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  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.