“I am a philosopher of the particular case”: An Interview with Ian Hacking

I absolutely love Ian Hacking’s work. He takes the best parts of Michel Foucault and the best parts of analytical philosophy and mashes it up into something truly brilliant, clarifying, and wise. For example, his Historical Ontology is the closest thing I’ve found to a methods text for the kind of dissertation I am writing. The most recent issue of History of the Human Sciences contains a lengthy interview with Hacking (on the occasion of his winning a prize in 2009) that covers the full arc of his career: from early research on the emergence of probability as a style of reasoning, to his contemporary projects on mental illness and “the looping effects of human kinds.” The interview is a nice introduction, if you are unfamiliar with his work, and a delightful refresher if you’re already a fan. There’s also a great deal about his relationship to the work of Foucault, and why he identifies as a philosopher but not a historian. Below are a few choice quotes.

Here, Hacking summarizes his first two major books on the history of probability and statistics:

MSØ: But, could you say something about what you think happens in the history of sta- tistics in the 17th, 18th centuries that perhaps is of relevance for today’s thinking.

H: It is not so much about today’s thinking about statistics, it’s more about how we came to live in a universe of chance in which we think of everything in terms of probabilities. The newspapers are constantly concerned with probabilities of sport, equally of sex; everybody reads stories about the risks of various diseases. When a new building is to be put up on the hill here, there will be an environmental protection report which will discuss use-risk analysis and decision theory. We think, in physics that quantum phenomena are essentially indeterministic. In most studies of the human genome, and of what it teaches about illness and ancestry, what we get are probabilities. We live in that world of chance. There was no such world in the 17th century. I’m interested in how that complete change in our conception of the universe and ourselves came into being. I tried to tell the first part of that story in The Emergence of Probability (1975a), and to tell the second part in The Taming of Chance (1990).

The ‘moral scientists’ of the 19th century attended to the enormous amount of varia- tion between people. But, it’s not just variation: they found that there are regularities in this variation. They became convinced that there is a Gaussian curve for any particular attribute of humanity, whether it is the length of the male arm, or the speed with which men can run – or (they used to say) the extent to which people feel morally responsible. Thus it is no longer the Human, it is instead the average man with a statistical dispersion. Then comes the idea that it is important to normalize people. For instance, that the psychiatric patient is a deviation from the norm, who will be cured by normalization. The goal of medicine, and the goal of much else that is connected with people, is to try to make us normal. That’s a very different conception of being human from the Enlightenment one.

MSØ: Yes, so the whole idea of normality in that sense is a pretty recent invention?

H: Well, in my scale of ‘recent’, yes. But for most young people today, recent is at most 6 years ago, and that’s the end of recent.

Here, Hacking emphasizes a frequent distinction that he makes between categories, names, “kinds” that are potentially looping or interactive (because the objects named might care about the names in question) with those that are not:

When we discover a new kind of beetle, or a new kind of mineral, or a new kind of subatomic particle, we classify it in a new way, but our classification does not interact with the insect or rock we have identified. We tend to think that recognizing a new kind of person is very much the same. To use your loaded example, which by now has been too overworked for me to want to return to the subject, it was thought perverts were just there to identify; they were a kind of person that medicine got round to recognizing, and then the law got round to punishing. But kinds of people are not like kinds of beetle. In the case of ‘perverts’ we have a striking example of a relatively recent phenomenon, of how a ‘kind’ of person can take control of the ‘kind’ and redefine it both in theory and in action. Homosexuals have taken control of a classification originally introduced by medicine and the law. That is one of the things that Gay Pride is all about.

Finally, here’s a quote about Hacking’s conflicted, but mostly appreciative, relationship with Foucault:

Yes, we found problems with Foucault’s citations. I have always been pretty lenient about this, because I think that the main thrust of his analysis is correct. I give examples of his errors, and explain my willingness to be generous about them, in a little squib I wrote much later, ‘Night Thoughts on Philology’, reprinted in my Historical Ontology [2004c].
At the time I was trying to write a book explaining Foucault to an English-language readership which, in 1976, had not yet taken to his work. I became increasingly dissatisfied with what I was writing. Finally I decided I had to stop. So one day I took the entire manuscript, at least 200 pages of self-typed material, and fed it into the large dustbin in the Stanford quad outside the philosophy department. A number of grad. students watched in glee – one joked that each student present should salvage a chapter and use it for his PhD thesis.

