Hulsmann on von Mises

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism. Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 2007. Hardback, 1150 pp, index.

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, professor of economics at the University of Angers in France has written a monumental biography of Ludwig von Mises. Running over 1100 pages there is space for generous coverage of the historical and intellectual background and close attention to his major works and the salient features of his private life and social relations.

Mises (1881-1973) is one of the sleeping giants of the 20th century. For many decades he was the leader of the “Austrian school” of economics and social thought but he is scarcely a household name, even among economists and classical liberals where he should be well known and appreciated. It is appropriate that he lived almost from the time that Carl Menger published the book that launched the Austrian school to the year before the conference at Royalton in the US that signalled the revival of the tradition.

The Austrians adopt an evolutionary or ecological approach to social and economic systems to emphasise the role of individual initiative and planning in a framework of traditions, organizations and institutions (especially markets). They were virtually buried in professional circles by the rise of Keynes and mathematical economics. Being skeptical of mathematics and robust free traders they were dismissed for many years as unscientific and reactionary. A head count in the professional association in the US indicated that they are out-numbered by other schools by 50 to 1, despite robust growth since the revival of the 1970s.

The first quarter of the book is Young Ludwig and The Austrian School. This sketches the social, political and intellectual context for his life and work, including an endearing portrait of Carl Menger, the founder of the school. The second quarter is Officer, Gentleman, Scholar, covering the start of this career, his first major scholarly works on monetary theory, socialism and the politics of nationalism, and his involvement with Max Weber in the politics of the social science society. The third is Mises in his Prime including the years he spent in Geneva with the opportunity to address intellectual issues without the distraction of a bureaucratic day job. The fourth is Mises in America, from 1940 to 1973, a time when the school was practically invisible. This includes some little-known insights on the internal strains of the Mont Pelerin Society and some gossip from the Ayn Rand circle in New York which for a time included libertarians like Murray Rothbard and also von Mises.

When he was born the Austro-Hungarian empire encompassed Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as parts of present-day Poland, Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro. After World War I the empire was dismembered in the name of national self-determinism, and so the Balkans were balkanised, laying the foundations for further conflagrations up to the present day. The glory of the empire at its height can be seen from the number and size of the public buildings, monuments and museums in Old Vienna today.

Writers, scholars, administrators, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries moved backwards and forwards between the major centres of the empire. They created a rich tradition of culture and learning that was multicultural in a way that is scarcely comprehensible to Anglo-Saxons. With at least ten languages in the empire, they fed on the thoughts of Russians, Poles and Germans with the same facility that they absorbed ideas from England and France, thought their accents betrayed them when they fled to safety in the west during the 1930s.

Some of the most important threads of modern thought passed through Vienna, not necessarily through the university but also through the coffee shops and private seminars. The best known were the circles of Schoenberg (progressive music) and the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Others included a Freud group and seminars convened by Ludwig von Mises, Karl Menger (son of the great economist) and Richard Mises (brother of Ludwig).

Mises was born of Jewish parents in Galica, now located in the Ukraine. His father was an engineer and his brother Richard was a physicist and mathematician. The family moved to the ancestral home in Vienna where he took a doctorate in law. In 1903 he read Carl Menger’s classic book The Principles of Economics (1871) and he recorded that this experience “made an economist of me”. In 1906 he took a doctorate in economics and from 1909 to 1934 he worked in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce , much of the time as the chief of the finance department, giving advice to the Government on monetary and financial policy. During the Great War when he served with the artillery in the Ukraine, suffered minor injuries and collected seven war service medals.

The first of his three major books was The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) which applied the concept of marginal utility to money and also set forth the first version of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle. In 1913 he was appointed as a Professor at the university, not a paid post but one that entitled him to give lectures if he could attract an audience. Due to Menger’s inactivity during the 25 years before he died in 1921 and Boehm-Bawerk’s early death in 1914 it was left to Mises to consolidate the Austrian program, not by teaching undergraduate students but through his writing and his seminar where the leading lights included Hayek, Haberler, Machlup, Morgenstern in economics as well as Alfred Schutz and Felix Kaufman in sociology and philosophy.

His next major work was Nation State and Economy (1919), written to analyse the destructive forces of nationalism and national self determinism that were abroad, the most obvious example being the dismantling of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The idea was to liberate national, linguistic and racial groups from the yoke of empire but Mises saw things differently. He believed that the local tensions between different groups could be handled in the framework of the empire, given free trade, free movement of people and a light hand of central administration. In the event the local tensions were increased by decentralization because the local minorities agitated to be released from the yoke of the local majority, or demanded the national frontier should be moved so they could join the majority in the adjacent state.

In Socialism (1922) Mises launched a wide-ranging critique of the doctrines of central planning, the elimination of competitive markets and nationalisation of the means of production. For those with eyes to see, the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire, and the failures of nationalisation elsewhere, did not come as a surprise. The Scandanvian nations do not refute the hypothesis because they maintain the private sector and largely open markets to fund their welfare provisions.

