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To command nature, we must obey it
Francis Bacon, 1624
Hierarchies and Generative orders
A great theme running through economic and political theory is the distinction between hierarchies and markets as means of cooperation. This is at the centre of Hayek and of Coase. Here I’ll sketch some ideas that paint all this on an even larger canvas. So as not to get too bogged down I’ll sketch some of these ideas in dot point form. Take this as notes to myself.
- Language and culture are both generative orders, though they co-evolved and we can also think of them as parts of a single order.
- They make us human by creating an inter-subjective human world. This functions as an order within the natural world. Like the order of the natural world, we inhabit a generative order. We inhabit our language and our culture. It has an objective existence outside ourselves.1
- The market is the next great generative order that emerged in human history (or prehistory).
- At this point, we encounter certain important facts. Generative orders are built on one another – each successive generative order uses the previous generative orders as part of its operating system. Further, generative orders tend to be less fundamental than the generative orders from which they’re built.
- This is true by definition historically, but it’s also true in terms of contemporary significance. Thus markets create an order that people can inhabit, but they move in and out of markets whereas language and culture create an order so ubiquitous that our whole lives are lived within it (even to a substantial extent when we’re dreaming).
- As this process continues a range of quite specialised generative orders come into existence. To give a contemporary example, lawyers are trained by teaching them ‘the practice of law’ which can be regarded as a generative order. It is a set of values and practices that have a significance that is independent of any individual lawyer. Accordingly, I’m going to use the terms ‘specialised’ and ‘general’ generative order to specify the level of generality of a generative order.
- Placing ideas like those I’ve discussed at the heart of his thought, Hayek used the terms ‘cosmos’ and ‘taxis’ to distinguish between an evolved order and one that was built deliberately by those with sufficient power and insight to do it – as formal institutions are built. (I also think Hayek overdoes the ‘spontaneous’ part of spontaneous order. Even though they come to operate in a decentralised way, some of these orders are often subject to heavy shaping by power and may continue to rely on it).2
- I’d also mention similar phenomena but which tend to be discrete. They may constitute part of an order, like the liquidity that markets generate with growing depth. But they stop short of being orders in themselves. I call such phenomena emergent public goods. Thus the place at which a market for goods is established is an emergent public good rather than a generative order. A word as it takes on its meaning in a community could also be regarded as a small, discrete emergent public good. Hayek gives an example of one such phenomenon emerging in the animal kingdom as cattle form a path through a field. It’s not part of a generative order.
- It’s interesting to note at this point that Adam Smith’s two books were each dedicated to anatomising the emergence of culture (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and markets (The Wealth of Nations). In each case, he told the story of the emergence of a generative order – a social world for humans to inhabit. In his Lectures on Rhetoric, he described a form of exposition as superior to the ancients’ rhetorical methods and he deployed this method in his two great books. This was the “Newtonian method”. Modelled on Newton’s system of celestial mechanics, it was built on an “immense chain of the most important and sublime truths . . . connected together by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience”. Where Newton had done this for the natural order in his contributions to natural science, Smith followed Hume’s call to build a science of humanity.
- The Newtonian structure of The Wealth of Nations is built up from the singular innate human tendency to “truck, barter and exchange”. And the ‘secret sauce’ behind the miracle of the market is that cognition and motivation are entangled, cognate in the generative order. Adam Smith explained this. Hayek doubled down on it: The price system in a market is a system of social cognition enabling economic decision-makers to understand the relative scarcity (the economic value) of the various goods they can produce or consume. Meanwhile, the motives generated within the generative order for people to serve their own interests, are (unbeknownst to them), motives for them also to serve society’s interest. Market prices motivate economic actors to produce what is most scarce and consume what is least scarce.
- The apparatus in The Theory of Moral Sentiments works remarkably similarly. First, it’s predicated on a single innate human trait of which we have daily experience – in this case, ‘sympathy’. Being both cognitive and affective, sympathy works analogously to the price system.
- It provides the primary ‘sense’ through which we comprehend our social world. We can know nothing of how others think and experience their lives except by imagining ourselves in their place.
- It is also an emotion that primes us to judge our social world and motivates us to act well in it.