Føllesdal recalls that I also tore up some small part of the book earlier, in his presence, right after one of our classes had met. Doubtless at that moment I was moved by dissatisfaction with Foucault, but I destroyed the whole typescript because I was dissatisfied with myself. I came to the conclusion that Foucault is the man to read about Foucault. There are now a hundred books about Foucault, and I still think Foucault is the only one to read.

Bonus: In answering the last question, Hacking reveals his love of Scandinavian crime fiction, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!

Marx’s Reception by 19th Century Political Economists

As a warning, this post has nothing to do with the US elections.

Right now, the undergraduate social theory class for which I am GSI-ing* is covering Marx’s Capital. Capital is a tough book for sociology majors, and graduate students, even in comparison to some of the rest of the quite dense canon. One reason it’s so dense, I think, is because most sociologists lack familiarity with both Hegelian thought and 19th century political economy.** Having read big chunks of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and Mill, for example, can make Marx a lot easier to swallow. Marx’s Labor Theory of Value is not quite so radical when lined up next to Smith and Ricardo, who said many of the same things, albeit with a very different political take.*** Economics soon shifted away from the labor theory, towards marginalism, and I wonder if Marx’s reputation suffered because of it. While Smith and Ricardo themselves are lionized by contemporary economics, their labor theories of value are downplayed or ignored in favor of other insights, while Marx’s is made central and used to critique him.

This leads to the post’s title question. How did Marx’s contemporaries viewed his work. Marginalism was on the rise by the 1870s, but it was not yet the only game in town. How did the Smithians, Ricardians and Millsians of the late 19th century view Marx? I assume they were mostly ideologically opposed to his take on things, although perhaps not uniformly, but what was their theoretical critique of Marx like?

Any recommended citations or primary sources would be much appreciated!

* Equivalent to TA-ing, but with a better union.
** I certainly did when I started graduate school in sociology.
*** Hence Samuelson’s derisive comment that Marx was a “minor post-Ricardian.”

The 20th Century Myth of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand in Two Graphs

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a bit fascinated with the uses and misuses of Adam Smith’s work. For that reason, I am a big fan of Gavin Kennedy’s blog, Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy. Kennedy has been fighting against contemporary misinterpretations of Smith, with a special focus on the “myth of the invisible hand” (for an article-length summary of his position, see here). His work, along with Emma Rothschild, Warren Samuels, and others, has shown that the concept of the invisible hand emerged in 20th century economics, and was not central to Smith’s own writing. Smith used the phrase “invisible hand” just once in the Wealth of Nations, and it meant something more like “unintended consequences” than the harmonious workings of a perfect market. Emma Rothschild goes so far as to call it a “mildly ironic joke,” though I prefer to emphasize that the invisible hand was a common metaphor of the time that had little special significance for Smith. So, when did we start thinking of Smith as being the “theorist of the invisible hand” (and, around the same time, forget all his opposition to strict laissez-faire)? Gavin Kennedy’s historical work places the disjuncture in an oral tradition in England and the US in the late 19th to early 20th century. The myth remained somewhat confined until the publication of Samuelson’s extremely influential undergraduate text, Economics in 1948, which brought the myth to the masses (Kennedy 2010).

One way to see the influence of Samuelson’s publication, and to check the overall plausibility of the Kennedy-Rothschild-Samuelson (K-R-S) account of the myth of the invisible hand, is simply to check how often the phrase was referenced. Thankfully, JStor’s Data For Researchers tool makes this task trivial. Here’s a graph of counts of articles mentioning “invisible hand” over time:

via JStor's Data For Research

Mentions of "invisible hand" in JStor's Corpus


There is a trickle of mentions leading up to the 20th century, with a takeoff following 1950 (and thus, a few years after Samuelson’s text was published).

