I'm trying to get in all the reading I can before the Trump hits the fan.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL is E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic “full-scale assault on conventional economic wisdom” (so says one blurb). It’s about Economics as if People Mattered and it expresses the heterodox opinion that the economy should be built “around the needs of communities, not corporations.” I decided to revisit this book after reading an article on Schumacher (and his late-in-life conversion to Roman Catholicism) at the Distributist Review. Schumacher, it seems, came to understand that one cannot refuse the reign of homo economicus unless one has another version of humanity to offer; Schumacher chose to offer homo viator (“pilgrim man” or “man on a journey”), a concept he borrowed from the French theologian Gabriel Marcel. In other words, I’m reading Schumacher as part of my ongoing quest to figure out “what are people for?”
Ronald Wright’s A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS suggests that human beings historically “have a way of walking into ‘progress traps’” and of falling victim to their own successes. He states at the outset his conviction that “Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology—a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become ‘myth’ in the anthropological sense.” And while modern progress may have served many of us well, Wright argues that it “has also become dangerous. Progress has an internal logic that can lead to catsastrophe.”
Wright’s skepticism and Schumacher’s rejection of homo economicus are both challenged by Virginia Postrel’s THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES, a 1998 libertarian manifesto of sorts. Ms. Postrel is an advocate of what she calls “dynamism,” which posits “an open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways.” She praises “scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic development, and technological invention”; what she opposes are such things as top-down planning, regulations, and blueprints for the future imposed by either religious, political, or cultural authorities. Ms. Postrel is (or was as of 1998) quite the optimist regarding human potential, so long as we manage to get out of our own way. She also praises our modern consumer cornucopia with its “enormous array of choices [which] embody applications of chemistry, materials science, and extremely high-tech manufacturing.” She acknowledges that “the plenitude can be overwhelming,” but she also insists that it merely reflects “[consumer] demands for ever-improving, ever-more-customized products…” Interestingly, there is no entry in the book’s index for “advertising”: go figure.
Finally, James Simon’s WHAT KIND OF NATION tells of the tensions and conflicts between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall in the early years of the American republic. Spoiler alert: John Marshall (and his Federalist allies) mostly prevailed; the irony being that it was President Jefferson’s bold decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France that put the fledgling republic on a course for empire and in the process subverted the Jeffersonian dream of agrarian democracy and a minimal federal government. If you're ever looking for a telling example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, look no further than the Louisiana Purchase.