There is an Australian connection with the English translation of Socialism. The official translator was an economist named Jacques Kahane. Walking in a London park Kahane encountered the Australian journalist, bohemian and editor Brian Penton (1904-1951). He was in England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. Penton and Kahane became close friends, indeed he was an occasional house guest with Penton and his wife, and they both dedicated their first books to him. In the case of Penton this was the almost unreadable Landtakers (on line with the Gutenburg Project of Australia. According to Penton’s biographer they collaborated in the translation and this encounter with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) in the 1940s.

Mises saw what was likely to happen when Hitler came to power and he moved from Vienna to Geneva in 1934. When Hitler swallowed Austria some Nazi agents raided his apartment and stole his library. He no longer felt safe in Switzerland and he moved on to the US in 1940.

Through the 1920s and 1930s he wrote a series of papers on philosophical and methodological issues and it is interesting to recall this time when Mises spent his days trying to steer the Austrian economy and the nights grappling with the fundamentals of economics (Grundprobleme der Nationalekonomie). Not far away Karl Popper taught high school maths and science, then went home to work on the fundamentals of scientific method (Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie).

In Geneva Mises completed the German version of his most important work which later appeared in English as Human Action (1949). Hulsmann has a chapter on The Epistemological Case for Capitalism, reflecting the importance that Mises assigned to the correct methods of investigation. Human Action begins with almost 200 pages of preliminaries including the doctrine that the laws of economics should be based on a priori meditations on the nature of human action. Mises thought that positivism and empiricism worked in the natural sciences but they would be the death of proper economics. However this position adds no value to his economics and it renders his work suspect to other schools of thought that are dedicated to scientific methods.

The book is outstanding as an intellectual biography and also as the story of a flesh and blood human being making his way through desperately troubled times. There are some nice human touches, like his professional rivalry with his younger brother and his extended courtship of an ex-actress Margit Sereny which only ended in marriage after his mother died. There is an exciting section on their escape to the US through France as the Germans moved in. Mises learned to drive in middle age and he demonstrated more enthusiasm than skill. At least twice he almost drove off the road in the Alps and there were two other moderately serious accidents. There are some stories about his argumentative social encounters with Ayn Rand.

Hulsmann writes clearly and has done well to keep the story moving on several fronts. It is a remarkable work of scholarship, ten years in the making. Someone counted over a thousand footnotes and the bibliography runs to 30 pages. He has been well served by the Mises Institute which published the book after one academic press rejected the manuscript for its size and another wanted to price the book well over $100US. It is available at a reasonable price and at a kilo in weight it is excellent value, pound for pound as we used to say. It is also a monument to the crafts of the printer and book binder with clear typeface, good sized font, wide margins, excellent paper and superb presentation all round.

It will sit nicely on the shelf alongside Malachi Hacohen’s equally monumental biography of Karl Popper.  It is probably available to read on line at the site of the Mises Institute.

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Hacohen on Popper

Review of Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper, The Formative Years, 1902-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Karl Popper almost came to the University of Sydney in 1945. John Anderson invited him to join the staff in Philosophy but Popper delayed his decision in the hope of an offer from the London School of Economics. When that offer came Professor Anderson was spared the confrontation with a colleague as assertive and argumentative as himself.

Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92 and this is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work, although he detailed account stopped halfway through Popper’s life. Hacohen is a historian based at Duke University and he has charted the evolution of Popper’s thinking with close attention to his intellectual influences and the explosive social and political tensions in Vienna which informed his thoughts on politics and ultimately prompted his flight to New Zealand. Over twenty years in the making, this is likely to be the standard reference for some time because the author had access to some recently opened archives and he also interviewed some longstanding colleagues of Popper such as Colin Simkin (from New Zealand) and John Watkins (of the London School of Economics) who are no longer with us.

The book has at least four different aspects, each of considerable interest. One is the reconstruction of Popper’s intellectual career as he groped towards his seminal work in the philosophy of science and politics. The second is to give some impression of Popper the person, the being of flesh and blood who is practically invisible in his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest. The third is the recreation of the social and political milieu of Vienna, the life of high culture and intellectual achievement that thrived but finally expired under the volcano of fascism and anti-Semiticism. The fourth is Hacohen’s mission to reclaim Popper for the social democrats, to snatch him back from the clutches of the Cold War liberals and the New Right.

So far as Popper the person is concerned, Hacohen had great difficulty in getting anywhere near the emotional roots of Popper’s life. He was so much a man of ideas that everything else appeared to be secondary (after early thoughts of a career in music), including his own comfort and the convenience of anyone who had dealings with him.

Hacohen reports that Popper worked for 360 days of the year, all day, without the distraction of newspapers, radio or TV. Several times a month, even in old age, he worked all night and some friend such as Bryan Magee would get an early morning call from Popper, bubbling with excitement to report on his latest ideas. Popper lived well out of London near High Wycombe and when Magee gained Popper’s confidence he was invited to visit, taking the train to “Havercombe” (in Popper’s heavily accented English). When I made the trip to Havercombe, Popper arranged to meet me at the station, carrying a copy of the BBC Listener, presumably to pick him out from all the other elderly gentlemen of middle-European extraction who might be thronging the platform at 2.00 on a Wednesday afternoon. In the event, he left the magazine at home and the kiosk had sold out so he had to buy The Times and fold it to the size of the Listener.

