Reading history

It continues to amaze me how much I don’t know.

Once when I heard Jim Petersen, the Navigators missionary I admire so much, give a talk he mentioned that in addition to following a regular Bible reading plan he always tried to keep one or more questions in mind as he read—and sure enough he would eventually find the answers, sometimes in surprising places. For some time now my general reading has been directed by the same principle; questions will start to burn in my mind, and I will start tracking down the books that might answer them. And reading those will often give rise to new questions, or refine the questions I had come to them with, sending me off to look for yet more books that might hold answers.

Why those answers are mostly contained in books of history, I don’t know.

Here’s a small example of this. In December I learned that Allan Carlson had written a new book, Third Ways. I’ve learned so much from Carlson in the past few years that I didn’t hesitate to order a copy, even though it was fairly recent and still in hardback. In the book, Carlson reviews seven separate twentieth-century efforts to develop a “third way” of approaching economic activity that is neither capitalistic nor socialistic. I read through it quickly—Carlson is always a pleasant and easy read—and although I enjoyed the book quite a bit, I wasn’t sure I had learned much from it.

Around the same time I committed to re-reading Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson and writing some posts about it in January. It was easy enough to commit to that, since I remembered thoroughly enjoying the book when I read it five or six years ago (we even carry it in our bookstore). But as I started in on reading it, I found myself surprised to be at odds with much of what Hazlitt was saying. And time and again the questions raised in my mind pointed back to Third Ways. So I sat down and re-read Carlson’s book, this time with pencil in hand, and ended up underlining about a third of it—despite being an easy read, the book is dense with information, and because it is heavily footnoted it is a good starting place for researching alternatives to free market economies.

The chapter that intrigued me the most was about Karl Polanyi, whose best-known book is The Great Transformation, a revisionist history of the industrial revolution and the rise of laissez-faire capitalism. Polanyi claims that the idea of self-regulating markets being the natural state of human economic behavior is nothing but a myth, and one of recent origin. His own conclusion is quite different:

Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. […]

Previously to [1800] no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets …. Gain or profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy.

In fact, Polanyi claimed that laissez-faire capitalism was critically dependent on the centralized bureaucratic state, a nineteenth-century innovation; only such a state could provide the highly artificial environment required for the self-adjusting market to operate at all.

These may sound to modern-day conservative ears like the words of a crank, but it wasn’t always so. Carlson mentions that “sociologist Robert Nisbet’s 1953 conservative classic, The Quest for Community, can be read as an extended commentary on Polanyi-inspired themes.” Nisbet writes:

Laissez faire … was brought into existence. It was brought into existence by the planned destruction of old customes, associations, villages, and other securities, by the force of the State throwing the weight of its fast-developing administrative system in favor of the new economic elements of the population. … There is, indeed, a sense in which the so-called free market never existed at all save in the imagination of the rationalists.

Polanyi’s book I had to order, but I found that Nisbet’s book was already on my shelf, so I ordered myself a copy of that. I’ve now read Nisbet and am well into Polanyi, and what do I find in both books but repeated references to the calamitous sixteenth-century transition in England when peasants were forced off the land and into the cities. The definitive book about this is apparently R.H. Tawney’s The Agrarian Problem in Sixteenth Century England, so I ordered a copy of that, and was dismayed to find how fat it is, but comforted by the fact that I know Tawney is pretty readable. And while I was at it I thought I should get a copy of Tawney’s much better known book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which starts with medieval (of course) times and proceeds to trace economic thought as developed by Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans.

All this because I had some questions about free market capitalism. And in the meantime my copy of Arguing About Slavery sits there, waiting for me to get back to it.


8 thoughts on “Reading history

  1. And once you finish Tawney, you will find yourself ineluctably drawn to Max Weber, I fear. I’d be sorry for you if it weren’t such a fascinating path. For a Polanyic reading of modern Europe, see Ivan Berend’s new book.

  2. Wow. I hope you keep posting your thoughts on this for those of us who don’t have the time or brainpower to make it through all that material. As SB says, it is fascinating.

  3. I’ve got Carlson’s book on my wish list. I once heard a mutual acquaintance of ours refer to the “tertium quid” and I find myself thinking of that often as I don’t feel comfortable with the “either/or” choices we are so often given in every area of life. Like in elections :-).

