Posts tagged with: spontaneous order

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and LeftI recently read Yuval Levin’s new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, and found it remarkably rich and rewarding. Though the entire book is worthy of discussion, his chapter on choice vs. obligation is particularly helpful in illuminating one of the more elusive tensions in our social thought and action.

In the chapter, Levin provides a helpful summary of how the two men differed in their beliefs about social obligation and individual rights. How ought we to relate to our fellow man? What preexisting obligations do we have to our neighbors? How do those obligations come to be? What role ought the State to play in guiding or intervening in the social order?

For Paine, Levin explains, society is a “means to enable choice, or the freedom to shape our own future uncoerced—a means to the radical liberation of the individual from the burdens of his circumstances, his given nature, and his fellow man.” “The right to choose,” Levin paraphrases, is “the end toward which we aim in politics.” Or as Paine himself puts it: “The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me, and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.” We choose our obligations, and y’all best let Paine choose his.

For Burke, however, this lopsided emphasis on choice amounts to “a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition,” as Levin summarizes: “The most essential human obligations and relations—especially those involving the family but also many of those involving community, the nation, and one’s religious faith—are not chosen and could never really be chosen, and political and social life begins from these, not from an act of will.” We may think we can escape or subvert certain obligations, but for Burke,  they are “nevertheless binding.” Therefore, in structuring our society and acting therein, we ought not pretend otherwise. (more…)

Blog author: jsunde
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
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????????????????????????????????????In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Emory economics professor Paul H. Rubin makes an interesting argument about the way economists tend to over-elevate and/or misconstrue the role of competition in the flourishing of markets.

“Competition plays a supporting role,” he argues, but “cooperation makes markets thrive”:

The way we use the term competition instead of cooperation fosters anti-market bias. “Competition” carries a negative connotation because it implies winners and losers, and our minds naturally feel sympathy for the losers. But cooperation evokes a positive response: It’s a win-win situation with no losers. And in fact the word competition doesn’t depict market activity as aptly as the word cooperation. The “competitive economy” would be better described as the “cooperative economy.”

Consider the most basic economic unit, the transaction. A transaction is cooperative because both parties gain from a voluntary exchange. There is competition in markets, but it’s actually competition for the right to cooperate. Firms must compete for the privilege of selling to consumers—for the right to cooperate with consumers. Workers compete for the right to cooperate with employers. Competition matters because it ensures that the most efficient players will gain the right to cooperate on the best terms available. But competition plays a supporting role, while cooperation makes markets thrive. (more…)

McDonald’s has been under fire over its Practical Money Skills Budget Journal, a planning tool designed to help employees organize their personal finances. The tool’s sample budget fails to account for a variety of first-world expenses, leading to a predictable cacophony of folks calling for newer, fresher, more enlightened price-fixing tricks. Stephen Colbert channels the sentiments well.

McDonald's Budget

Sample Budget for McDonald’s Employees

On the finer points, it can be tempting to get into the weeds, and many already have. Some have focused on the budget itself, debating everything from the actual cost of heat to the necessity of a $100 cable bill. Others have aimed to play the CFO, imagining how Big Mac prices might be impacted if McDonald’s paid its workers the $15 per hour they demand. It’s all been thoroughly deconstructed, but rest assured, the next hypothetical is well on its way.

Yet as fun as all this back-and-forth may be, it misses the larger reality: Prices are not play things.

As economist Art Carden has pointed out, raising the minimum wage is likely to lead to a host of deleterious effects: (more…)

PentecostOver at First Things, Peter Leithart uses the occasion of Pentecost as a launching pad for highlighting the primary theme of his latest book: “The West has been busy building neo-Babel” and the time is ripe for repentance and revival:

We’ve dispensed with the effort to connect heaven and earth, since up above it’s only galaxies. But we share the other aspirations of Babel, as well as Babel’s humanist orientation. Classes and ethnicities can be synchronized, we think, without divine assistance. No need for a Holy Spirit to baptize into one body. We can create a universal language without the gift of tongues. The family resemblance between liberal virtues and the fruits of the Spirit is not an accident. It’s a heresy worthy of Flannery O’Connor: Hazel Motes invented the “Holy Church of Christ without Christ”; the Enlightenment created Pentecostalism without the Spirit.

The experiment has gone relatively well for some time, but the project is fraying. To many among our elites, Enlightenment universalism has been unmasked as nothing more than an effete form of tribalism. Secular defenses of liberal tolerance collapse into incoherence. And alongside these theoretical challenges is the immense practical problem of harmonizing the spirits of the myriad subcultures that occupy the West. I don’t need to repeat the litany of multicultural challenges yet again. Everyone knows that it’s an open question whether we have the intellectual and moral resources to sustain the experiment in secular Pentecostalism much longer. Like other Babels, this one will eventually crumble and its denizens will scatter.

Without the Spirit, such an “experiment in secular Pentecostalism,” will never flourish in that peculiar harmony so characteristic of the upper room and the transformation thereafter — diverse and unified, spontaneous yet ordered. “The Church has only one antidote to Babel,” Leithart writes: “the anti-Babel and fulfilled Babel of Pentecost.” The solution, according to Leithart, is to nurture a rightly aligned, wholly devoted, and thoroughly spiritual “Pentecostal Enlightenment.” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
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Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.