DeLong, Scott and Hayek

by Henry Farrell on October 31, 2007

“Brad DeLong”: has a review of James Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ which I found pretty useful in clarifying some of my disagreements with him (Brad, not Scott). What he sees as a fundamental problem in Scott (that Scott is a Hayekian in denial, and that his denial of his intellectual heritage leads him erroneously to claim that markets are harmful to human freedom) I see as pointing to an important, but underplayed set of themes in Scott’s argument. Which is to say that I would have liked Scott to develop the reasons why he disagrees with Hayek more explicitly, but I think that they are clearly present in the book, and are in some respects at least, compelling.

First, Brad

How can market-driven standardization have the same consequences as the commands of architects who have never lived in the cities they design, or as the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, or as the forced “villagization” of Tanzanian peasants? It is unclear. … Woven into the critique of agricultural development programs are asides about the destructiveness of DDT, the effect of sterile hybrid seeds in diminishing the autonomy of the farmer, the vulnerability of American monoculture farms to pests and epidemics, and the pre-packaged relatively-tasteless–but overwhelmingly cheap–rubber tomatoes developed to be machine-sprayed and machine-picked. However, people bought (and buy) rubber tomatoes because they are cheap–because relatively little social labor is required to produce them. … The argument that market-driven processes are as harmful to human freedom as state-led high modernism appears suddenly at the end of a discussion of the importance of practical, local knowledge and expertise.

Scott calls this practical, local knowledge “metis,” taking the word from the skill traditionally attributed to Odysseus. Takes it to be a counterweight to the type of theoretical or technical knowledge held by bureaucrats, scientists, and others (pp. 309-341). Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details. … But when we look around at modern large-scale bureaucratic capitalism, we see what Scott calls “metis” everywhere. Everything from the flick of your wrist so that the supermarket laser-scanner reads the bar code (try it some time) to the virtual experience at flying 747’s that airline pilots gain in simulators to knowing when you have lost your lecture audience and need to back up to knowing when it too risky to drive the moving van over Donner Pass–all of these are forms of metis. Attempts to design-out metis–to turn workers into efficient, pre-programmed automatons as in the imagination of Frederick W. Taylor–usually fail. We have lost many forms of metis. But as Scott points out, many of them are well-lost …

The key fault of what Scott calls “high modernism” is its belief that details don’t matter–that planners decree from on high, people obey, and utopia results. Note that Scott’s conclusion is not just that attempts at high-modernist centrally-planned social-engineering have failed. It is–as von Mises argued 70 years ago–they are always overwhelmingly likely to fail. …
Yet even as he makes his central points, Scott appears unable to make contact with his intellectual roots–thus he is unable to draw on pieces of the Austrian argument as it has been developed over the past seventy years. Just as seeing like a state means that you cannot see the local details of what is going on, so seeing like James Scott seems to me that you cannot see your intellectual predecessors.

That the conclusion is so strong where the evidence is so weak is, I think, evidence of profound subconscious anxiety: subconscious fear that recognizing that one’s book is in the tradition of the Austrian critique of the twentieth century state will commit one to becoming a right-wing inequality-loving Thatcher-worshiping libertarian (even though there are intermediate positions: you can endorse the Austrian critique of central planning without rejecting the mixed economy and the social insurance state). … And when the chips are down, this recognition is something James Scott cannot do.

I think that this is fair up to a point – Scott should develop his critique of bureaucratic capitalism much more explicitly than he does. But I also think that doing what Brad wants him to do would have led him to write a very different book. _Seeing Like a State_ is in large part an intervention in an internal argument within the left, arguing against the grand planners and for the Jane Jacobs types and the anarchists. Introducing a proper critique of Hayek, Mises and the rest would have greatly lessened its impact within that debate, by allowing the targets of Scott’s critique to focus on the mean things Scott would have probably said about pro-market types who they dislike, while ignoring the flights of arrows intended to pierce their own hides. I should note that I’m an unimportant member of one of the broad groups that Scott is attacking (I like and use rational choice theory; this doesn’t change the fact that _Seeing Like a State_ is the only book in the social sciences I have read in the last ten years that made me want to write a fan letter to the author after reading it).

What Scott argues, as I understand it is as follows. First – that processes of rationalization lead to the destruction of metis, or local knowledge if you would prefer, and the prioritization of codifiable, quantifiable, epistemic knowledge. Second, that this process involves obvious and (sometimes quite important) trade-offs, but may often be worth it – e.g. there is no point in idealizing serf-like conditions that preserve local knowledge at the expense of human freedom. Third, that the real problem is when the creation of epistemic knowledge is combined with high modernist attempts to engage in social engineering. This arrives at similar _conclusions_ to Hayek etc about how terrible collectivization processes are, but from different premises. Specifically, what Hayek etc would see as the result of state planning, Scott sees as the result of broader forms of rationalization (hence, perhaps, the linkages to Foucault that Brad worries about) when they coincide with a certain kind of state hubris (the hubris doesn’t necessarily follow from the creation of codifiable knowledge).

Thus, I think there is a argument against the Hayekians which is not very far from the surface of _Seeing Like a State_ and which can be drawn out quite easily. First – Scott makes it clear that the processes of market development and of state imposition of standards goes hand in hand. Brad talks about how the very first example that Scott draws on – German scientific forestry in the nineteenth century – is intended to show the failures of state planning. But as Scott makes clear, the relevant failures are driven as much by the market as by the state – Scott writes about how the “utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial trees)” and about how the

forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably. Here, fiscal and commercial logics coincide; they are both resolutely fixed on the bottom line.

This is an important sub-theme of the book, and indeed of our understanding of how states and markets have developed hand-in-hand. Sometimes, the state has sought to impose its view for reasons of its own interest and survival (whether this be the promotion of ‘public order,’ the increase of fiscal revenues or whatever), sometimes at the behest of market actors who are interested in standardization, and sometimes for rationales that blur these two together.

Scott doesn’t draw this out as a critique of the Austrians, but it is still clear evidence of his profound difference from them. He is much more interested than they are in the actual _political_ processes through which markets come into being. To misquote Tilly, markets make the state and the state makes markets. This is something that is touched on by the new institutional economics in its own way (cf. Doug North) but that doesn’t, to my knowledge, get any proper attention in the Hayekian or von Misean corpus. I stress the words “to my knowledge” since Hayek’s arguments on this theme are scattered across various books – but I strongly suspect that there isn’t anything that is really germane to this. More generally, I think that there’s a kind of selective blindness in the Austrian corpus to the question of exactly how active states are in constituting markets, because this would raise all sorts of awkward theoretical and political problems. Markets – even and perhaps especially Hayekian markets – don’t exist in an institutional vacuum – and the institutions on which they rely are going to shape the extent to which they succeed or fail in making use of local knowledge. In particular, markets that involve interaction between people who don’t know each other (impersonal exchange) require substitutes for personal knowledge and relationships(in the form of mutually understood standards and enforcement mechanisms).

