Many years ago, Robert M. Pirsig’s hippy cult novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of my favourites. A few weeks ago I discovered he’d written a sequel in 1991 called Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I’ve been reading it as a break from seemingly interminable marking of student essays and exams (now mercifully finished).
Like many a 70s hippy (including me), Pirsig seems to have mellowed and discovered the virtues of market capitalism as he aged, framing it with his trademark notion of Zen “Quality”.
I found several interesting things about the passage from Lila reproduced over the fold. One is that Pirsig seems to be channeling Austrian theoreticians (especially Hayek and Popper) without overtly referencing them or seemingly even being aware of their existence.
The other interesting angle, and the main reason for this post, is that it encapsulates a lot of my own thinking about human social and economic organisation especially the role of entrepreneurialism and innovation. The need to avoid stifling innovation as the primary engine of capitalism’s remarkable success was Hayek’s principal answer to those who argued for socialism or even a strong social democratic welfare state. I attempted to provoke discussion on this topic in a previous post, but it ended up being sidetracked by a prolonged argument about the virtues or otherwise of the libertarian LDP’s election policies. It seems to me that the more general issues that Pirsig raises are much more interesting. In particular, if we accept the general thrust of his argument (as I do), what does that say about optimal forms of social, economic and political organisation (particularly when social and economic activity should be regulated and what form regulation should take)? And optimal in what sense?
So Phaedrus had been right in running then. But now — funny thought — this was actually his home. All his income came from here. His only fixed address now was right here — his publisher’s address on Madison Avenue. He was as much part of the Giant as anyone else.
Once you understand something well enough, you don’t need to run from it. In recent years each time he returned to New York he could feel his fear of this old monster lessening, and a kind of familiar affection for it growing.
From a Metaphysics of Quality’s point of view this devouring of human bodies is a moral activity because it’s more moral for a social pattern to devour a biological pattern than for a biological pattern to devour a social pattern. A social pattern is a higher form of revolution. This city, in its endless devouring of human bodies, was creating something better than any biological organism could by itself achieve.
Well, of course! My God! Look at it! The power of this place! Fantastic! What individual work of art can come anywhere near to equalling it? Sure: dirty, noisy, rude, dangerous, expensive. Always has been and probably always will be. Always been a hellhole if what you’re looking for is stability and serenity… But if you’re looking for stability and serenity, go to a cemetery, don’t come here! This is the most Dynamic place on earth!
Now Phaedrus felt it all around him — the speed, the height, the crowds and their tension. All the early strangeness was gone now. He was in it.
He remembered that its great symbol used to be the ticker tape, ticking out unpredictable fortunes rising and falling every second, a great symbol of luck. Luck. When E. B. White wrote, “if you want to live in New York you should be willing to be lucky,” he meant not just “lucky” but willing to be lucky — that is, Dynamic. If you cling to some set static pattern, when opportunity comes you won’t take it. You have to hang loose, and when the time comes to be lucky, then be lucky: that’s Dynamic.
When they call it freedom, that’s not right. “Freedom” doesn’t mean anything. Freedom’s just an escape from something negative. The real reason it’s so hallowed is that when people talk about it they mean Dynamic Quality.
That’s what neither the socialists nor the capitalists ever got figured out. From a static point of view socialism is more moral than capitalism. It’s a higher form of evolution. It is an intellectually guided society, not just a society that is guided by mindless traditions. That’s what gives socialism its drive. But what the socialists left out and what has all but killed their whole undertaking is an absence of a concept of indefinite Dynamic Quality. You go to any socialist city and it’s always a dull place because there’s little Dynamic Quality.
On the other hand the conservatives to keep trumpeting about the virtues of free enterprise normally just supporting their own self-interest. They are just doing the usual cover-up for the rich in their age-old exploitation of the poor. Some of them seemed to sense there is also something mysteriously virtuous in a free enterprise system and you can see them struggling to put into words but they don’t have the metaphysical vocabulary for it any more than the socialists do.
