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  • Volitional causation versus systemic analysis

    Posted by onparkstreet on April 11th, 2010 (All posts by )

    Neither in his theory of economics nor in his theory of history did Marx make end results simply the carrying out of individual volition, even the volition of elites. As his collaborator Friedrich Engels put it, “what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.” Economics is about the pattern that emerges. Historian Charles A. Beard could seek to explain the Constitution of the United States by the economic interests of those who wrote it but that volitional approach was not the approach used by Marx and Engels, despite how often Beard’s theory of history has been confused with the Marxian theory of history. Marx dismissed a similar theory in his own day as “facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes.”
     
    The question here is not whether most intellectuals agree with systemic analysis, either in economics or elsewhere. Many have never even considered, much less confronted, that kind of analysis. Those who reason in terms of volitional causation see chaos from conflicting individual decisions as the alternative to central control of economic processes. John Dewey said, “comprehensive plans” are required “if the problem of social organization is to be met.” Otherwise, there will be “a continuation of a regime of accident, waste and distress.” To Dewey, “dependence upon intelligence” is an alternative to “drift and casual improvisation” – that is, chaos – and those who are “hostile to intentional social planning” are in favor of “atomistic individualism.”

    Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

     

    17 Responses to “Volitional causation versus systemic analysis”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      Dewey was a dunce. He had it backward. The only way the problems of coordination can be solved is by the spontaneous and free ordering of autonomous people bringing all their local knowledge to bear. To choose “intelligence” — i.e. rule by a few politicians or administrators sitting at their desks — is to choose to put the fate of the community in the hands of people possessing the tiniest fraction of pertinent knowledge. Disaster is inevitable, even if they are intellectual giants, and moral titans, which they are highly unlikel to be.

    2. onparkstreet Says:

      I thought of the Health Care Bill reading the above. Ugh!

      – Madhu

    3. Lexington Green Says:

      Yup. The state-centric approach to providing healthcare is 180 degrees the wrong way from the market-centric reform which might actually improve things. But turning over life and death power to self-designated “intelligent” people will always appeal to those same people.

    4. tyouth Says:

      ” To choose “intelligence” — i.e. rule by a few politicians or administrators sitting at their desks — is to choose to put the fate of the community in the hands of people possessing the tiniest fraction of pertinent knowledge. Disaster is inevitable, …..”

      Disaster is not inevitable if the rulers are ruthless and enlightened. I was just reading some essays in a book by Robert Kaplin. He (and I agree) that there are “communities” that are better off under the rule of a dictator. Unfortunately, there are many places where the population is uneducated and tribalism maintains. These places are more likely better functioning (and sometimes more humane) places than they would be under a more democratic regime. The traditions and the culture often just won’t support the democratic meme.

    5. Jack Diederich Says:

      I like Sowell best when he is doing straight economics, but his political books are long polemics. He takes what would be a punchy magazine article, and then stretches it to book length.

    6. tehag Says:

      “Disaster is not inevitable if the rulers are ruthless and enlightened.”

      In the next election, be sure to vote for the most ruthless and enlightened candidate. Don’t make mistake and vote only for the most ruthless. Oh, wait. The ruthless don’t run for office–they seize it with “Marches on Rome.” And the enlightened don’t run for office either.

    7. Lexington Green Says:

      The USA is not a community which is better off being ruled by a dictator.

    8. tyouth Says:

      “The USA is not a community which is better off being ruled by a dictator.” said Lex

      No one said it was (although you might have been forgiven for adding the word “yet” to your comment).

      I take it that the “system” WRT to onparkstreet’s post (and in the U.S.) might seen as the voting population of the country, and, possibly later, if things go wrong, the population as a whole. The more a population becomes irrational, self-centered, and tribal…less intelligent….the more Dewey was right.

    9. david foster Says:

      Note that the same principles apply to the *internal* operations of a large company. For instance: GM, until a few years ago, had a policy manual, applicable to the design of all new vehicles, which established a limit on the cost of the stamping dies as a % of the selling price of the vehicle. (And I’m sure this was only one of many parameters that this policy manual attempted to control)

      The cost of the dies, like everything else, needs to make economic sense, but the way to do this is to delegate the decision to a product line executive who will then be held *accountable* for product line P&L…not to establish detailed rules from the top.