This leads on to the second point – that a lot of what Scott argues is correct. His claim, as I read it is less about the specific problems of state-created institutions, than the ways in which a large variety of abstracting institutions or standards miss out on, and perhaps undermine important forms of local knowledge. As I understand him, _any_ standards sufficient for impersonal exchange are likely to abstract away the actual relationships that people have with their environment. Here, Scott is less a closet-Hayekian than a more-or-less-overt Polanyian, who develops some of Polanyi’s arguments (especially his claims about the institutional consequences of long distance trade, and the economy as an instituted process) to make them sharper and more interesting.

I think that Scott’s claims are more credible than Brad suggests. Again, modern markets require long distance exchange between people who don’t know each other, and hence require impersonal forms of knowledge that are instantiated in commonly held standards of one sort or another. My favourite example of this is the Codex Alimentarius’s standard lexicon describing different stages of putrescence in fish. These standards have to substitute for more intimate and more direct forms of knowledge – large scale markets typically can’t work without them.

A good example of this is credit markets. It used to be that they depended primarily on personal knowledge of the borrower and his character (here, I’m borrowing from the work of Bruce Carruthers). Now, they depend on a variety of formal metrics, risk scores and pseudo-quantified assessments by credit rating agencies and the like. This is by no means necessarily a bad thing – it has resulted in a vast expansion of credit, and allowed many people to borrow money who couldn’t previously. But it does mean that some forms of knowledge that may have been valuable, and that were available in an era when bank managers knew all their customers personally, have been lost. It also may result in a fetishization of the quantifiable and a lack of attention to the realities underlying abstract metrics (which is arguably part of the reason for the recent crash in mortgage lending markets – the metrics that markets used were palpably insufficient to describe the underlying risks of particular complex financial instruments).

Another, more homely example is food. Brad criticizes Scott’s discussion of the much-cited tasteless tomato arguing that it are an example of market success rather than failure – people bought tasteless tomatoes because they were cheap. This seems to me to have a bit of a flavor of a revealed preferences argument, and also to miss the point. I lived in Florence for three years, a city which has cheap and delicious tomatoes, despite being some distance from the parts of Italy where tomatoes are grown. While I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that the deliciousness of the tomatoes had a lot to do with informal relationships between the small shops where you bought the tomatoes, the small companies that delivered them, and the small farms from where they were bought. Certainly, this would be consonant with the research that I and many others have done on the Italian political economy and how it works. Italy protects small businesses and local communities in a lot of ways. This means that it misses out badly on certain economies of scale. It also means that certain kinds of high quality production are possible in Italy that are difficult or impossible to replicate elsewhere – a myriad of small firms cooperating to produce final goods through purely informal means. Hence the success, for example, of Italian sunglasses, shoes, and (the rather unglamorous topic of my own research) packaging machinery. All of these build on forms of informal knowledge that would likely be damaged in a more standard market economy, where collaboration happened (to the extent that it did), within the hierarchy of the firm, or through arms-length contracts.

Thus, there are trade-offs. Italian firms in small-firm districts are excellent at gradual innovation and refinement of knowledge – in part because of their reliance on metis. They are not so good at producing profound, industry-changing forms of innovation. They also tend to stick closer to home than their equivalents in other countries (somewhat ironically, they replicate the logic of Avner Greif’s mediaeval Maghribi merchants far more than the behaviour of his Genoese traders).

To return to the more homely example of food, Florence has an excellent restaurant culture, where you can eat out cheaply and incredibly well if you avoid the tourist traps.1 But it systematically emphasizes local cuisine, along with a few imports from the South (pizza and pasta) and the north (some Bolognese and Milanese dishes). Chinese food in Florence is (or was when I was there) terrible, and Indian food was relatively very expensive and no better than mediocre in quality. In contrast, most US cities of my experience have a lower overall standard of food, but a much greater variety of restaurants producing different cuisines, sometimes at a quite high standard of quality (if rarely as high as in the cuisine’s home countries or regions). US cities are far more open to different kinds of food than Italian cities. I suspect that much of this can be attributed to the dominance of particular forms of local knowledge in Italy, which on the one hand preserve certain traditions of quality that would be infeasible to preserve in the US, but on the other hand make people less likely to branch out into new forms of production and consumption that don’t fit with their prior experience.

This allows me to come back to the roots of my disagreement with Brad. Brad is a fan of markets, and believes that they contribute in very important ways to human freedom. I agree with him on this. But I think that Brad sometimes underemphasizes the real trade-offs that markets may involve, and overstates his criticisms of people who are concerned with these trade-offs. Sometimes, perhaps often, these trade-offs are relatively slight – as Brad says, many forms of redundant local knowledge can be discarded without compunction. Sometimes, these trade-offs are real, but still worthwhile – while we should acknowledge the costs of markets, we should acknowledge that the benefits of introducing them are higher. And sometimes they are not worth paying – there are areas of social life where marketization has more downsides than advantages. (the question of which areas of social life fall under which category is obviously important, but this post is much too long already).

1 I seem to remember (although I can’t find the post) Brad rudely disagreeing a couple of years ago with someone who suggested that delicious cheap food was available in European cities in a way that it wasn’t in the US, and claiming that this was an illusion of the upper middle classes who could afford to eat well anywhere, or words to that effect (my memory could be flawed, in which case I apologize in advance). For what it’s worth, as a grad student with a relatively meagre stipend in Florence, I could afford to eat out three nights a week in good restaurants.

{ 1 trackback }

Crooked Timber » » The end of shmibertarianism
11.01.07 at 8:58 pm



Matt 10.31.07 at 6:11 pm

_”This seems to me to have a bit of a flavor of a revealed preferences argument_”

I’m not sure if you read Brad’s follow-up piece on tomatoes or not but that this was a (pretty crude, really) revealed preference argument came out pretty clearly there. He basically argued that people who ate bad tomatoes, no matter what their circumstances or location or whatever, was just too cheap to get better ones and that nothing else explained this. It was a good example of him at his rudest and crudest, and of his unwillingness or inability to see that there are _real_ trade-offs and losses with markets.


