods appropriate to those levels of complexity. 

But there are issues that concern libertarians that go beyond appropriate scientific methods. With Fraser’s model, we can see, too, how freedom unfolds in the universe. New levels emerge from the bottom-up, as elements of that lower level interact, creating new rules of interaction, that become solidified at the next level. As rules emerge from these bottom-up interactions, a new, freer level emerges. The universe becomes more complex – and more free – over time, self-organizing and emerging into freer and freer entities. And this freedom emerges in no small part because more and more time can be experienced. 

With each new level of complexity, the constituent parts are organized both by their interactions and by the emergent new order. Interacting biochemicals give rise to the living cell which in turn orders those biochemicals; interacting neurons give rise to the mind which in turn orders those neurons; interacting people give rise to social orders such as cultures, economies, governments, money, technological innovation, etc. which in turn order those people. New rules emerge at each new level; the most successful rules survive and are passed on. And those rules that provide the most freedom are the ones that have always survived. Thus, the universe has become freer over time. 

We can see, then, that the universe has self-organized from the bottom-up, with the chaos of pure energy giving rise to the probabilistic experience of particle-waves giving rise to the deterministic experience of chemistry and macrophysical objects giving rise to the life-serving goals and intentions of life itself giving rise to the concrete and symbolic goals of humans giving rise to social temporal experience. Although there is a certain amount of fee-through of time experience – given that we humans experience chaos, probability, determinism, and life-serving goals as well as concrete and symbolic goals – if one were to try to impose a less complex level of time experience on a more complex level, you would destroy that more complex level, while if one were to try to impose a more complex level of time experience on a less complex level, you would crush that less complex level. To reduce a living thing to eotemporality, you have to kill it. If you reduce sociotemporality to human concrete and symbolic goals, you will kill that society. 

This latter has, of course, been covered extensively by the Austrian economists in their ongoing fights against central planning. You cannot give society – including the economy – a goal. Doing so reduces that society’s or spontaneous order’s complexity, causing it to collapse. We humans are goal-oriented, but that does not mean spontaneous orders are or should be. With Fraser’s model of the temporal experiences of new levels of complex processes, we can see why. More, with Fraser’s model, we can see that the natural tendency of the universe is to, through bottom-up emergent processes, become freer over time. Libertarians can take great comfort in the fact that, in a real sense, cosmological history is on our side.

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