- In this manner, Smith builds his ‘Newtonian’ exposition of how sympathy knits the social world together binding human beings to one another in circles of sympathy of an intensity that diminishes – as does Newton’s force of gravity – with proximity. From this, Smith builds a theory of human psychology in which culture emerges as a social asset, the glue that holds society together – with the help of government which vouchsafes the rule of law. Without this regularity and justice in social life, Smith argues society would “crumble to atoms”.
- In each case, the order of culture and markets emerge without being imposed from on high. They emerge as an ongoing residue of the repeated patterns of life itself.
- Smith was a slow and painstaking writer. He worked over things for decades before publishing them and then updated them with each edition released. He substantially revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the last year of his life to take into account his reaction to the French revolution which was very similar to his friend Edmund Burke.3 Though he’d been working for years towards finishing a third great work which would complete the intellectual task of his life – a book on Jurisprudence which today only exists as hints in students’ notes from lectures decades before – his instructions on his death were for all his papers to be burned. There were just a few exceptions most or all of which were early pieces of which we can surmise he was proud. Remarkably they include essays on two other generative orders.
- Smith’s Considerations concerning the first formation of languages proposed that it evolved as a generative order as defined here. He wouldn’t have used this language, but from what he did say, he’d have agreed with Tomasello’s claims at the turn of the twenty-first century. “Just as money is a symbolically embodied social institution that arose historically from previously existing economic activities, natural language is a symbolically embodied social institution that arose historically from previously existing social-communicative activities”.
- His Principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries; as illustrated by the history of astronomy is an exploration of the generative order of science. It’s multi-faceted, but has a strong, if not quite ‘Newtonian’ focus on a single psychological motive which is wonder and surprise and the desire to pacify them by normalising the phenomena that gave rise to them in our mind – i.e. by bringing them within our scientific understanding.
Key features of the generative order
Based on the similarities between the generative orders of culture and language on the one hand and markets and money on the other I offer the following observations regarding a generative order:
- It is an emergent public good which is to say it is a thing of great value – including economic value – that is freely available and is not commoditised.
- It co-evolves with the relationships occurring within it.
- Its production and consumption are conjoint, not distinct as they are with traditional economic goods, (in which I include both private and public goods).
- Being a free good, it is useful to clarify (at least for the economists) how it comes into and remains in existence – that is, how people are motivated to build and maintain it. The ‘motive force’ behind its creation is the desire of its participants to interact with each other in some way.
- Dominant norms evolve within it – ways of doing things – which gain practical and ethical significance.
- These norms constrain actors within the generative order.
- Given these constraints, why would anyone voluntarily participate in the order? Participants are drawn into submitting themselves to these constraints so that they can exercise their agency within the order (operating within the order enables one to achieve things one can’t achieve outside the order). This parallels Francis Bacon’s sublime observation that, to command nature, we must obey it.
- The resources of the generative order foster social cognition and motivate action. Thus, prices within markets enable participants to apprehend economic value and motivate them to do so through trade. As discussed above, rules in culture and language have a similar function.
- Though the generative order imposes the costs of conforming to its norms as the price of admission, unlike a top-down system, the order remains in principle open, accessible to all without anyone requiring permission to participate.
- Thus, the norms pervading the generative order are the emergent product of patterns emerging from participants’ choices, rather than their adherence to commands from some independent source of power.
- Those patterns are driven by human purposes, which will be different in different situations and for different groups and individuals.
- Thus, this permissionlessness and mutual voice and adjustment throughout the generative order gives it profound advantages over orders that flow from top-down command. Nevertheless, we cannot presume that generative orders are preferable in all circumstances and respects.
- The decentralised nature of a generative order is its strength and also its weakness, creating situations in which changes are needed which require greater authority than will cohere within the order.
- Participants’ compliance with dominant norms perpetuates and replicates them. Their deviation from those norms, it if leaves any trace, nurtures innovation and renewal – for good or ill.
Some further observations
Hierarchies and generative orders in the political order
Once humans emerge from often communist hunter/gatherer cultures, public goods tend mostly to be supplied by the powerful. Thus city walls are often built by those with the most power. They’ll send their goons round to demand taxation to pay for it (At least this is how it happens in Robin Hood movies I’ve seen, but it checks out – trust me.) In the ancient world, big men were often the source of great public monuments and improvements to them – for instance Cimon of Athens used his great wealth and the spoils of his victories as a general to contribute to the city wall, improve the agora, plant trees for shade there and at the Academy (or the site where it would be founded). As modern liberal orders emerge, the power of those at the top starts to become subject to constitutional constraints. Thus an order emerges which is progressively less about power imposed from the top and becomes a web of relationships fostered by the rule of custom and law.