Hidari 10.31.07 at 6:22 pm

This is an absolutely fascinating post, which unfortunately I don’t have time to comment on fully, but I’m going to do it anyway cos this means I’ll be the first to comment and everyone will have to read (or at least scroll past) this post. A few quick points:

1: The Austrian school never (to the best of my knowledge) acknowledge(d) even the existence of the anarchist strain in Left wing though, let alone the complexities of real Marxism….they simply dealt with vulgar Marxism or that variety of socialism that saw a ‘planned economy’ (without going into too many details as to who would be planning it) as the desideratum. The reason for this is that if they had, they would have seen that much of their emphasis on ‘bottom up’, ’emergent’, ‘democratic’, non state led forms of social organisation had been pre-empted by this tradition…albeit with their views leading to very different conclusions.

2: The Austrians also ignored sociology and historical thought generally, as Henry points out. If they had paid attention to this, they would have seen that there is no such thing as ‘the markets’ (let alone ‘the market’) considered as an autonomous entity or entities. Instead, the state, the markets, and more general (geographical and ecological) factors have interacted in extremely complex and interesting ways. Again, as Henry points out, this was the real weakspot of the Austrians that the Historical school (whatever their other flaws) rightly hammered away at. To put it bluntly, when considered as a historical phenomenon, when it came to talking about ‘capitalism’ the Austrians simply didn’t know what they were talking about.

3: Far too big a topic for this post, but by ignoring the state, the Austrians were led to ignore imperialism, and the way in which domestic and foreign policies were intertwined in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the way in which empire and capitalism were also bound together (they were also blind to proto-capitalisms in the Arabic world and China amongst other places, assuming, when they mentioned it at all, that capitalism was purely a European invention. The Austrians never went too deep into wondering why this might be the case. (cough, european empires, cough cough)).

(European) Empires, after all, are ‘high-modernist centrally-planned social-engineering’ if anything is, but they are also capitalist phenomena. The Austrians could never see the links.

4: The Austrians arguing that capitalism had nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ in this sense is absolutely bizarre. For example it’s well known that in terms of time (amongst many other things) the key point of ‘standardisation’ was for commercial reasons (actually if one goes back far enough one could argue that religion plays a part here, but that’s an even bigger kettle of worms).


dsquared 10.31.07 at 6:43 pm

I seem to remember commenting on one of those threads that the implied assertion that Tanzania was a development failure story isn’t right at all. Villagization is one of the main reasons why there’s a nation state in Tanzania today, from inauspicious beginnings. The whole program (which included collective agriculture, a number of strange social experiments and a lot of agricultural policy that wasn’t well thought out) was chaotic and caused a lot of unnecessary hardship, but the actual criticism that Scott makes of it (that you can’t build communities out of a centrally designed plan) isn’t necessarily true.


Selfreferencing 10.31.07 at 7:05 pm


Oh dear, not to be a jerk. But I’m afraid you’re utterly about the Austrians. I happen to be an Austrian crank, so let me reply.

1. In response to 1, see Mises’ chapter on syndicalism in his book Socialism. The insights can be applied to the anarchists. Also, Murray Rothbard (another Austrian) has lengthy discussions of left-anarchist thought. You might also google around the left-libertarian blogosphere where you can find Kevin Carson (an anarcho-socialists) interaction with recent Austrian thinking. There’s a forum on this a few months back in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.

2. Hayek was a sociologist and had a strong interest in institutions. You’ll want to read Law, Legislation and Liberty on these matters.

3. The Austrians most certainly did not ignore imperialism. Mises discusses it in Liberalism and Rothbard went to great lengths to critique imperialism and Rothbardian Austrians have followed him in this.

4. You must be very careful about categorizing the Austrian tradition so monolithically. If you follow the Hayek-Lachmann line, you’ll get a more skeptical empiricism which is more inclined to see the development of capitalism as opposed to rationalism. This is particularly strong in Hayek. But if you read Mises and Rothbard, you get the impression that rationalism is the *savior* of capitalism. So there are rather different attitudes here.

I do hope this helps,


roger 10.31.07 at 7:13 pm

Delong should know better than this: “However, people bought (and buy) rubber tomatoes because they are cheap—because relatively little social labor is required to produce them.” That simply begs the question, which has to do with how they became “cheap”. That has to do with state expenditure – the state, in this case, being California, which devoted a lot of money to getting its public university agricultural departments to cooperate with large growers in developing a tomato that could be harvested mechanically, thus breaking the back of incipient unionization among tomato pickers. In other words, the right place to look for the history of the tomato is not some magical demand by the public for cheaper tomatoes – a passive response to a supply situation in which cheaper, rubberized tomatos appear as the end result of a whole process – but to look at how the affordances of the tomato were determined by class struggle in which, as is usual in capitalism, the state was the essential instrument of business. There were other pathways to cheaper tomatoes that are cut off by the collusion between the state and business, against labor. The idea that demand operates like a magic magnet, calling into existence various social forms, is the alchemical side of neo-classical economics.


Selfreferencing 10.31.07 at 7:13 pm

Henry, you say:

“More generally, I think that there’s a kind of selective blindness in the Austrian corpus to the question of exactly how active states are in constituting markets, because this would raise all sorts of awkward theoretical and political problems.”

As I said above, I’m an Austrian crank, so allow me to urge caution on you. I’d be careful in implying that Austrians ignore institutions. The entire GMU part of the blogosphere will hang you out to dry on this. Many of them ARE Austrians deeply interested in institutions.

They acknowledge that states have helped create markets, but they often disagree that states are *required* to create markets. In fact, they often say that state creation of markets distorts things.

Further, isn’t Law, Legislation and Liberty all about institutions? And isn’t the Constitution of Liberty largely about institutions? Hayek thinks much of what he says in The Sensory Order has to do with institutions as well, but drawing out those connections requires delving into Hayek’s commentary about his own work.

I think you’re right to say that Mises is *less* worried about institutions than Hayek is. But you’ll want to see his Theory and History on this.


mq 10.31.07 at 7:42 pm

Truly a fantastic post, one of the best I’ve seen on CT. Developing into a good comment thread as well.

One of the major blind spots for economics as a social science is a failure to see the ways in which markets don’t simply express existing preferences, but instead institutionalize a new form of bureaucratic managerial rationalism. This is intimately linked to a tendency to ignore economies of scale and endogenous preferences.

Anyway, the post said this better than I could. It was also terrific to pick up on Brad’s inability to comprehend that Scott could believe in local knowledge *and* criticize markets.



Henry 10.31.07 at 7:54 pm

selfreferencing – I’m not saying that Austrians ignore institutions at all. What I am saying is that I think that the distinction between spontaneous orders and made orders in LLL and the other bits and pieces I’ve read leads to a serious underestimation of the extent to which abstracting political constructions such as standards etc are pervasive in markets and are in large part what make ’em work. I’m open to correction on this if you can point me to places where this connection is described (or alternatively, convincingly refuted).