Here’s a similar graph for mentions of “adam smith” AND “invisible hand”:

via JStor's Data for Research

Mentions of "adam smith" and "invisible hand" in JStor's corpus.


Note that the trickles earlier on drop out – as “invisible hand” was a somewhat common metaphor in Smith’s time, it makes sense that other 18th and 19th century authors invoked it, but they did not appear to do so in reference to Smith. By the 1920s, and especially in the 1950s and after, we begin to see Adam Smith and the invisible hand coming together. A more detailed analysis is also possible in JStor, as we could look at the articles referencing both Smith and the invisible hand to see exactly how authors in the 1920s-1950s understood the phrase, and compare it to uses in articles from the 19th and early 20th century that did not reference Smith. Even in the absence of that more detailed analysis, I think we can safely say that the link between Smith and the invisible hand is a relatively recent creation. The evidence for the K-R-S position is strong.

Update: A commenter requested relative statistics. Here’s some data. 1090 articles published between 1770 and 1880 in JStor’s corpus mention Adam Smith. Of those, just *3* mention the invisible hand (and it’s not clear that they are referring to Smith’s invisible hand, I don’t have access to some of the early pamphlets). 1880-1900, it’s 8 out of 1319. 1900-1940, it’s 65 for both out of 4,243 for just Smith. By 1960-1980, it’s 514 mentions of both out of 7017 mentions of Smith. So, for clarity:

1770-1880 – .3% of articles mentioning Adam Smith also mention invisible hand
1880-1900 – .6%
1900-1940 – 1.5%
1940-1960 – 3.9%
1960-1980 – 7.3%

Counterfactuals as Simulated Regression Discontinuity Designs for History?

An idle Sunday afternoon thought: In historical work, we frequently come upon things that almost happened. That is to say, of the set of all things that did not happen, some seem much more plausible than others. We see traces in the archives of an idea that was never publicly stated, a speech that was written but not delivered, a movement that almost got off the ground but couldn’t find quite enough funding, or lost a key organizer. And so on. On some level, I think we privilege these “almost happened” events over those that are much more implausible. Why?

I think the answer has something in common with “regression discontinuity designs.” I’m no expert on RDDs, but the basic idea is quite simple: if there is some meaningful cutoff between two groups, then it makes sense to compare cases that are quite close to the cutoff to try to estimate the effect of being selected into the group. For example, if students are selected for special education based on their scores on a standardized IQ test, we can compare students just below and just above the threshold to see if being placed in the classes has a significant change on the outcome (on the assumption that there is very little different between students with, say, an IQ of 79 and 81 beyond their placement in the class).

Historical counterfactuals based on events that “almost happened” seem somewhat analogous. We can’t actually get data on the outcome of interest – in historical analysis, we almost never have many cases that differ only along one variable – but we can at least reasonably speculate (“simulate”?), how would this small change have affected a later event? By restricting ourselves to events that almost happened, we try to get at the importance of an event somewhat separated from all the other contingent factors surrounding it. In other words, if we can say “if this small and random event had occurred, X and not Y would have occurred at time 1, and that small change would plausibly have had a big consequence at time 2” then we are making a case for the importance of event Y.

A bit less abstractly, I’ll give an example from my own work. I study the history of national income statistics (GNP, GDP, etc.). In the early period of official national income statistics (the 1920s-1940s), lots of authors debated precisely what to include in the statistics and how to include different goods, services, intangibles, etc. Eventually, most of these debates were settled into the modern standards (the UN System of National Accounts being a key document), and some debates were re-opened in the 1970s. Two of the most criticized omissions were unpaid housework (cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. primarily performed by women) and the environment (the value of clean air, water, and so on).