Of course he was the only person in sight apart from the Station Master. Popper, then aged 70, had what his research assistant tactfully described as a “very positive” attitude to driving. Fortunately it was not far to his home and there were few other cars on the road. Safely home, our conversation laboured, and he frequently pushed a tray of choc-chip cookies towards me. Later he lamented to his assistant that I had eaten a whole weeks supply of his favorite cookies in one afternoon. These aspects of Popper are the other face of the man who some described as “the totalitarian liberal”.

Magee endorsed the view that Popper’s personal behaviour often belied his liberal principles. In fairness, he added that Popper had to endure persistent and gross distortions of his ideas by philosophical and political opponents. Hacohen has resoundingly corrected the rather odd view propounded by David Stove regarding the motivation for Popper’s challenge to orthodoxy in the philosophy of science. Stove suggested that this was done in the frivolous spirit of the Jazz Age, so if other people wanted scientific theories to be verified, highly probable and justified, Popper would have them falsified, improbable and conjectural.

In fact it is difficult to imagine anyone more divorced from the spirit of the Jazz Age than the priggish, puritanical, non-smoking, non-drinking young Popper. Apparently his idea of a good time outside working hours was a session as a voluntary helper in Alfred Adler’s social work clinic in the slums of Vienna. Following Tolstoy’s ideas on the dignity of manual labour Popper tried various jobs and he completed an apprenticeship to become a qualified cabinet maker. Apart from a teenage flirtation with the communist movement Popper’s nearest approach to radicalism was Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances which he attended out of a sense of duty to explore contemporary music. However, when he started serious writing for publication there was no time for that kind of distraction and often on weekends Popper would sit with his wife in a coffee shop writing drafts which she typed up on a portable typewriter.

Popper’s lack of progress in the community of professional philosophers needs to be understood against the background of the ideas that dominated Anglo-Saxon philosophy under the influence of Wittgenstein in his two phases. It needs to be remembered that the philosophy of science was not institutionalised in the 1920s and there was only a handful of academics in that field in the world. The issues that are now addressed by some hundreds and maybe thousands of fulltime staff and students around the globe, were in those days the preserve of small groups of interested people, including working scientists, many of them outside the universities, like Charles Sanders Peirce and Bertrand Russell for much of their lives.

Such was the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who gathered around Professor Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) and Otto Neurath (1883-1945). Their spiritual predecessor was Ernst Mach (1838-1916) a philosopher-physicist in the strong empiricist tradition of David Hume whose mission was to purge science of metaphysics and place it on the firm “positive” foundations of sensation. Few philosophers have had such a deep and wide-ranging influence. In Hacohen’s words “He virtually became the official philosopher of Viennese progressivism” (and far beyond) through his influence in psychology, physics (the young Einstein), literature (Robert Musil), painting (the Impressionists), social philosophy (Joseph Popper-Lynkus).

They pursued Mach’s positivism, with Russell’s Principia their inspiration and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus providing the program. This was essentially a war on metaphysics by application of the strict “verificationist” definition of meaning. They proposed that statements should be regarded as literally meaningless if they could not be confirmed or verified by evidence. The propositions of logic and mathematics were exempt from the requirement for verification on the understanding that they are true by definition and they do not pretend to convey information about the world.

The most obvious casualties of the verification principle were religion and moral principles, though there were others that were less obvious, including the principle itself and, most regrettably, the laws of science. When these laws are stated in their strong (universal) form they cannot be verified by any number of observations. This dilemma, with the unsolved problem of induction, represented twin “skeletons in the cupboard” of positivism, but still the circle gained worldwide influence, and they did institutionalise the philosophy of science with a series of conferences in the 1930s with the sponsorship of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell. Then the predominantly Jewish and left wing members of the circle had to scatter for their lives, like Popper himself, and they were dispersed far and wide by 1939.

Manning Clarke recorded in his autobiography The Quest for Grace something of the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.

The first time I sat down in the ‘caf’ at Melbourne University I asked politely ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word ‘tautology’: that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase ‘non sequitur’. I was often asked: ‘Is that a verifiable proposition?

As the circle pursued their program in the 1930s two other forces loomed up on the horizon. One was an intellectual challenge from a young schoolteacher, the other was the lengthening shadow of the swastika.

Popper’s career did not pursue any steady course through the 1920s. His father was ruined by the postwar inflation and Karl left home to live in a commune in an old army barracks. Decked in army surplus attire he attended courses in science and mathematics as an unmatriculated student at the university, eking out a living by coaching overseas students. (Arthur Koestler was studying engineering at the university at the time, until he departed to support Zionism in Palestine). There was no prospect of a career and he engaged in socialist causes and social work.