Edward 10.31.07 at 8:03 pm

I generally agree with Henry’s post, and I recall having a similar reaction to Brad DeLong’s review when I read it right after reading Seeing Like a State. The fact that “Walmartization” or “McDonaldization” are examples of what Scott calls High Modernism should be obvious.

A further illustration of where I think DeLong errs is when he states,

no one reading Hayek should be surprised that he is skeptical about claims to useful theoretical knowledge, the unanimity between the left and right branches growing out of the anarchist tradition is not “curious” but a result of these two branches’ common roots,

in reference to Scott noting a curious correspondence between a particular argument by Hayek and one by Piotr Kropotkin. I don’t consider Hayek an heir to an anarchist tradition (although he was certainly a precursor of the “anarcho-capitalist” tradition). The mere act of criticizing state control does not automatically place one in the lineage of Kropotkin, Bakunin or Proudhon.

As Henry says, the book addresses a divide on the left, and comes down on the side of leftwing tendencies which are critical of centralized state power and planning. All too many contemporary Americans have swallowed the line that liberalism and leftism are both synonymous with “big government” and that it is conservative to be “anti-government”. Hidari in #2 makes a point about Austrian economists claiming something similar, but I find that many liberals themselves adopt a version of it. Thus, Scott’s argument about the failure of centralized state planning gets read as crypto-Austrian despite all the ways he makes it clear that it is not, and all Scott’s clarifications on that point get dismissed as mere signs of “subconscious anxiety”.


Selfreferencing 10.31.07 at 8:13 pm


Ok, cool. Let’s talk.

Now I’ll admit that I’m not an economist (like most Austrians) or a political scientist (like you) but a political philosopher that likes to dabble in both of these fields. So do tell me more about what you mean by ‘abstracting political constructions’ and how they required to make markets work and give me some sources. I’m not asking for too much here, just a book or article or something that you think is important.

If so, I’ll spend awhile trying to find some connections in the Austrian literature (a stunning amount of which is hosted on the internet).

I do know that there are some Austrian articles on non-coercive ways of developing market standards. These articles sometimes give historical cases. But you might be disappointed by their quality. So much of the Austrian literature grew up outside of the academy (in part because their methods were perceives as unscientific) and so some of it sometimes (though surely not all the time) lacks the rigor of academic work.


Selfreferencing 10.31.07 at 8:16 pm


Is it really fair to read anarcho-capitalists out of the anarchist movement? (You appear to in your comment.) My impression (particularly from the work of the Molinari Institute) is that there is really a continuum of anarchist views from socialist to capitalist that stretches back into the 19th century (where sometimes they were hard to distinguish. For example, Benjamin Tucker).


Edward 10.31.07 at 8:50 pm


That is a good question. My explicit claim in that regard was that Hayek was not in the anarchist tradition, and as far as I know, Hayek never claimed he was, so I trust this won’t be a point of contention.

Now, regarding the anarcho-capitalist tradition, I did imply that it was distinct from the anarchist movement, and it is true that I believe that. That said, many anarcho-capitalists are influenced by traditional anarchists and by Hayek, but that doesn’t make Hayek a part of the former tendency.

Benjamin Tucker was a strong advocate of “free markets” and the use of some type of currency, but he was consistently negative about “capitalism”. While many of his ideas are adopted by contemporary anarcho-capitalists, he was opposed to profits from rent, interest, or retail.

Essentially I feel the distinction becomes clear if we regard anarchism as not merely “anti-statism” but rather as the opposition to any all forms of institutionalized hierarchical authority. This would include the authority of landlord over tenant, lender over debtor, and employer over employee. In reading the 19th century guys, these particular concerns were routinely and consistently emphasized.

As far as I know, the first writer to simultaneously advocate “anarchism” and “capitalism” was Murray Rothbard, and everyone who called themselves “anarchist” before that professed an opposition to “capitalism”, including the American individualist anarchists, as well as Proudhon.


ralph 10.31.07 at 8:52 pm


What if I had the temerity to suggest that mainstream economics as currently ensconced in the big universities(TM) such as Berkeley by definition study exchanges at a macro level by and large and therefore metis or local knowledge is usually disdained as “not worthwhile”?

How did you put it? “…as Brad says, many forms of redundant local knowledge can be discarded without compunction….” But of course, only someone ELSE can discard those forms; the locals like ’em. If I therefore suggested that to apply Scott’s argument as you lay it out would be to say that this kind of economizing writ large is a centralizing approach that destroys local knowledge…?

Would that be a stretch, or do you think that would be it?


Seth Edenbaum 10.31.07 at 9:36 pm

Amusing post, since it goes over most of my arguments here at and against the logic promulgated by the members of CT (including very recently)
The issue is autonomy and “craft” as opposed to simple logic, and connoisseurship vs. expertise. I’m still surprised that producitivism gets as much defense as it does. As I said countless times vis-a-vis Brad DeLong, he divides his posts between expositions on the wisdom of the ages, with quotes from Homer and Chaucer, and the defense of the moral worth of lousy mass-market food that he will never eat. Those last four words are the most important.

If we argue against the flat logic and “banality” of productivism how to we argue against the fact that so often, whether by central command or group-think, it gets the job done. How should we choose to categorize the world: in terms of a series of solid points of reference or as an ambiguous realm of experience with many possibilities and definitions of what constitutes a object or a gap? Again, as I’ve said before, many people see this as marking the difference between scientists and priests, but more importantly it marks the distinction between scientists and bureaucrats on the one hand and novelists and lawyers on the other. By the ethnographic discussion of religion, gods are irrelevant and priests are just judges who who have faith in [someone’s] original intent. That last bit is as important to my argument as DeLong’s kitchen is to his. This is the “logical” empirical argument for the efficacy for choosing to prefer ambiguity to certainty. The Austrians’ silly mistake is to assume that the foundation of such ambiguity is in the market. But the market unchecked shuts out all other definitions of experience, and stability which will always be the result of some level of manipulation, will be at the expense of freedom. The old saw goes that art and commerce exist in opposition, but that they need each other [I’m living that logic right now more than any of you will ever know.] The logic of market theory, of DeLong and many of you reading this is that the market is a form of art. The vulgarity is painful.

It makes life much easier if we say take for granted that “A”=”B” and never “C” and that time won’t change that equation. As I said at CT a few days ago, it’s nice to think that society is based on interdependent rules and not conflicting obligations. It’s much easier to build a model of the former. It would be nice to think of Turkey’s secularists as more modern than their religious opponents, simply because they’re secularists. It would be nice to think of Iran under the Shah as more modern then it is now. But it wasn’t and it isn’t. It would be nice if we could assume objectivity in our discussions, of women, of blacks or Palestinians (I’m writing as a male Jew) but we can’t without lying. And yet many of us lie to ourselves about the middle east in ways we no longer we lie about the others.