      Of course, when companies engage in excessive top-down management, they lose market share or even go broke (unless they get bailed out)…when governments do it, there is no limit to the harm short of the collapse of the overall society.

    10. Ginny Says:

      Belief in the hidden hand can come either from a sense that there is an order & harmony beyond any of our particular understandings or it can come from an observation of varying levels of productivity, felicity, and respect for human rights that appear to be the result of different economic and political systems of the twentieth century. Both are more likely to be characteristic of high trust societies than low trust ones. Low trust ones are more often feudal and certainly tribal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize why Nixon didn’t challenge the votes in Illinois and Texas. He may have been a bad man, but I do think he understood something core here. And I’ve begun to see why someone like Hillary might be attracted to someone like Lani Guinier (sp?) and her positions on the vote disturbed many of us. And I can’t understand why the empirical evidence of the last century has not convinced people that open systems may need tinkering but it is the statist ones that need overthrowing.

    11. Joseph Fouche Says:

      “In the next election, be sure to vote for the most ruthless and enlightened candidate…”

      Mr. T’s running for president. Hurrah!

    12. onparkstreet Says:

      Great comments all! Wish I had time to respond individually, but I don’t.

      I guess I just don’t trust the Dewey’s of the world, because just how enlightened is someone that wants to control other people? Maybe you get one enlightened dictator to clean up a messy system, but that’s about it. His or her successor is likely to be awful….

      I’m so ignorant of economic matters that I find any book directed at the general public interesting. I like Sowell’s clear – and yes, polemical at times – style, but maybe if you are more well read in econ it may not suit.

      It’s all good :)

      – Madhu

    13. tehag Says:

      Better Mr T than Mr Sula (that is not is mistake for Mr Sulu).

    14. tyouth Says:

      “Maybe you get one enlightened dictator to clean up a messy system, but that’s about it. His or her successor is likely to be awful….”

      Madhu, are you familiar with the tale of Milton Friedman, Pinochet,
      Allende, and the Chicago Boys (whom the Chicago Boyz almost all admire?). You’re probably hip but, if you are not, check it out.

    15. onparkstreet Says:

      That’s pretty funny, Tyouth. I walked right into that one, didn’t I? I really did LOL, btw.

      Sorry, I’m so fixated on the ObamaCare bill that I can’t seem to admit anything else into my brain at the moment. I am surrounded by people who are SURE the bill and its empowerment of various government agencies represents a sort of “enlightened dictatorship” for US medicine. That’s the zeitgeist in a certain segment of academic medicine.

      I am creeped out by that attitude, especially as the group I’m talking about ought to know better. They know exactly the type of person who will be the MD du jour on said committees or staffing said agency and what their advice will likely be….Is any of this making any sense?

      – Madhu

    16. Jonathan Says:

      They know exactly the type of person who will be the MD du jour on said committees or staffing said agency and what their advice will likely be….Is any of this making any sense?

      Yes. It’s like the Wall Street guys and pharma executives and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who think Obama can be counted on to stay bought and favor them and screw over their competitors. It’s the way every mark who is being conned thinks: “I’m safe since I’m riding the tiger.” What the mark ignores is the possibility that new marks are always needed to keep the game going, so everyone who is temporarily favored will, sooner or later, get screwed over for another mark’s benefit. Educated people are especially vulnerable to this kind of scam, because it is easy for them to believe that they are a favored elite who will be entrusted with power. And it’s easy for them to believe that “people like us” will be put in control of the new bureaucracies, as for a while some of them may be.

      If any groups escape destruction it will probably be ones which Obama favors ideologically: union leaders, “activists” and activist lawyers and the like.

    17. Ginny Says:

      And so my middle daughter, in junior high, came downstairs most of the way through Animal Farm. “Mommy, they killed the horse,” is what I think she said. She was crying. Then she began reading Pipes.