What’s interesting from this perspective is that women’s work was “almost” included in the accounts in the 1920s-1930s, while the environment was nowhere to be found. In prominent texts (a 1921 NBER report, the first official Department of Commerce statistics in 1934, etc.), women’s work was discussed, and estimates were even produced (but not included in the final totals). No such estimates existed for the environment. And so, in some sense, it becomes much more plausible to ask, what would have happened if early national income statisticians had included women’s work? How important was this omission? How much would development economics have changed (say)? Or, how much would this inclusion have delegitimized the statistics? Asking those questions of the environment requires a much bigger leap – we have to change more things at the beginning of the story, because no one in 1921 or 1934 was pushing for their inclusion, and no estimates were made that could simply have been added to the final totals.

In some sense, this whole post is getting at similar issues to those discussed in Emigh’s methodological work on “Negative Case Methodology” – trying to answer questions of the form, “Why didn’t X occur?” E.g. why is there no large, visible social movement around finance in the United States?* For Emigh (if I’m remembering correctly), studying the “almost happened” gives us leverage on understanding why an outcome did not obtain. We study the small movements that did form but failed to get traction in order to understand the forces that prevented a larger movement from emerging. My discussion above flips Emigh: instead of focusing on the “almost happened” to figure out why it was “almost,” I want to ask, “What difference would it have made it if had happened?”

Enough of that. Back to the books.

* Greta Krippner’s new, and not yet published work, addresses this question.

The History of Info-Glut: Euler, Mayer and the Invention of Statistics

We tend to think of information overload as a new problem. Kristin Luker’s excellent methods of research advice guide/textbook, Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, is subtitled Research in an Age of Info-glut. But what is info-glut? And when did it start?

The mathematician in me wants to define info-glut in a sort of peculiar way.* Think back to algebra. It won’t hurt, I promise! Suppose you’ve got a system of equations with a few unknowns. There are only three possibilities:

  • You don’t know enough (not enough equations) and so there are an infinite number of “correct” answers.”
  • You know exactly the right amount, and there is one “Goldilocks” solution.
  • You have too many equations – you know too much – and there are no possible solutions.
  • The last answer – known as an “overdetermined system” – is how I think about info-glut. If you are in situation two, your path is straightforward, there is one right answer**. Situation one is desperate, and there’s no right path. In situation three, you have too much to work with and everything can’t be right.

    But what if you already know that your information isn’t quite right? In other words, if you think your observations have some error? The obvious answer to we moderns is to combine the data into a statistic, like an average.

    In 1749, no one had yet mastered this trick.*** Euler, a justly famous and important mathematician, when faced with too many observations of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn to solve for too few unknowns wrote, “Now, from these equations we can only conclude nothing; and the reason, perhaps, is that I have tried to satisfy several observations exactly, whereas I should have only satisfied them approximately; and this error has then multiplied itself.” (Quoted in Stigler 1990: 27). Euler’s failure to deal with his info-glut led him as far as to question whether Newton’s inverse square law held over large distances (ibid: 30).

    Writing just one year later about the libration of the moon, Tobias Mayer would propose a first solution to the problem of combining observations. Given 27 equations (observations) for three unknowns, Mayer strategically grouped the 27 into three groups of nine and added them up within those group. He thus reduced his overdetermined system of 27 equations into an exactly determined system of three, but still capturing something from each observation. His info-glut was gone.

    Laplace improved on Mayer’s method, and soon after this “method of averages” was replaced with the modern least squares estimators. All of them solve the same fundamental problem: how to estimate a set of unknowns given too much information (none of which is perfect). We’ve long since automated these solutions – check out your favorite statistics package or even just spreadsheet program – and we no longer think of having too many observations as a “problem”. But Euler, working before this first solution, did.

    All of this is to say that new statistical techniques, especially ones that become settled conventions, solve problems in info-glut. These solutions encode particular choices about what features of the world to emphasize – for example, assuming normal distributions makes us think in terms of mean and variance, and not so much about “fat tails”, a problem for modern finance (see MacKenzie’s work). Our modern iteration of this centuries old problem is only different in quantity****, not in kind. The proliferation of kinds of data awaits new methods for simplifying it. Info-glut, in other words, is relative to the advance of statistical methods that become taken-for-granted and institutionalized.