The bourgeois revolution in Iran was crushed and Modernity that replace it from above was a sham. The bourgeois revolution in Iran, in Turkey, and in China is happening as we speak, with the failure not of modernity but of Modernism And and always this is happening as the meanings of words that were once stable are no longer so. To be able to recognize this as it occurs; to have a mind that is capable of curiosity and a dynamic flexibility, this is not something bureaucracy teaches, this is not something the market teaches. It can’t be taught, it can only be learned.
The job of the state is not to teach and not to lecture but to maximize the possibility of learning.

But when we look around at modern large-scale bureaucratic capitalism, we see what Scott calls “metis” everywhere. Everything from the flick of your wrist so that the supermarket laser-scanner reads the bar code

My god. Imagine someone saying that in 1820 about the experience of working in a factory loom.
And no one caught it?


Henry 10.31.07 at 9:43 pm

selfreferencing – sorry for the hideous sounding phrase ‘abstracting political constructions’ – I was in a hurry. What I mean to get at here is Scott’s discussion of how both markets and states require things to be codified before they are useful knowledge into e.g. standards and the like. Whether these are constructed by states (as they often are) or by non-state actors (as they often are) is in large part irrelevant from Scott’s point of view – what is important is how they strip out local knowledge in the process of becoming abstracted.


selfreferencing 10.31.07 at 10:37 pm


Gustave de Molinari is probably the first anarcho-capitalist. Rothbard was not the first. There is a good case for putting Lysander Spooner in the same camp, although he had concerns about wage slavery.


I understand what you mean now. And I see Scott’s point. I was more worried about what you said about how big markets and big states rise and fall together.


Hidari 10.31.07 at 11:07 pm


OK fair enough. You obviously know a lot more about this than I do! I’m not in any sense claiming to be an expert on the Austrian school. I DID know about Murray Rothbard (and his attempts to create links between libertarians and the New Left), but his views were not typical surely?

Two more points.

‘Hayek was a sociologist and had a strong interest in institutions. ‘

OK fair enough. What did he say?

Finally I did actually know that most of the Austrian school were anti-war and anti-imperialist (and quite right too) but I’m wondering how they squared this with the historical data that British (especially) imperialism and the British economy were deeply intertwined?


Edward 11.01.07 at 12:08 am


As I said before, Murray Rothbard was the first to self-identify as both “anarchist” and “capitalist”. Gustave de Molinari’s views may be congruent with what is now known as anarcho-capitalism, but I believe he was in no way part of the anarchist movement of his time and would presumably have rejected the label “anarchist”. Hence, to the extent that Molinari (like Hayek) is an intellectual antecedent of anarcho-capitalism, it is to that extent that anarcho-capitalism constitutes a tendency distinct from conventional anarchism.

Spooner, as I understand it, did not merely have “concerns about wage slavery,” but viewed all wage labor as a form of slavery. Such a view, incidentally, seems to have been widespread in the 19th century US. Also, like Tucker and Proudhon, mentioned above, he envisioned the abolition of interest.

Anyhow, this is pretty tangential to Scott’s book or DeLong’s review of it. My original point, germane to that review, is that the Austrian school of economics should not be regarded as ‘the right branch of the anarchist tradition’. Murray Rothbard (whom DeLong never mentions) may owe much to anarchist predecessors, but I don’t think the Austrian economists in general do. In particular, I would say that the ones whom DeLong does mention, i.e., Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises, are not heirs to any anarchist tradition.

Of course, DeLong’s intention is not to marginalize anarchism, but rather to acknowledge the correctness of the Austrians’ critique of central planning and to identify it (spuriously, in my view) with Scott’s critique. DeLong faults Scott for acknowledging the influence of anarchists like Kropotkin but giving short shrift to Hayek, and making no mention of Von Mises. Part of DeLong’s criticism rests upon the facile equation of the Austrian school with the anarchist tendency and it is this equation I dispute.


selfreferencing 11.01.07 at 12:11 am


To judge whether Rothbard’s views are typical of Austrians is hard. It’s not typical of the tradition to my knowledge. I have no idea what Menger, Wieser, Bohm-Bawerk and others of the first two generations thought about war. (Although I know they opposed the imperialist, nationalist German historical school in the Methodenstreit.)

Here are brief statements from Mises about Imperialism:

To my knowledge, however, his views ebbed and flowed on these matters. The Mises Institute guys feature his anti-war stuff more prominently. But he came around to supporting a draft late in life.

As for Hayek, he’s also hard to pin down. I could find references, but I’m feeling a little lazy today. I’d email Bruce Caldwell (intellectual biographer of Hayek) if you’re interested.

I have no idea what fourth generation Austrians like Lachmann and Kirzner think about these matters.

But because of Rothbard, I’d say many of the fifth generation Austrians (mostly located at George Mason University of the Mises Institute (the urban and rural Austrians, respectively, with expected mutual hostilities)) are pretty anti-war.

As for British Imperialism, I don’t know off the top of my head what Austrians think theoretically about these matters. But I know they have views.
I’m not sure that there’s any consensus on the matter.

However, I know that a lot of Austrians have written in informal internet articles that critique the old theory of capitalism which holds that it produces and is sustained by war and imperialism.


selfreferencing 11.01.07 at 12:17 am


That’s cool. Of course, you’re right that the Austrian traditions in no way originate with anarchism (although the idea of spontaneous order is there in the beginning in both traditions). You’re also right about Rothbard, I think.

It’s hard to critique the connection DeLong implicitly draws between Austrian thought an anarchist thought. To the extent that you read the connection as something that is conceptually tight and textually explicit, I agree entirely with you. But if you consider looser connections, Austrian economics in many ways lends itself more easily to anarchistic thinking. At least I think so. I don’t think the direction that Rothbard took Austrian economics is at all surprising.


stm177 11.01.07 at 1:08 am

I grow tomatoes in my garden, and it really is true that the excellent tasting varieties like Brandywine would be more expensive.

The Brandywine tomato plant I grew only produced about 15% of the number of tomatoes compared to the normal variety I also grew. The Brandywine tomatoes also had a softer skin, and small splits on the tops (likely due to a burst of rain right when they were ripening).

Any fruit is going to be better if you can grow it yourself, or go to a U-pick farm.

I don’t really notice a difference in quality in vegetables like spinach, lettuce, collard greens, swiss chard, pumpkins, turnips, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, etc. (between supermarkets and garden grown).

The price increase for tomatoes might be hard to justify for the middle class to lower class consumer. My brother has trouble making the rent every month – I doubt he would want his wife spending $6 on a tomato.