His early experience as a voluntary teacher with a group called the “Young Proletarians” was not inspiring. The working-class children were resistant and greeted the young teacher with loutish behaviour. Things improved after Popper challenged the leader of the roughnecks to a boxing match. Eventually he found a place to train as a proper school teacher, in a newly formed Pedagogic Institute that was established to support Glockel’s school reform movement. There he learned philosophy and psychology from Karl Buhler (1879-1964), took on board Kant’s view on the projection of intellectual categories upon the world, moved his focus from the psychology of learning to the logic of theory formation and testing, and courted and married a fellow trainee-teacher. Josefine Henninger “Hennie” (1906-85) was a physical education teacher who became Popper’s greatest helper.

Popper addressed a different problem from that of meaning and metaphysics because he was concerned with the difference between science, where evidence matters, and pseudo-sciences such as astrology where theories appear to be based on observations but are actually “unsinkable”. His exemplar of science was Einstein’s theory which might have been refuted by a particular set of observations on the eclipse of the sun. Inspired by this example Popper advanced his criterion of falsifiability (testability) along with a set of conventions or “rules of the game” of science to ensure that the truth of theories can be tested by evidence. It is worth noting that testable statements are not confined to the “hard sciences” or even to the natural sciences, and Popper’s “rules of the game” can be applied to investigations in any field including history and literature. As for induction, Popper proposed that science could do without it, making its way by means of speculations controlled by criticism, especially the criticism of experimental or observational tests. On this account science is not an edifice based on observational foundations, it is more like a hot air balloon that is tethered to the “earth” of facts and observations by thin deductive threads.

These ideas on demarcation and induction formed slowly as Popper conducted endless discussions and debates with members of the inner Vienna Circle (Viktor Kraft and Herbert Feigl) and others on the periphery, such as Heinrich Gomperez. It was Herbert Feigl, after a nightlong session, who proposed that Popper should write a book. Hacohen provides a dramatic account of the writing, revision and publication of Logik der Forschung in 1934, one of a series of monographs produced by the Vienna Circle (it appeared in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery). All manner of problems intruded, political tensions were on the rise, the inner Circle members were divided on the acceptability of the book, Popper’s first effort had to be cut almost in half, the editor procrastinated for months before reading the manuscript, Popper was madly impatient to get into print and rubbed everyone up the wrong way, there were paper shortages, other books to be considered for publication in the series.

Hacohen gives a lot of credit to the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle for putting up with Popper’s Steppenwolf-like activity, prowling on the fringe of the circle where Schlick, Carnap, Neurath et al. huddled around their campfire, seeking warmth and consolation from the dying embers of the verification principle They accepted Popper’s book because most of them perceived that it had merit even if none of them really agreed with Popper’s turn from verification and induction to a theory of conjectural knowledge that may be tested but is never confirmed, or even assigned a numerical probability.

In the background to all this intellectual activity there were ebbing and flowing tides of political revolution. The communists plotted, the anti-communists reacted, the socialists took control of the Vienna city council in democratic elections, the Jewish problem created ongoing tensions. Hacohen has a special interest in the Jewish problem and he may have overdone this part of the narrative but his account of the shifting balance of power between the rival forces is engrossing. Popper had huge admiration for many aspects of the socialists’ program but he despaired of their tactics – they talked violent revolution (though their moderate leadership did not believe in it) and this prompted a violent reaction which they were not sufficiently organised and resolute to match, even when they had the numbers to prevail.

Against them were arrayed the conservative bourgeoisie and much worse elements of the kind that flocked to Hitler’s banner. Eventually Hitler annexed Austria and all bets for civilisation were off. Those who could see the writing on the wall, like Popper and Ludwig Mises (Hayek’s teacher), escaped if they could. Mises fled to Switzerland, just before his apartment was raided. Popper’s teacher Karl Buhler was less fortunate, he was arrested and interned for some weeks until he had the chance to escape by walking over the border to attempt a new life in the United States. Later on Popper counted sixteen relatives who perished in the holocaust.

With Logik der Forschung launched, Popper’s focus shifted to politics and the social sciences. His major concern was the failure of Marxism to provide a bastion against the rise of fascism and he attributed this more than anything to an intellectual error, namely the doctrine of historical inevitability. He labeled this “historicism” and he returned to his notes on “the poverty of historicism” in 1938 when he was settled at Canterbury College, Christchurch. By that time he was writing in English and his closest colleague was Colin Simkin, a young NZ economist (aged 26 when he met Popper). Popper had a low opinion of the social sciences although he thought that mathematical economics had turned the corner, an opinion based on almost complete ignorance of the field. He relied heavily on the young Simkin for an introduction to the innovations of Keynes and for advice on the capacity for social engineering by democratic governments to control major problems such as monopolies and mass unemployment.

In return for this dubious assistance, he offered Simkin the advice to develop his mathematical skills in order to pursue the path of macroeconomic modeling. This advice turned out to be a something of a disaster for Simkin because it seems that this lifelong project failed to bear fruit. Simkin later came to the University of Sydney to assist in the battle against the Marxists in the Department of Economics.