Before these structures evolved, specifying ‘human rights’ on paper mattered naught for they’d not have been honoured by those with power. But what happened was that an order evolved in which the powerful were drawn into a network in which they mutually constrained each other – theorised by Montesquieu and taken up by America’s Founding Fathers as the separation of powers. In England in 1649 when they cut of the head of King Charles I, no sufficiently powerful network of mutual constraint existed. And after a couple of decades of bloodshed, it couldn’t quite be brought into existence. By 1688 when they ran King Charles I’s nephew out of town and got in his niece and her Dutch husband (if I’ve got the bloodlines right) to run the show, the network was stroganoff strong enough to produce constitutional monarchy. As we know, this process of constitutionalisation has continued since then. And this allows increasing complexity to emerge in the political order, though we seem to be taking some steps back down the time tunnel in the last few years.
Hierarchies and generative orders in science and cosmology
The contrast between the two kinds of order figure in science and cosmology. Different cosmologies suggest hierarchy and the generative order respectively. As Prigogine and Stengers put it in Order out of Chaos:
Lucretius, following his masters Democritus and Epicurus, writes that the world is ‘just’ atoms and void and urges us to look for the hidden behind the obvious . . . Yet it is well known that the driving force behind the work of the Greek atomists was not to debase nature but to free men from fear, the fear of any supernatural being, of any order that would transcend that of men and nature.4
In other words, atomism springs from the intuition that the world is not a hierarchy but rather a generative order (with appropriate modifications for having non-conscious beings making up the generative order in the numbered points above). Or to put it another way, the world was built ‘bottom-up’, not top-down. Indeed, one of the more convincing demonstrations of the likelihood that biology is a bottom-up process is the paradoxical assertion that the degree of complexity we observe is more likely to have been brought about by the blind forces of order without design – bottom-up evolution – than it is by a singular ‘watchmaker’, blind or otherwise.
There’s been an ironic twist in modern science. The scientific revolution was built on a metaphysical presupposition that the world was in fact built from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down. This worked out incredibly well, but in some ways too well. The fabulous success of Newton’s system of celestial mechanics was probably a terrible guide for the philosophers who promptly got into what Mary Midgley engagingly calls ‘swashbuckling‘ mode. We’ve seen Adam Smith do this above, though it doesn’t do much harm because social science has not yet uncoupled itself from rhetoric, has not neurotically fixated itself on the ‘is/ought’ or ‘positive/normative’ distinction. So despite appearances, Smith’s Newtonianism functions mostly as rhetorical and exegetical strategy where it does little harm and perhaps some good. And Smith’s means of imitating Newton doesn’t run to an axiomatic structure with a strict deductive schema as (intriguingly) two of the greatest pre-Newtonians did – Hobbes and Descartes (I think this also applies to Spinoza, but I know next to nothing about him I’m afraid).
Be that as it may, the philosophy of science falls in love not just with a bottom-up universe but with a monistic one – one built up from a single causal system. This of course, calls for a theory of everything. 5 But even as we flail around in search of our theory of everything the popularisers of science and cultural descendants of Comte – like Richard Dawkins, keep this monistic vision alive. And so the intellectual authoritarianism of the Catholic Church has now given way to the intellectual authoritarianism of the monistic philosophers of evolution, philosophy and economics and no doubt other disciplines (feel free to suggest them in comments).
As far as science itself is concerned, things have turned out differently – at least judging from this passage from Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers:
What are the assumptions of classical science from which we believe science has freed itself today [this was written in 1984]? Generally those centering around the basic conviction that at some level the world is simple and is governed by time-reversible fundamental laws. Today this appears to be an excessive simplification. We may compare it to reducing buildings to piles of bricks. Yet out of the same bricks, we may construct a factory, a palace, or a cathedral. It is on the level of the building as a whole that we apprehend it as a creature of time, as a product of a culture, a society, a style. But there is the additional and obvious problem that, since there is no one to build nature, we must give to its very “bricks” that is, to its microscopic activity a description that accounts for this building process.