Peter Boettke 11.01.07 at 1:46 am

Just wanted to point out that Brad de Long published this review essay in The Review of Austrian Economics in 1999 —

Not quite sure why the recycling now, but his review makes many good points and it leads many to discuss issues which need to be discussed.

However, as was seen in these discussions there are some presumptions about what the Austrian economists stood for (stand for) that get confused and need clarification.

On Austrians and sociology — see Richard Swedberg’s Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology; Lachmann’s The Legacy of Max Weber, and Boettke and Virgil Storr, “Post Classical Political Economy,” American Journal of Economics & Sociology.

On Austrians and Institutions — see the symposium in Research in the History of Economics Thought and Methodology, 6 (1989) — the papers by myself and Warren Samuels serve as the starting point for the discussion. My paper was entitled “Evolution and Economics: Austrians as Institutionalists.”

On the issue of metis and the problems with large scale planning efforts in development I would recommend all on this list to read carefully the new book by Chris Coyne, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy (Stanford University Press, 2007).



Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 5:11 am

People have spent a lot of time arguing about constitutional law and what they think the proper methodologies are for interpretation, or whether interpretation is even appropriate. Various groups will argue that the country or the world would be a better more just place if judges followed their regimen and ignored the others, arguing about how things should be instead of describing what they’ve been and how they got to be what they’ve become.
Change is brought about by means of debate among followers of various camps. The fact of argument is more constitutive of culture than either side in any fight.
Hearing speeches about freedom and economics is like listening to a bunch of republicans pleading that if the democrats just sat this one out everything would be better. Or maybe it’s the White House making the same request of congress: adversarialism may have it’s purpose but not here and not now. Not in the real world.
When, outside the fantasies of market theory have market forces ever not been constrained or bounded by outside pressure, from church, or family, social groups or orders of language? When have art and commerce merged into a united telos? Never.
And yet we’re told that intellectualism leads in one direction only. I was raised to think of greed as boring and business as banality. And even if I’m now amused to think that art and commerce work together, they do so as adversaries, in tension. Sometimes “the directors cut” is worse: self-absorbed indulgent crap; and sometimes the brilliant auteur is best alone. Not often though. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to give of my intellectual prerogatives as a thinking human being, and say all is well and good and peachy keen; that tomatoes suck for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I’ll be damned if I’m going to do that on the say-so of followers of a brittle and ideological interpretation of history that sees only those things it wants to see and calls it truth.
After thousands of years of an adversarial relations between the ethos of the shopkeeper and the scholar, the shopkeepers have taken over the academy.
You all miss the god damn point.


des von bladet 11.01.07 at 7:04 am

I’m saving the meat of this for later, but is there any chance of adding the “history of ideas” tag to this post? I for one find it very useful to be able to slice and dice on tags in general and that tag in particular.


Cian 11.01.07 at 9:37 am

Its not just Italy that has good tomatoes, so does France – you can (or could, admittedly haven’t checked in a few years) buy them in hypermarkets.

And the cost argument is bullshit. The UK’s supermarkets can compete with the US for crap, tasteless, vegetables. However you can buy decent tomatoes for less (*) if you buy them at a local greengrocers. It has nothing to do with cost, it has to do with the distribution and production priorities of supermarkets. Supermarkets want predictable supplies of food (predictable both in supply, but also type). They also need it to be able to survive long distance transportation, refridgeration and sitting on shelves for a considerable period of time. It needs essentially to survive the industrial supply chains of modern food retailing. Tasteless tomatoes is all you’re going to get from supermarkets, and consumers have learned to put up with it because that’s all on sale. Unless they’re prepared to spend a bit more time and shop elsewhere for vegetables, they’re stuck with tasteless (and slightly more expensive) vegetables.

I seem to remember (although I can’t find the post) Brad rudely disagreeing a couple of years ago with someone who suggested that delicious cheap food was available in European cities in a way that it wasn’t in the US, and claiming that this was an illusion of the upper middle classes who could afford to eat well anywhere, or words to that effect (my memory could be flawed, in which case I apologize in advance).

I remember that post. It does depend upon the European country (eating out in Norway is a sobering experience – oil money I guess), but certainly I’ve never had trouble eating cheaply and well in France, Italy and Spain. It does require leaving the touristy areas of course – maybe that was his problem…

* One of the ironies of supermarket shopping in the UK is that while most people think they’re cheaper, when it comes to vegetables they’re more expensive than greengrocers. On the other hand they have free parking, and you can get all your food in one go.


Cian 11.01.07 at 9:40 am

I don’t really notice a difference in quality in vegetables like spinach, lettuce, collard greens, swiss chard, pumpkins, turnips, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, etc. (between supermarkets and garden grown).

You may be growing them in the wrong soil/climate, or maybe using the wrong variety of seed. Grown right, there’s a huge difference. If you eat/cook them immediately after picking there can be a huge difference. Freshly picked potatoes taste wonderful, for example.


Slocum 11.01.07 at 11:31 am

There is an enormous difference between the state enabling markets (which, in turn, enables — but does not enforce — the emergence of Walmart or ‘rubber tomatoes’) on the one hand and state imposition of high-modernist plans.

Consider beer in the U.S. Thirty years ago, you might also have made the ‘rubber tomato’ argument about beer. I’m reminded of this from ‘A River Runs Through It’:

You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that we left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

But had Norman Maclean lived 20 years longer, he’d have been surprised to find himself back in a world where there are not just beers brewed in the next town but even beers brewed at the pub where you sit drinking. Our rivers aren’t cold enough to chill beer, but in my own cooler in the summer, you might find Oberon from Bell’s in Kalamazoo or ales from Arbor Brewing in town.

What changed? Did this come about because the U.S. changed its laws to emulate the way that “Italy protects small businesses and local communities”? No, of course not — this came about because tastes changed.

Markets enable both standardization and customization and what mix you’ll end up with depends on consumer trends, tastes, and affluence. The same is true of ‘rubber tomatoes’. There was a time when it took a bit of trouble to find non-rubber tomatoes in the U.S., but that’s no longer the case — same market, same laws, but a different result.


Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 1:12 pm

“What changed? Did this come about because the U.S. changed its laws to emulate the way that “Italy protects small businesses and local communities”? No, of course not—this came about because tastes changed.”

So America is becoming more European as Europe is becoming more American. America is rediscovering craft, while Europe is discovering he virtues of factory cheese. The reasons for this are not “economic” but social. Also of course with the distribution of income as is it we’ve created a larger class of people with disposable income along with a larger class of people without it. Good taste has trickled down (a little).
But McDonalds is not more natural than brick oven pizza, and the market is not responsible for the new popularity of “artisinal” food. Boredom with instrumentalism and the market defined as instrumentalism is what’s responsible.