Despite all the pressures of the times, the loneliness and isolation of New Zealand, the dreadful news from home, the threat of the Japanese advance, his teaching load and problems with his Professor (described in Roger Sandall’s book The Culture Cult), The Open Society and its Enemies was eventually written and dispatched. This book can be seen as a kind of “Battle of Britain” in the world of ideas, a desperate counterpart to the struggle where young men daily took to the air in the skies over the South of England with the future of civilisation virtually in their hands. On the other side of the world a relatively young Karl Popper patrolled the stratosphere of the world of ideas, confronting those from Heraclitus and Plato to the present day whose ideas he thought were undermining the cause of freedom and the open society. Like the young men in their Hurricanes and Spitfires, he did not fly in vain. The Open Society joined Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to provide twin pillars of resistance to totalitarian thinking post WWII.

The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of democratic principles and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone’s dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper’s dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.

In view of Hacohen’s plea to the socialists of the world to rally behind the ideas of Popper it is essential to work out whether Popper provides support or resistance to policies of state intervention along socialist or social democrat lines. Popper is generally regarded as a social democrat because he supported state intervention to counter monopolies and unemployment, to protect the economically weak from the economically strong. To assess the legitimacy of Hacohen’s claim on Popper it is helpful to examine the impact of Hayek on Popper, and also to consider some of the implications of Popper’s ideas that he never followed to their logical conclusion.

Briefly, it appears that when Popper’s views are adjusted to take account of his misunderstanding of the nature of monopoly and the real causes of unemployment, his basic principles place him with minimum state liberals or even libertarians. The important assumption here is that the mass unemployment of the 1930s was caused by injudicious state intervention (by minimum wage laws, by central banks and tariff barriers etc), and by excessive trade union power, not by the inherent instability of free markets.

Hacohen describes Popper’s correspondence from Hayek which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript. Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy, even more than the historicist, as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint.

Popper was concerned with freedom and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, after his formative years surrounded by the abject poverty in Austria after the Great War. Like the Prince of Wales visiting the out of work Welsh miners during the Great Depression, he knew “Something has to be done!” For this reason he reserved the right of the state to intervene so that the economically powerless could not be exploited by the economically powerful. He was a free trader in goods because he recognised that under monopoly, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist.

What was to be done about mass unemployment, the major cause of widespread suffering (apart from war)? This was never specified, though he would have learned the dangers of state interference with the labour market if he had read the works of W. H. Hutt on collective bargaining and the strike threat or (some time later) The Case Against the Arbitration Commission by P P McGuinness. Popper came near to a breakthrough in economics in the course of appraising Marx on capitalism and the “excessive” labour supply that supposedly leads to exploitation. He wrote in Chapter 20 of The Open Society:

What is not so clear, and not explained by Marx either, is why the supply of labour should continue to exceed the demand. For if it is so profitable to ‘exploit’ labour, how is it, then, that the capitalists are not forced, by competition, to try to raise their profits by employing more labour? In other words, why do they not compete against each other in the labour market, thereby raising the wages…It appears that the phenomena of ‘exploitation’ which Marx observed were due, not, as he believed, to the mechanism of a perfectly competitive market, but to other factors – especially to a mixture of low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets.

Low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets! These are recognised by free traders as a consequence of inappropriate and counterproductive government intervention. Interference with the labour market has been particularly damaging and it appears that the immediate cause of mass unemployment in Australia during the Great Depression was the fact that award wages were only reduced by 10% at a time when prices had fallen by much more than that figure. One of the best kept secrets of modern history is the comfortable situation of the people who remained employed for the duration at 90% of the previous wage rate while tens of thousands had no regular income at all. This secret was leaked, not by a historian or a sociologist or even by an economist but by the novelist Jessica Anderson in Tirra Lirra By The River.

As a result of Hayek’s influence Popper emphasised that state intervention should take the form of laying down clearly formulated rules, and state officials should not be empowered to issue discretionary orders to achieve particular short-term aims. He became more alert to the dangers of increasing state power, he insisted that social democratic policies should never be envisaged as a “cure-all” and he warned that socialists of good will should be alert to abuses of power that could result from increased state activity, however well meaning the original intention might be. In March 1944 he wrote to Hayek “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski”.

The result of all this is distressing to Hacohen.

In the postwar years, Popper no longer demonstrated commitment to reform…He never disavowed piecemeal engineering, but he argued that its purpose was to decrease, not increase, state power. He also showed growing sympathy towards libertarianism, and did little to stop the conservative onslaught of the 1980s.

Hacohen cited a reference to a 1982 interview where Popper expressed some sympathy with anarchism…”It was, he said, an unrealisable ideal but the closest we can get to it, the better off freedom is”.

Hacohen’s statement above seems to assume that decreasing the extent of Big Government and the “nanny state” does not count as reform. Such is the gulf that has opened up between socialism and common sense. Hacohen hopes that the left can be reinvigorated by Popper’s ideas, properly understood, to regain their sense of mission, to recover from the setbacks of the Thatcher and Reagan years, take the offensive and move forward again. I have a similar hope, that the left can move forward, but in a very different direction, the direction of classical liberalism, the direction pointed by Mises and Hayek, and by Popper in his stance as a minimal state liberal.