The Metaphysics of Quality provides the vocabulary. A free market is a Dynamic institution. What people buy and what people all, in other words what people value, can never be contained by any intellectual formula. What makes the marketplace work is Dynamic Quality. The market is always changing and the direction of that change can never be predetermined.
The Metaphysics of Quality says the free market makes everybody richer by preventing static economic patterns from setting in and stagnating economic growth. That is the reason the major capitalist economies of the world have done so much better since World War II than the major socialist economies. It is not that Victorian social economic patterns are more moral than socialist intellectual economic patterns. Quite the opposite. They are less moral as static patterns go. What makes the free-enterprise system superior is that the socialists, reasoning intelligently and objectively, have inadvertently closed the door to Dynamic Quality in the buying and selling of things. They closed it because the metaphysical structure of their objectivity never told them Dynamic Quality exists.
People, like everything else, work better in parallel than they do in series, and that is what happens in this free enterprise city. When things are organised socialistically in a bureaucratic series, any increasing complexity increases the probability of failure. But when they’re organised in a free enterprise parallel, an increase in complexity becomes an increase in diversity more capable of responding to Dynamic Quality, and thus an increase of the probability of success. It is this diversity and parallelism that make this city work.
And not just this city. Our greatest national economic success, agriculture is organised almost entirely in parallel. All life has parallelism built into it. Cells work in parallel. Most body organs work in parallel: eyes, brains, lungs. Species operate in parallel, democracies operate in parallel; even science seems to operate best when it is organised through the parallelism of the scientific societies.
It’s ironic that although the philosophy of science leaves no room for any undefined Dynamic activity, its science’s unique organisation for the handling of the Dynamic that gives it its superiority. Science superseded old religious forms, not because what it says is more true in any absolute sense (whatever that is), but because what it says is more Dynamic.
If scientists had simply said Copernicus was right and Ptolemy was wrong without any willingness to further investigate the subject, then science would have simply become another minor religious creed. But scientific truth has always contained an overwhelming difference from theological truth: it is provisional. Science always contains an eraser, a mechanism whereby new Dynamic insight could wipe out old static patterns without destroying science itself. Thus science, unlike orthodox theology, has been capable of continuous revolutionary growth. As Phaedrus had written on one of his slips: “The pencil is mightier than the pen.”
That’s the whole thing: to obtain static and Dynamic Quality simultaneously. If you don’t have the static patterns of scientific knowledge to build upon you’re back with the caveman. But if you don’t have the freedom to change those patterns you’re blocked from any further growth.
You can see that where political institutions have improved throughout the centuries the improvement can usually be traced to a static-Dynamic combination: a king or constitution to preserve the static, and a parliament or jury that can act as a Dynamic eraser; a mechanism whereby new Dynamic insight can wipe out old static patterns without destroying the government itself.
Phaedrus was surprised by the conciseness of a commentary on Robert’s Rules of Order that seemed to capture the whole thing in two sentences: “No minority has a right to block a majority from conducting the legal business of the organisation. No majority has a right to prevent a minority from peacefully attempting to become a majority.” The power of those two sentences is that they create a stable static situation where Dynamic Quality can flourish.
In the abstract, at least. When you get to the particular it’s not so simple.
It seems as though any static mechanism that is open to Dynamic Quality must also be open to degeneracy — to falling back to lower forms of quality.
This creates the problem of getting maximum freedom for the emergence of Dynamic Quality while prohibiting degeneracy from destroying the evolutionary gains of the past. Americans like to talk about all their freedom but they think it’s disconnected from something Europeans often see in America: the degeneracy that goes with the Dynamic.
It seems as though a society that is intolerant of all forms of degeneracy shuts off its own Dynamic growth and becomes static. But a society that tolerates all forms of degeneracy degenerates. Either direction can be dangerous. The mechanisms by which a balanced society grows and does not degenerate are difficult, if not impossible, to define.
How can you tell the two directions apart? Both oppose the status quo. Radical idealists and degenerate hooligans sometimes strongly resemble each other.