People who defend the natural market forces end up defending the moral value of McDonalds while others defend sometimes absurd legislation to defend what is in fact morally valuable.
And good food is a moral value. Subtlety of any sort is a moral value. Little of that here.
You’re defending ideas not describing what’s happening. The market as such is bounded more and more, and more publicly, by other social forces. This is a good thing.


Jacob T. Levy 11.01.07 at 1:25 pm

Henry, while what you say about Scott’s intentions and underlying arguments is certainly right, I think there’s a credible case that the intra-left argument he’s engaged in has an intra-“right” equivalent. You’re describing the wedge between Scott and marketization and characterizing it as a reason for Scott to keep distance from and disagree with Hayek. But if there are more-and-less high-modernist forms of markets and marketization– if “markets” and “marketization” like “states” aren’t all of a kind but admit of more-or-less room for metis, more-or-less standardization, more-or-less *coercive* standardization (not the same thing), more-or-less sudden and top-down planning, and so on, then Scott could have affinities with Hayek that are interesting to explore without his being drafted to march under any simple “yay markets” banner.

I don’t want to revisit the “who gets to claim Jane Jacobs” wars, but there’s *some* kind of important bridge from Scott to Jacobs to Hayek.


Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 1:31 pm

The middle class in the US is beginning again to defend it’s own prerogatives, stability, complacency, comfort, over the preogatives of the rich [and the intellectual avant garde]. Increased market regulation will begin to appear because they want it. It will be the result of a “natural” process.


richard 11.01.07 at 1:41 pm

mainstream economics as currently ensconced in the big universities™ such as Berkeley by definition study exchanges at a macro level by and large and therefore metis or local knowledge is usually disdained as “not worthwhile”

You go to the anthropology department for that, where Scott sells well – or at least you would, if the discipline weren’t moribund. Perhaps it could be revived with an injection of micro-economists?


Slocum 11.01.07 at 4:22 pm

But McDonalds is not more natural than brick oven pizza, and the market is not responsible for the new popularity of “artisinal” food.

No, the market is not responsible for the newfound popularity of “artisinal” food. But the point is that the free market isn’t hostile to “artisinal” food either, so we don’t need market restrictions to protect craft producers. To the extent that people are interested in and willing to pay for artisinal food, markets will supply it. But if not, not.


roger 11.01.07 at 4:31 pm

Large scale changes in the food supply, such as the rubber tomato, have other costs, of course, in terms of consumer health. I’m not sure that consumers really wanted to chose an increase in Diabetes and obesity, or that they wanted to radically increase their consumption of corn because agribusiness and state subvention has made corn such a dominant grain in our culture – vide Michael Pollan. According to the U.S.D.A., only 23 percent of Americans get their daily recommended servings of fruit, and 41 percent of their servings of vegetables. There is a tradeoff between quality and consumption: if you lower the quality and the price of the tomato, the consumer might decide that the calory and taste benefit of buying a candy bar, which is just as cheap, is a better deal.

If economics is not about how to make the rich richer, but about providing the best conditions for making the most people healthy and giving them a shot at being happy, then I think the rubber tomato, corn fed beef, and the various ingenious ways in which agribusiness and the state have changed the American diet definitely does have a downside. To not deal with that at all is as unrealistic as to say that it is all downside. Of course – the collapse of the percentage of income spent on food in the U.S. has done a lot of good, too.


Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 4:49 pm

“But the point is that the free market isn’t hostile to “artisinal” food either”

There’s no such thing as the “free” market.


Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 5:17 pm

I should have been less glib, or at least more detailed. The market is always bounded by values of one sort or another. The question concerns when to codify them in rules and regulations and when we to let them remain informal. There’s no single right answer to that question. We have to ask it again each time it comes up. As I said:

“Increased market regulation will begin to appear because [the people] want it. It will be the result of a “natural” process.”

If people choose to vote for national health and higher taxes, are they less free? Some people define intellectual life in terms of progress but it’s best defined only in terms of debate. What’s the telos of athletic competition, not of one player’s role, but of the game itself? Not the same thing.
It’s not whether to regulate or not that’s most important but that we debate every choice each time. Stale decision-making processes are the problem not the categories of action taken out of context.


nu 11.01.07 at 6:15 pm


how much villagization itself contributed to the success of Tanzania in building a nation-state is pretty hard to determine.
There are a bunch of other factors that may have to do with Nyerere’s choices and policies but not with villagization. And inauspicious beginnings is an exageration.. The widespread use of Swahili for instance, which pre-existed Tanzanian and colonial policies, is an important factor that unifies Tanzania. So is the fact that Tanzania is a patchwork of little and acephalic ethnic groups where it’s impossible for any of them to become a relevant political force.


Henry 11.01.07 at 7:15 pm

slocum – this is a point that I thought about while writing the post (not in the context of microbrews, but of the resurgence of farmers’ markets in nicer parts of cities etc). My provisional answer is that there is certainly something to this – but only something.

First, the interesting thing about places like Italy is that the very good food is not only widely available, but relatively cheap – it can be consumed by working class/lower middle class types as well as upper middle classers. I loves me a good hoppy microbrew, but they’re very expensive. Same is true of good cheese and produce at farmer’s markets. Some of this is surely a relative prices issue – they seem expensive relative to budweiser/american cheese, but this is because they don’t take advantage of economies of scale/transport etc and can’t without becoming like budweiser/tasteless tomatoes/american cheese. But some of it isn’t – these goods are positioned and sold as luxuries and carry a very substantial price premium.

The second part of the response – and this is something that Tyler Cowen is working on – is that some kinds of production simply don’t seem to travel well in a free market system. They need certain preconditions – arguably social and cultural preconditions – to work, and these preconditions aren’t reproducible elsewhere. Tyler works on barbecue. Why is good barbecue a regional phenomenon more or less confined to certain peripheral parts of the US, and not reproducible elsewhere? Can’t be the ingredients, which are readily available. There is some secret sauce (pun intended) that can’t easily be reproduced by the market itself in other contexts.

Jacob – I think that Scott himself says something along these lines, albeit he doesn’t develop it as much as he should. He’s less opposed to epistemic knowledge in and of itself than the assumption of its holders that there is no other valid form of knowledge and to its combination with High Modernist overweening ambition. This suggests that some kinds of modernization are much preferable to others (and Scott acknowledges that modernization can indeed be a good thing and that people have entirely legitimate reasons to want to get out of peasant squalor). I suspect that he would similarly be more opposed to some kinds of markets than others – as I hint above, I think that his arguments about standardization are consonant with some of Polanyi’s distinctions between the logics of small, localized markets and the logic of long-distance trade.