Despite this negative conclusion regarding one of Hacohen’s aims I do not want to leave the reader with an unfavourable impression of the book. It is a work of quite remarkable scholarship, well organised, clearly and vigorously written. It will provoke debate among friends of Popper’s ideas, and perhaps among others who are less friendly. It should lead to a reconsideration of Popper’s low standing in contemporary philosophy. It stands as a monument to Popper’s indomitable spirit and to the support of many people, not all of them adequately recognised by Popper himself, who helped him on his way. These include some members of the Vienna Circle, Karl Buhler, Robert Lammer (the diligent first reader of Logik Der Forschung), Ernst Gombrich and Colin Simkin. May they never be forgotten.

I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Keith Barley, Reader in Agronomy at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Adelaide, who lent me The Open Society and Its Enemies in the spring of 1968.

This is now published in the paper edition of Reason and Imagination (Amazon).

 

 

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A warning on fake news from R G Collingwood in 1940

R G Collingwood (1889-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who was obsessed with the rise of communism and state socialism while the sciences were making giant strides. A recurring motif in Collingwood’s later writing is the presence of sinister and destructive forces beneath the surface of civilised life.

In his autobiography he sketched a theory of ‘encapsulation’ to explain the persistence of undesirable attitudes (such as the glorification of violence) despite vigorous attempts to eliminate them. He argued that attempts at censorship or repression are likely to induce in children a fascination with the ‘unacceptable’ impulses and so they survive in a particularly dangerous subconscious form.

One of his central propositions concerns the overwhelming importance of Christianity as the cradle of Western civilisation. In his opinion the mainstream of Christianity provided the framework of metaphysical ideas which made possible the emergence of modern science and liberal democracy as well.

His deepest exploration of the “dark forces” occurs in An Essay on Metaphysics and especially in a chapter titled “The Propaganda of Irrationalism”  on the loss of respect for the truth among academics.

He was concerned with the process that he saw (some decades ago) in courses where the critical faculties of students are systematically destroyed. He first asks us to picture a civilisation where respect for truth is a powerful belief and systematic thinking is prized in intellectual and practical pursuits. Each feature of this civilisation would have characteristics derived from that prevailing habit of mind.

Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth…Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action & etc. but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking. And so on.

And suppose that now within this same civilisation a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles…an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states…Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as a political leader the idea of a leader focussing and personifying the mass emotions of his community. This movement of thought would need to proceed by stealth because the healthy tissues of thought would strongly resist any open attack on the springs of rationality and scientific thinking.

Let a sufficient number of men whose intellectual respectability is vouched for by their academic position pay sufficient lip-service to the ideals of scientific method, and they will be allowed to teach by example whatever kind of anti-science they like, even if this involves a hardly disguised breach with all the accepted canons of scientific method.

The ease with which this can be done will be much greater if it is done in an academic society where scientific specialisation is so taken for granted that no one dare criticise the work of a man in another faculty. In that case all that is necessary to ensure immunity for the irrationalist agents is that they should put forward their propaganda under the pretence that it is itself a special science, which therefore other scientists will understand that they must not criticise.

Collingwood was concerned about the impact of psychology at that time (pre-1940). Later many other fields possibly led by sociology went down the same track to perform the function he described.

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Yvor Winters: A Man for all Reasons

An unpublished piece on the US poet, critic and scholar Yvor Winters, written circa 1985 and put into the public domain on my website in the first edition of the Revivalist series. [http://www.the-rathouse.com/YvorWinters.html]

Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite the resistance of superiors who tried to convince him early in life that these roles are not compatible. He insisted that literature is too important to allow its various aspects to be hacked up and distributed to different groups of specialists. In his opinion both poetry and criticism have suffered severely from the rift between poets and critics, which he attributed largely to the ‘romantic’ view of creation.

Yvor Winters (1900-1968) was one of those critics who fall between the cracks of all the theoretical compartments. In addition to his poetry he wrote a lot of criticism including numerous essays devoted to the principles of criticism although he is not a protagonist in the contemporary debate and is not mentioned in it. Even in his lifetime he was a marginal figure, sometimes lumped with the New Critics, sometimes dismissed as a simple-minded moralist. However, his ideas have lasting interest and at the height of his powers he wrote prose of marvellous clarity and vigour. Some of his best essays stand as works of literature in their own right, something that cannot be said of very many modern works of criticism or scholarship.

Winters in effect offers a three-pronged response to the deconstructionists. First, there is his robust sense of the reality of the external world, as one might expect from a man well versed in the system of St Thomas Aquinas (and also a breeder of Airedales). He wrote in the polemic preface to In Defense of Reason:

I am acquainted, for example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall is there notwithstanding the arguments.

This is reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments to prove the non-existence of matter, consisting of kicking a stone ‘I refute it thus’.

Second is Winters’ insistence on the impact of literature on the world and the moral responsibility that this places upon writers and critics to be clear about what they are doing and its likely effects if they are taken seriously.

Third is his attention to the living presence of literature that is achieved by appropriate meter and rhythm. On the significance of literature he wrote:

The power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history…it behooves as to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does and how it does it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important as atomic fission.

