Saturday, March 5, 2011

Assault of Thoughts - 3/5/2011

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- A new blog, Notes from the American Underground, picked up my post on Post Keynesianism and also shares some skepticism. I have a comment in the comment section. They also have an interesting post on property and freedom. As I outline here, I think this somewhat puts the cart before the horse. They argue that property is a precondition to freedom. I would suggest that freedom is what we use to judge any given arrangement of property rights. Certainly you need some understanding of rights to talk about freedom, as their posts suggests. But the mere existence and enforcement of rights doesn't guarantee anything about freedom. Rights arrangements must be evaluated, not assumed.

- This is a new paper on the Keynes-Hayek debate in 1932 in The Times of London.

- Gene Callahan has a good post up on Max Weber. I couldn't agree more with him on The Protestant Ethic. It's a really impressive book, and reading it you think "this is how historical analysis in the social sciences should be done". This point by Gene was especially good: "Weber was careful to be humble about what he was achieving — not the complete explanation for the historical events in question (which is only provided by a complete history of the events), but a partial explanation stressing a particular point of view." This is what I was trying to get across in my 1920-21 paper - you can't treat history like a lab experiment (since Kuhn I'm starting to wonder if you can treat lab experiments like lab experiments!). A lot of stuff is going on. You can corroborate theories - that's the value of history - but you need to be humble about it. Sometimes you can rule out other theories, but it's hard.

- A lot of people are chatting about the new Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Peter Boettke has serious doubts. I don't have an opinion yet, but I'm following it now. Much of the confusion about social justice by libertarians is precisely the problem with the way they talk about liberty and property. It seems to me you have to deconstruct or just put libertarianism to the side to make real progress with classical liberalism. So this sort of fusionist approach seems politically/rhetorically viable, but I'm not sure how it's going to play out. I still don't have a real sense of their claims yet, so I'll stay agnostic for now.


  1. Social justice is a strange concept, because there is no effective barometer for determining what outcome of circumstances are socially just.

    Of course, there are some numerical indicators used such as HDI or Gini or whatever. But even then, if we looked at countries that score relatively positive on those indicators, such as United Kingdom, we find that locals there still grumble about problems of juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, or a general apathy between neighbours that was not there before recent times.

    So even those numerical indicators tell little about what counts for a good life. When Arnold Kling and co. wrote a somewhat parodying explanation of "What is Progressivism?", one of the responses was from a math teacher called Mike Huybensz. He said that Progressivism was a political philosophy that took pursuit of happiness and good life seriously, and thus intended to make it public policy.

    Even then, would progressives really argue, "As progressives, we believe we should all stop blogging or posting on the internet, because these are impediments to other ways of living a far more meaningful and satisfactory life"? Would they even ask for legislation that would prevent children from destroying their souls by playing videogames? No, any person would stop and wonder if he is really that dedicated to other people's happiness.

    The whole issue of social justice and pursuit of happiness is summarized by the James Burnham quote:

    "Where there was no solution, there was no problem."

  2. One of my classes this past fall was on Weber, with Martin Riesebrodt, a retiring sociology professor here at the Div School. Riesebrodt has done a lot of editing on the German critical edition of Weber's work, and is a well- respected Weber scholar. He has an interesting theory that he has argued about the Protestant Ethic... it's certainly different than Weber's other books, and for precisely the reasons you mention (although I think Riesebrodt would disagree with you on it's relative quality, precisely for the reasons you mention). Anyway, his theory is that the Protestant Ethic was written as a sort of psychological inventory of Weber himself, and the historical forces that contributed to his own workaholic tendencies... it was published just after Weber was coming out of his years of nervous breakdown (from over-working through the '90s), and served as a way for him to make sense of his own condition. This also explains why the style of the work is so widely divergent from the rest of Weber's stuff. I'm not sure how widely accepted the theory is or how firmly Riesebrodt holds to it, but it's certainly a fascinating take on the Protestant Ethic.

  3. I think this is the volume where he makes the argument. I haven't read his chapter. Riesebrodt is also concerned to argue against typical conceptions of Weber's work as anti-Marxist, and I believe this comes up in the chapter as well.

  4. Wow, thanks for the link and the kind words. I feel it is a bit much to be linked to by you and this blog, since there really isn't anything too impressive on mine, but...I'm trying! Thanks again!

  5. Oh great - didn't realize it was yours, Sam. No problem. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. I have always been Weber's description in this work of bureaucracy as an "iron cage" and as a phenomenon which creates a "polar night of icy darkness" for society. This part of the work tends to get far less attention.

  7. Gary -
    He refered to capitalism as an iron cage, not bureaucracy.

    And when he said that about bureaucratization, he was not talking about it in the way that we use "bureaucracy" in America - to refer to a government agency. He was refering bureaucratization and "rationalization" in general - in the public and private sphere. The corporate, bureaucratic form as a power relation.

    And what do you mean "this part of the work tends to get far less attention"? Are you nuts? His views on capitalism and on bureaucracy are what he is known for and you've cited probably the two most commonly cited passages from Weber. How in God's green earth can you say "this part of the work tends to get far less attention"?

    What part of Weber do you think people pay attention to?!?!

  8. No, he referred to bureaucracy in general as an "iron cage" - he makes this very explicit in the fifth chapter when uses this phrase.

    Also, I didn't differentiate government from corporate bureaucracy. I've made enough comments here about the nature of the corporate body - be it church, business corporation or government - to make that apparent.

    I mean in general conversation.

  9. I know you didn't - I was clarifying what he was refering to.

    I don't recall you complaining about corporate structure here before. Could you note an example?

  10. This is the passage:

    "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into evervday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage."

    I'm not understanding where he was talking about bureaucracy. I don't recall him ever talking about bureaucracy in the book, but it's been a couple years since I've read it.

  11. I think the account of rationalization (in the Protestant Ethic and elsewhere) could be fairly said to include bureaucratic and capitalist structures both. It almost strikes me as a proto-Foucauldian point.

  12. dkuehn,

    I constantly state that human freedom expands at the expense of the corporate body. That is the refrain of Western freedom and "liberalism" IMHO.


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