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 7:43 pm

“What I mean to get at here is Scott’s discussion of how both markets and states require things to be codified before they are useful knowledge into e.g. standards and the like. Whether these are constructed by states (as they often are) or by non-state actors (as they often are) is in large part irrelevant from Scott’s point of view – what is important is how they strip out local knowledge in the process of becoming abstracted.”

This doesn’t seem true though. A market based metric can easily be overthrown or replaced by a competitor’s better metric–if something can be better abstracted it probably will be in a market system over time. In a government system, there are sorts of political games that can keep that from happening. (In a market system deeply controlled by governments that can happen too). Both will start with standards that are ok, but the market will tend to get better and better ones faster (so long as it can’t externalize things like health costs, which is where the government may productively come in through tort law for example.)


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 7:53 pm

“Why is good barbecue a regional phenomenon more or less confined to certain peripheral parts of the US, and not reproducible elsewhere?”

Again, couldn’t this be just taste? In certain areas of the country, people really want good BBQ, and they want it often. These areas can support lots of BBQ places which will compete to be really good.

Everywhere else people may like good BBQ, but they don’t do it enough to support multiple competing BBQ joints which will leverage their metis to good effect.

Government can’t really fix that (in fact it isn’t obvious it needs to be fixed) without leveraging into pretty noticeable inefficiencies elsewhere. (For example if they provide enough of a subsidy to simulate a financial situation as if lots of people had been going to BBQ joints, it would be forced to tax people who don’t want to go, and the distribution would be more difficult to base on quality than the market solution in areas where BBQ is highly valued.)


Slocum 11.01.07 at 10:11 pm

First, the interesting thing about places like Italy is that the very good food is not only widely available, but relatively cheap – it can be consumed by working class/lower middle class types as well as upper middle classers.

But is it really cheaper than good farmer’s market produce in the U.S. on a PPP basis? Because my impression of food in Italy (and France and the UK as well) is that dining out, at least, is more expensive there than here for the working class/lower middle class types but that they spend the money anyway. And I don’t think that was just weak dollar impression on our part (our algorithm in Europe is just to pretend a euro is a dollar and not worry about it).

But it’s just our competing impressions, obviously, and it would be hard to quantify because you’d have to match food of equivalent quality before you could do the price comparisons. Is there any data at all behind this idea one way or another, or is it only impressions so far?

I loves me a good hoppy microbrew, but they’re very expensive.

But they’re really not, you know — well, at least not around here. For example, here’s the beer list from a local pub. A bottle of Budweiser is $3.25, and a bottle of a microbrew is $3.75.

Why is good barbecue a regional phenomenon more or less confined to certain peripheral parts of the US, and not reproducible elsewhere?

To the extent that’s true, I’d suggest that it’s because to do BBQ right, you need a place that focuses on it pretty heavily — rather than just offering BBQ as one or two of N menu choices. Which means you need a critical mass of people willing to eat BBQ frequently enough to keep a dedicated BBQ pit in business. Even so, although we live pretty far from the heart of BBQ country, we do have a couple of local places that are real BBQ pits. Are they really ‘good’ and ‘authentic’? That’s a subjective matter.


John Emerson 11.01.07 at 11:03 pm

I remember back in the day (1950s) when whiny intellectuals started complaining about American food, coffee, etc. I think that a market for good food was just being developed. In 1950 or 1900 not too many people could afford good restaurants, and the ones not in the country couldn’t grow and preserve their own traditional foods (whether American or old country) very well either.


Seth Edenbaum 11.01.07 at 11:42 pm


Henry 11.02.07 at 2:54 pm

sebastian – on the metrics issue – sometimes indeed it works like that. But quite often, metrics are a dodgy effort to quantify the unquantifiable, and further refinements don’t actually do very much. I think that a lot of measurements of political risk are like that (not to mention the various league tables on economic competitiveness etc, which all look very iffy and arbitrary when you deconstruct them). Scott’s larger point – which seems unassailable to me is that (1) some forms of knowledge lend themselves to quantification or other forms of abstraction, while others don’t and (2) that both state planners and proponents of what he calls bureaucratic capitalism tend to rely excessively on abstracted forms of knowledge while discounting or perhaps even failing to acknowledge the existence of other sorts. As Scott notes, there is a lot of crossover between his arguments and those of certain kinds of conservatism, e.g. Michael Oakeshott (although he is much more worried about the power relations embedded in traditional ways of doing things than Oakeshott is).

Slocum – I don’t know whether my experience is exceptional, but the price differentials I see are usually much higher than the ones you quote here. On the barbecue issue – I am (perhaps mis)reporting Tyler’s work as he has explained it to me – interestingly, he is closer to a left position on the empirics, if not on the normative consequences, than Brad is, as best as I can tell (Brad seems to disagree on the empirics, but in practice to consider himself a social democrat, and to advocate for various forms of social protection ).


Seth Edenbaum 11.02.07 at 3:10 pm

Well, this thread seems gone. And if anybody bothered to click the link above it continued where John Emerson left off.

A last comment on “metis.” However it was intended it’s clear that we can refer to it as the equivalent of autonomous moral and therefore subjective acts of imagination within the playing of a social and/or technical role. But what is the need for such “social intelligence”? I’ve argued all along that it’s less a luxury than a requirement for a mature awareness of the world.


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.02.07 at 5:25 pm

“Scott’s larger point – which seems unassailable to me is that (1) some forms of knowledge lend themselves to quantification or other forms of abstraction, while others don’t and (2) that both state planners and proponents of what he calls bureaucratic capitalism tend to rely excessively on abstracted forms of knowledge while discounting or perhaps even failing to acknowledge the existence of other sorts.”

Well sure, but that doesn’t address the question of who tends to thrive better where that metis needs to be harnessed. For the most part (see for example agriculture) the market actors seem to do a much better job than government actors.

Take a set of borderline cases–cases where we don’t know if metis or top down work better and we can’t easily figure it out ahead of time. Will governments or market actors figure that out first and harness the proper skills first? Almost certainly the market will find out first. Government will choose one or the other approach and if it is the wrong approach, won’t change for decades if ever. In the market, people will choose both sides of the question, and a few will win out. Now if we let the government dictate the winners and losers (see the Big 3 Auto Companies) that clearly won’t work, but again that is what happens when you let the government dictate the winners and losers.


Seth Edenbaum 11.02.07 at 6:18 pm

“Will governments or market actors figure that out first and harness the proper skills first? Almost certainly the market will find out first.”

There’s never a guarantee, and you have no data to show there is. The pretense that there could be either way is the ideology of modernism, and libertarianism is the last of the modernist ideologies, mostly as parody. The problem of metis is how it can be fostered as a mode of intelligence in bureaucrats and citizens alike.

That debate leads us apparently into discussions of Descartes vs Spinoza and don’t know enough about either to jump in.

Comments on this entry are closed.