One of his missions in life was to combat the flight from reason and moral responsibility that he saw as a major theme in modern literature, under the influence of the idea that literature, like art in general, is a form of self-expression. He called this the Romantic theory, though under the influence of Jacques Barzun’s defence of romanticism I am not prepared to join the ranks of those who reflexively beat romantics for imagined sins, only for real ones.

The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience…that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely on his impulses, he will achieve the good life.

He argued that this line of argument leads to a doctrine of automatism because it encourages people to submit themselves to whatever impulse moves them at the moment. He also noted a link between Romantic theory and the theories of determinism and relativism. This comes about because Romanticism teaches the desirability of automatism while determinism teaches that there is no way to avoid it. At this point the thrust of Winters argument converged with Popper’s work on determinism and historical inevitability in The Poverty of Historicism.

At the risk of arousing mirth in progressive circles, Winters declared himself an absolutist, that is, a person who believes in the existence of absolute truths and values. He did not suggest that he personally had access to these things, or that his own judgments were necessarily correct. However it is the duty of every man and of every society to try as far as may be to approximate to them. He suggested that our system of justice, our universities, and the practice of literary criticism itself presupposes the existence of various absolutes, despite all the arguments that are raised against this notion.

As noted, Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite resistance which he blamed on the ‘romantic’ view of creation. Under the influence of this doctrine, the critic came to be regarded as an inferior being, rather like a teacher who really should be doing something else if only he had the ability to do so. With this low regard for critics and commentators went the idea that the poet is set apart from the common herd, divorced from the mundane problems of the world and devoted to a special kind of communication that is only accessible to equally enlightened folk. Winters would have none of that. For him, creative literature and poetry are extensions of ordinary language, perhaps distinguished by a high level of skill and precision in achieving certain effects, but not set apart on the other side of a great divide. He also detested pure theory, divorced from the practical task of crafting words into poetry.

His concern with reality, rationality and morality converge in the final judgment on a poem. He believed that a work of literature “in so far as it is valuable, provides a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth”. Poetry is the most concentrated vehicle that is available for this purpose; the poet makes his statement in such a way as to use both the descriptive meaning of words and their emotional connotations as well.

The poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by rational understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry will account for both the power of poetry and for the seriousness with which the great poets have taken their art.

He made much of the idea of problem solving in the craft of the poet, grappling with the linked problems of organizing intellectual, emotional and technical aspects of the work into a coherent form. The work that the poet has to put into solving these problems should make him a more effective thinker and actor in the world; similarly the effort required to understand what the poet has done should help the attentive reader in much the same way. This is why he speaks of the best poetry as “a moral success in the face of certain experiences” and he contends that the degree of greatness in the work depends on the difficulty of the experience that had to be faced, assuming that technical perfection was achieved at the same time. He suggests that the great tragic poets such as Shakespeare, Hardy and Racine convey the impression of a victory over life itself ”so much is implicated in the themes”.

Winters did valuable work on verse forms and meter to remind us that a poem is a living presence through its rhythms and its sound structure, in addition to its paraphrasable content and other rhetorical features. This effect is achieved, if it is achieved, by a happy combination of rhythm and form. Form in turn has two aspects, one the orderly arrangement and progression of thought, the other a kind of rhythm that goes beyond the stresses of the individual line to encompass the whole poem. “The poem exists in time, the mind proceeds through it in time, and if the poet is a good one he takes advantage of this fact and makes the progression rhythmical.”

In an essay on the audible reading of poetry Winters explains some of his most useful ideas about the sound structure of poetry and he suggests that modern reading habits have done great damage to our capacity to read properly or to gain an audible impression of literature when we are not reading aloud. He is especially scathing in his comment on the modern vogue of rapid reading courses; such scanning, he claims, cannot properly be called reading at all. A commentator has suggested that:

Winters writes like a man who has the whole history of English and American verse (and much French as well) sounding physically in his ear. The loss of this sort of intimacy with the most fundamental mode of a poem’s existence, he warns in perfect seriousness, has brought us to the edge of a new barbarism. The inability to hear is also an inability to read: literature remains a ‘closed book’ to those who are insensitive to the living presence of what lies within. What is at stake, and the stakes are very high indeed, is the ability to recognise in a poem where and how its meaning is conducted.

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Compulsory PhDs and the publish or perish syndrome

The Australian poet, academic and critic A D Hope published “Literature versus the Universities” after a 1958 tour of Canada, Great Britain and the United States. He reported that the standards of scholarship and criticism were high but “I found myself getting more and more uneasy, until uneasiness in the end grew into a kind of nightmare”. Hope’s story began in the 19th century when the study of English literature began to displace the classics from the centre of university studies in the humanities. At the beginning of the 20th century English studies beyond the first degree were pursued by poorly paid and dedicated scholars who mostly carried on their studies for their own sake.

Everything changed in the 20th century as the universities expanded and Hope expected to see a great deal more although rapid growth had not started in Australia in 1958. When he wrote the US had about 2.5 million students in some 2000 institutions and nearly all of those students did some English given the pattern of two or three years of general studies prior to graduate study for a profession. That created a very large demand for English teachers and increasingly the teachers required doctorates. English ranked fifth in the number of doctoral theses produced, after Chemistry, Education, Economics and Physics.