    Anna and I listened to a George Grant talk in the car today which explained why the “dark ages” were not dark if you have a worldview which sees the breakup of the Roman Empire with its urbanism and central control as good. He spoke of the rise of community life in villages and the richness that gave people who had languished under Roman domination. It gave us food for thought about how a breakup of the status quo, while it may be difficult in the shortrun, can be a blessing in the longrun, in God’s providence.

  4. Carmon points to the interesting benefits that came from the break-up of the Roman Empire. However, those relative benefits are only seen in comparsion to the the huge bureaucratic empire that the once great Roman Republic had evolved into. The wonders of Rome started 500 years before the Fall when it was energetic, free, and confident. The same process has been seen in America where, now, 400 years after its origins, it is losing vitality and confidence. Curiously, this rise and (unfortunate) maturing progression has something to do with laissez-faire economics. Polanyi is 100% wrong about free enterprise–it is the natural human instinct to seek freedom and the opportunity to trade/work oneself into affluence. Phoenicians demonstrated the virtues of free trade and commerce almost 4,000 years ago and nothing has changed. Every outpost that followed Phoenicia in creating widespread wealth for its inhabitants was marked by freedom for the common people. It was the eventual advent of elites in those successful societies that reversed progress and brought on the problems that plagued Rome in its twilight years. For a readable, brief and comprehensive review of history’s lessons in these regards try “Common Genius” listed at Amazon or on this website. It formulates “the Radzewicz Rule” (You can google it) which reduces it all to a simple equation!

  5. I’m sure Rick can decide how he wants to answer Mr. Greene, though looking around his website I think I agree with him somewhat about the impact of the common man…but I think he misses the reality of God’s invisible hand that is providentially orchestrating all of history toward His ends and the fact that as people either keep or break covenant with Him, they are blessed or cursed accordingly. To say that “common men” are the real movers and shakers without acknowledging God’s overarching purposes reminds me a little of the story of Nebuchadnezzar on a much larger scale. Moo!

    I hope Dana’s not looking so I don’t give her a migraine, but you might like this link and the quote therein, Rick. I think Doug Jones is thinking along the same lines as you have been:

  6. Carmon, you have hit the nail on the head! Religion and a strong Faith in a benevolent power is what gave extra “ooomph” to the common men and women under Christianity. There is a supportive invisible helping hand when one’s God promises forgiveness, praises charity, emphasizes “free will” and demands responsibility for personal behavior. However, the Great Eastern and Middle Eastern religions that called for obedience, resignation, introspection, and still allow caste distinctions and enforce ancient laws of oppression on women are invisible obstacles to progress. There are Gods and there are Gods, and the West won in part because its God chose freedom and responsibility for His people. Rick mentions R. H. Tawney’s book above that gets into this area. The “need” for a God is consistent with the role of the common people described in “Common Genius” because Christianity generally encouraged freedom for its people–which empowered their constructive actions. Further, it is the common people who retain their Faith and have the sense to separate their secular work lives from their religious beliefs. This mental separation was the secret weapon of the West that helped “beat” those nations oppressed by Islamic theology. Only Western intellectuals don’t get it! They are so dumb that they attempt to apply science to religion in a vain effort to “prove” the Scriptures, and failing, they become unbelievers. And yet they make the leap of faith to believe in communal utopias and make a mess of our secular world ! They have it backwards–scientifically rigorous on religion, hopefully naive on government! Fortunately, there are enough common people, happy in their Faith, rational in their work, who keep everything working and somehow suffer the burden of the intellectuals and the atheists who just get in the way.

  7. Rick, I’m enjoying these book/author trails. Carmon, would you mind listing the name of the George Grant talk? I keep hearing about those from others, so perhaps it’s time to delve into them.


  8. Laura, this year Anna (who is not going to college :-)), is going through his Christendom lectures from Gileskirk. She is doing the reading of recommended books, as well, and some writing, too (I encouraged her recently to write a paper on beauty, as in “truth, beauty, and goodness,” since that’s something young ladies think on quite a bit). If she gives me permission, I will post her paper. Steve and I, when we can, have really enjoyed listening to the lectures. I can tell from several things he’s written and said (including his novel _Going Somewhere_) that Dr. Grant is an agrarian sympathizer, in that he extols decentralization and getting away from the big city mentality.

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