    * To be fair, Luker is specifically talking about info-glut in the context of qualitative and historical (and “non-canonical”) research, and so this mathematically-inspired presentation doesn’t really do her work justice. On the other hand, the boundaries between qualitative and quantitative are never quite so rigid. See, for example, natural language processing methods.
    ** As Asimov noted, “The number two is ridiculous and can’t exist.
    *** The rest of this comes from Stigler’s excellent The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900, chapter 1.
    ****Get it?

    Retro Public Sociology: “Freedom Today is to Some Extent Freedom to Starve” 1932 Edition

    In conjunction with my research on the history of macroeconomic statistics, I’ve been poking through New York Times articles from the early 20th century. I came across an absolute gem from Jan. 24, 1932 that I had to share with you, my loyal readers. It’s a story about a speech given by Yale Professor, Jerome Davis*. Here are some choice bits:

    “We have an industrial autocracy in the United States now just as real as the autocracy exercised by the late Czar over his subjects… The fact is that Americans haven’t begun yet to realize what it’s all about – that an industrial revolution or transformation has changed this nation into an urbanized one, a mechanized one, where fewer than 200 corporations out of 200,000 control half the wealth of the country. The result is that we’ve lost our liberty and freedom of action without realizing that we have drifted into a state where power is predominant.”

    I wonder if Prof. Davis had read Berle and Means’ The Modern Corporation and Private Property (published the same year as the speech), or perhaps an earlier article. I think they would have gotten along rather well!

    Prof. Davis went on to list a new “decalogue of social principles”. Some are fairly unobjectionable – freedom of speech and the like. Here are a few more interesting ones:

    4 – A planned social and economic order for the benefit of all.
    5 – Common ownership of what we use in common, such as roads, &c.. eventually even public utilities.
    6 – Distribution of the national income so that all shall share according to their needs and to their ability to serve society.

    9 – Soul force, not violence – sacrificial mutual action for and with all to be a basic ideal underlying the new order.
    10 – Faith in a Father God or spiritual force in the universe.

    It’s probably worth mentioning that although Prof. Davis got his PhD in Sociology from Columbia, he was a professor at the Yale Divinity School and was speaking to a conference of progressive churches! A position for which he was apparently denied tenure, due to his being a bit.. well.. communist. Ah, the good old days.

    * I wonder if there is any relation to our own Jerry Davis?

    The Passions of Adam Smith: Self-Interest, Sympathy and Societal Good

    [Note – The following long-ish post was written as part of an independent study on the history of economics. I thought it might interest one or two of you out there.]

    Adam Smith did not believe that man was solely motivated by self-interest. The first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) makes the case quickly enough: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” In this brief essay, I will explore Adam Smith’s conception of human nature and human motivation with a focus on the role of sympathy and conflicting passions. I will then connect Smith’s microfoundations (to use an anachronism) to his arguments concerning the relative efficacy of markets and states in producing socially beneficial outcomes. Drawing on Viner (1927), Coase (1976), Rothschild and Sen (2006) and Kennedy (2009), I argue that Adam Smith was not a naïve proponent of laissez-faire, and never argued that an “invisible hand” automatically coordinates economic activity to produce optimal results when left alone (see Kennedy 2009 for an excellent treatment of this myth). Rather, Smith focused on the institutions that channel self-interest into beneficial or injurious outcomes (Rosenberg 1960). Smith did argue that in many cases where contemporary governments attempted to manipulate trade, they did so in error, but he also left open three tremendous roles for government: maintaining property rights, establishing justice, and building public works.
    (more…)

    18th Century Self-Help: Life Advice from Adam Smith

    As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s book at time reads like a shockingly modern self-help book, with good advice about how to deal with adversity and how unrealistic expectations are the source of much misery. Here’s a couple choice bits from a middle chapter, “Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience”:

    The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice overrates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity an extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.

    Examine the records of history, recollect what has happened within the circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been the conduct of almost all the greatly unfortunate, either in private or public life, whom you may have read of, or heard of, or remember, and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them have arisen from their now knowing when they were well, when it was proper for them to sit still and to be contented.”