Keeping the generative order healthy
Finally, I have an observation on the preconditions of a healthy generative order. For a market, those preconditions are well summarised in the two central terms in modern accounting – respectively the concepts ‘accounts’ and of ‘audit’. The two terms reflect markets’ origins as oral phenomena.6. Imagine you’re an Italian Renaissance prince and someone acting on your behalf sells some good of yours by travelling to a foreign port, selling it and bringing back the money net of costs.7
When they return they produce an account of what happened. After a period such accounts are formalised into the entries on a ledger. On presentation of these ‘accounts’, you the prince are wary that they are a true reflection of what happened. You’re planning to get Raphael to paint your mistress’s portrait and Raphael isn’t cheap. So you want the accounts of the person you’ve hired to be consistent with others’ version of the same story. If so they’ll be the truth. (This truthfulness is part of that network of constraint I referred to above) So you want to hear from others who have audited, or heard what went on.
Thus if we’re to build a bottom-up world, that bottom-up world has to ‘hang together’ as a web in which those in the web hold others in the web to common standards of truthfulness. This order of audited accounts entangles people in a system of mutual constraint. It creates an inter-subjective order which is the same as the inter-subjective order of science – where everyone is checking out everyone else’s ideas to see if they’re good enough to rely and build upon. Thus, just as Francis Bacon’s aphorism quoted at the head of this piece describes science or the technology that might arise from it as something that is not imposed upon nature but which comes about from successful entanglement with it, so a generative order is an inter-subjective human order which must be obeyed if it’s power is to be accessed for any party’s individual benefit.
So what undermines a generative order? Counterfeiting. What does that mean in the generative order of language and culture? First, as I argued in my recent essay Trust and the Competition Delusion, bullshit is to culture what counterfeit currency is to the economy. But we have far less effective means for protecting against bullshit. If you have good money in a market (gold coins that people know are not adulterated) people go out of their way to trade with you. That is, counterfeiters trade in the market at a disadvantage to you. At least in my lifetime, people have become increasingly happy to trade in bullshit and we’re awash in it. Rather like a slovenly response to the virus, we find ourselves immersed in the problem without the tools to cope.
- Wittgenstein sought to defend this proposition with his private language argument which held that the idea of a private language was a contradiction. Language is a social inter-subjective reality, not a mere private mapping of external things or concepts to internal signs. ↩
- Karl Polanyi argued this regarding the way markets were shaped by the powerful. As Fukuyama points out in his Origins of Political Order. “Hayek was simply wrong about certain of his historical facts” (p. 254). “The later evolution of the Common Law might have been a spontaneous process, but its existence as a framework for legal decision-making required centralized political power to bring it into being” (p. 258). ↩
- See his comments on the ‘man of system’: “The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.” ↩
- Note that, because Christianity the Greco-Roman world was not monotheistic. Once monotheism gets going under Christianity, this makes the ‘top-down’ view much more monolithic. ↩
- There were no shortage of these in the 19th century. Comte figured the world was really made of teensy little billiard balls – (which seems more ‘scientific’ than turtles or Honda Accords, but maybe that’s not right. And if it is more scientific than turtles, it’s logical inconsistencies with other things we knew about the world became obvious as the 19th century wore on.) ↩
- It is kind of cool to realise that in his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith allowed himself the speculation that there might be some more elemental force than the innate tendency to truck barter and exchange on which to build his Newtonian exposition of markets – the desire to persuade!. Smith’s first lectureship was in Rhetoric. Not in this context this observation about the emergence of coinage in Ancient Greece. “The physical location of the market was in the general place of meeting for citizens, the agora. This was the place where speakers addressed the people (άγορενο), and the same was now the place where people bought wares (άγοραζο). This last verb had been unknown to Homer’s vocabulary. The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece, David Schaps, p 111. ↩
- There’s also a debate about whether money is a ‘thing’ of value like a gold coin, or whether money is also the product of accounts about the passage of debts through the financial system. Note that this is what money was when it first made its way onto the human record via Mesopotamia’s clay tablets, which are (as I understand it) accounts of transactions. ↩