    I’m reminded of two things here. One is recent research in the psychology of happiness (see for example Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness). One of the findings from this work is that people consistently predict that permanent changes in their wealth (such as winning the lottery) or health (not all health changes, but things like losing a limb) will make them far happier or unhappier than they end up being.

    In a totally different vein, Vonngeut said something similar but pithier, one of my favorite quotes of his:

    And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ”If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

    A second Smith quote from the same chapter gives explicit advice about what to do when you are feeling down. Smith emphasizes the role of “the impartial spectator”, a figure we summon in our minds when we try to judge our own actions, and which helps us act morally when we get lost in the moment. That figure is easier to summon when we are among strangers than friends – in interacting with strangers, we are forced to consider how another views us who is relatively impartial and disconnected. Smith turns this into a bit of advice for when you are feeling blue:

    Are you in adversity? Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude, do not regulate your sorrow according to the indulgent sympathy of your intimate friends; return, as soon as possible, to the daylight of the world and of society. Live with strangers, with those who know nothing, or care nothing, about your misfortune; do not even shun the company of enemies; but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little you are affected by your calamity, and how much you are above it.

    Self-help, ca. 1759!

    MLK Rituals

    As a sociology blog, it seems almost obligatory to have some kind of MLK Day post. Let’s call it a ritual. Thankfully, I have a few links and thoughts to share, including some of my own MLK Day rituals.

    First, as I do most MLK days, today I re-listened to and re-read two speeches: “I Have a Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”. If you haven’t read or watch them lately, go do so again. The first will remind you why MLK is our holiest civic saint, the second will remind you that sometimes life is better written than any work of fiction – how else could a man have said, on the eve before his death:

    Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

    It sends a chill through me every year. Listening to MLK also inspires me to ask of my own life, and my own research, what is this for? Not in the hokey, how do I sell this to the foundations and funding agencies way, but in the deeper sense of how does my work promote justice over injustice, freedom over tyranny, compassion over hatred. It’s a tough question, especially when so much of what I do feels like disconnected intellectual musing. But today’s as good a day as any to ask, why am I here?

    Second, on MLK Day I usually recall the other philosophers and thinkers who have influenced me. The last couple years, I’ve thought of Vonnegut. Vonnegut, like myself and the high school I attended, was a humanist. Humanism, for Vonnegut, was a pretty simple proposition:

    We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

    As a not-religious sociologist, I find Vonnegut’s phrasing a lot closer to my heart (although decidedly less emotionally moving) than MLK’s rhetoric. But the differences pale compared to the similarities.

    Lastly, each MLK Day brings new treats in terms of tid-bits about his life and work, or contemporary remixes of rhetorical classics. In the first category, I enjoyed a post by Ari about MLK’s turn towards more radical, less civil rights focused, economic activism (hat tip to Mark Thoma). Quoting at length from a speech MLK gave in Grosse Pointe (a rich suburb not too far from where I grew up), Eri argues that we have mostly forgotten MLK’s support of unions and his sociological analysis of the origins of violence. Here’s one of the excerpts:

    “But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

    Ari goes on to retell how MLK Day became a national holiday, by eventually winning the support of corporations, and then asks:

    I wonder what Martin Luther King would think of his eponymous day. Of the MLK lesson plan — long on heroism, patriotism, and feel-good rhetoric but short on violence, non- or otherwise — in my son’s classroom. Of the fact that his holiday’s roots in organized labor have been completely forgotten. Of the painful irony that corporate sponsorship proved key in passing the law marking his birthday.

    More than that, I wonder what those sponsors would think if they were transported back to Grosse Pointe, on March 12, 1968, to hear King deliver his “Other America” speech, including the line, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I suspect they wouldn’t recognize that Dr. King. I wonder how many of us would.

    I think that my quote of the day, today, will be “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

    Lastly, in the popular remixes vein, my favorite auto-tuning remixers have a new video out:

    I hope you enjoy it, and the rest of the day.

    Four Arguments for the Free Market

    This morning, as part of an independent study, a cohort-mate and I discussed Talcott Parson’s The Structure of Social Action. The book is a bit surreal – the entire thing is almost a shaggy dog story in the Sociology of Knowledge, wherein the theorists he reviews (Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim and Weber) are proven to be correct simply because they said vaguely similar things at the same time in different places. Let’s just say the strengths of the book, and its enduring legacy, are neither in its style nor the logical strength of its main conclusions. I don’t mean to be too harsh – there was a lot of interest in the sections we read, especially on the development of liberal political thought and Sociology’s emergence as a reaction against it.

    But none of that has much to do with the thrust of this post – the free market. Somewhere in his exposition of liberal theory from Hobbes to Marshall (my copy is elsewhere at the moment [EDIT: Page 104, about Malthus’ idea that competition served as a social regulation mechanism, Parsons doesn’t actually use the phrase free market]), Parsons notes that the importance of the free market for liberal* theory has a lot to do with the way it prevents anyone from exercising power over anyone else, and less to do with the way it maximizes productivity. Parsons is not the only one to make this argument – it shows up also in a lot of the work in the “corporate governance” tradition in the mid-20th century, authors like JK Galbraith and Carl Kaysen argue that the rise of large corporations is potentially dangerous because such corporations have discretion in a way impossible under a competitive market.

    More generally, I think in sociology we can sometimes forget that the Free Market has been praised, defended and fought over not simply because of its virtues in allocating resources. Rather, I can think of four analytically distinct arguments in favor of relatively unfettered markets as the best way to organize economic life**:

  • 1. Market allocate scarce resources efficiently. This is the most commonly used argument, and is associated most strongly with the entire neoclassical economic tradition. Supply matches demand, markets clear, everybody maximizes their welfare. Hooray! It’s most closely related to the next argument.
  • 2. Markets take advantage of all of the information in society. This view is expressed most clearly in Hayek’s famous essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society. Hayek argues there that centralized planning systems cannot adequately capture all of the everyday and local sorts of knowledge about production techniques, materials, demand and more possessed by workmen, shopkeepers, etc. all the way on up. Top-down coordination fails because information is too expensive to centralize, and the free market reigns supreme because it lets society have a kind of distributed cognition. It’s mostly an argument against central planning.
  • 3. Markets generate the perennial gale of Creative Destruction, that is, innovation that produces wondrous new goods and cheaper and better ways to do everything. This view obviously comes straight out of Schumpeter and his classic work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Schumpeter argues that markets are good not because they allocate resources efficiently on a moment to moment basis (and thus refutes argument 1 above), but rather because they promote innovation. Businesses with some limited monopoly power emerge naturally, and are healthy, as they provide some stability in the face of the perennial gale, while simultaneously investing in the R&D that produces it. Capitalism = Innovation. Innovation = Win.
  • 4. Markets limit discretion and power. This argument is most famously explicated and belittled in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. According to free market liberals, in a competitive market, no actor has the power to set prices (see any microeconomics textbook), and thus no actor has power over any other. The system runs itself, no one fights, and no one tells anyone else what to do. Polanyi calls this a “stark utopia”, and argues that it is as unreal and destructive as the communist utopias inspired by Karl Marx and lambasted as impossible by liberals. As mentioned above, authors concerned about the rise of the large corporation in the 20th century also draw a lot on this notion of the market. Anti-trust law, for example, is seen not just as a way to make the market more economically efficient, but also to prevent the enormous build-up of power in the hands of the corporate elite.
  • Ok, so there you have it. Four arguments in favor of the Free Market (along with some bits of some counter-arguments). Enjoy! And leave a comment if you think I’m missing any, or grossly mis-characterizing the ones I have.

    * In this post, I use liberal in the older, non-American sense, relating to the “liberalism” of thinkers like Locke, and the “market liberalism” of free market proponents throughout the ages. Parsons actually does a nice job of parsing these arguments (especially the early emphasis on individualism as a normative claim about how things should be rather than a positive claim about how things are), but for my purposes there’s no real need to disaggregate, as the arguments I’m getting to are all in the 20th century.
    ** Note, I’m not arguing for any of these in particular, I just want to put them out there and associate them with a few names to see what y’all think.