“Universities now have a high prestige and offer high rates of pay and good chances for advancement. English, from a new and not very utilitarian subject has become a high-pressure industry.” That means the doctorate is absolutely required for appointment and Hope had some difficulty in explaining how in Australia he could be a professor and head of department without being Dr Hope. Hence the pressure to publish or perish among graduate students and teachers as well. In the space of a generation research and scholarship shifted from a focus on the books to provide more knowledge, to provide good texts, to establish the canon of a writer’s works, and to clear up misunderstandings by historical criticism. “Now the purpose of nine-tenths of the research and criticism that goes on is to help the researcher to qualify in the great rat-race”.

Turning to the material available for research by the growing army of thesis writers he suggested that there were well under a thousand English writers of even moderate literary importance between the Venerable Bede and Robert Browning to provide material for the 1710 English doctorates accepted in the US between 1940 and 1950 (not counting the ones that were written and not accepted). Looking ahead 50 years with the current growth rate he could see that some 10,000 topics for research would be required per decade and he could see that the pace was quickening so by the end of the century as many as 300,000 topics might be required.

“The immense pressure to find fresh material for research and criticism has meant that the field has been ransacked to its very dregs and many writers better left forgotten have been dug up and become the subject of serious critical studies.” So we have studies of the lesser known poems of the lesser known female poets of the Xth century.

He had more to say about the adverse effect of these developments on creative writers. Whatever that may be, the consequences for scholarship of the escalation of the publish or perish regime are clear, with more and more being learned about less and less, often enough rendered even more inconsequential by the obscurantism of High Theory. To some extent the proliferation of literary theories can be seen as a response to the demand for original theses because each new theory provides an opportunity to reinterpret the old works.

Moving on to economics, Mark Blaug circa the year 2000 explained how the political economy of publishing for professional recognition tended to lock mathematical formalism in place in economics. He started with the proposition that American economics dominates economics in the western.

“American economics is dominated by the 4,500 new doctorates in economics who each year seek employment in 3000 institutions of higher learning.” Publishing is the key to appointment, tenure, promotion and grant money. Publications can be submitted to one of about 300 refereed journals in English, although the fast track is to publish in one of the dozen or so leading journals.

About 4000 to 5000 papers in economics are published every year. These are refereed by perhaps 200 to 300 academics at the top American universities, whose students will become the referees of papers in the next generation, papers that will of course look very much like the papers that they are now themselves writing and publishing.

There is a huge incentive to meet the standards set by the leading journals because that is the way to be employed in prestigious universities where the salaries are in the order of double those earned in “academic ‘Siberia’”. He wondered how many ambitious young academics would be prepared to ignore the fashion and do something different, instancing Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” (turned down three times over four years before publication), Arthur’s “Computing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In by Historical Events (rejected three times and rewritten 14 times over six years). After he wrote there is the case of the late Stanley Wong who eventually left the profession and turned to the Law, becoming a senior partner in a Toronto law firm.

Whatever we may say against technique-ridden mathematically expressed modelling of economic phenomena, the fact remains that papers written in this form are easier to produce once the formula has been learned, although the initial investment costs of acquiring the technique are high and certainly easier to appraise and referee than those written in words and diagrams.

Competition for research grants parallels the demands of publication for professional advancement. The result is a constant and overwhelming demand to produce research results regardless of the aptitude or the desire of the student or the academic to do so.

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US Arts Funding: luck and cunning!

Not new but illuminating, a study of public policy relating  to arts funding, by a really interesting person, Tyler Cowen. His site.

The book, Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding. Princeton Uni, 2006.

Good research and scholarship can change the way we see the world. Tyler Cowen achieved this with his study of the counterproductive impact of the Marshall Plan that delivered aid to Europe after WW2. This story can be found on his web site and it might have warned the West off the disastrous aid programs to the Third World that were partly inspired by the Marshall Plan.

He has done it again in this book where his intention to steer the arts policy debate away from its previous focus on the National Endowment for the Arts. “More significant questions concern the use of our tax system to support nonprofits, creating a favourable climate for philanthropy, the legal treatment of the arts, the arts in the American university, and the evolution of copyright law. I also seek to recast the debate over direct funding of the arts…A more fruitful inquiry involves what general steps a government can take to promote a wide variety of healthy and diverse funding sources for the arts.”

Cowen is a professor of economics at the George Mason University (Virginia) and a daily contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. He has a special interest in the economics and dynamics of the arts and culture, using culture in the broad sense employed by T S Eliot to include the preparation and consumption of food. Ironically (or appropriately) the most popular page on his personal web site is his ethnic eating guide to the Northern Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland area.

He has previously challenged widespread views about the damaging influence of capitalism and mass consumer culture on the vitality and diversity of the arts. “In Praise of Commercial Culture” surveyed the last two or three centuries to show how the capitalist market economy provided a vital but underappreciated framework to support a wide range of artistic visions. In “Creative Destruction” he pursued the same theme to argue that international free trade in goods and ideas will alter or disrupt many particular cultures but the net result will be positive.

In “Good and Plenty” Cowen is looking for some middle ground between libertarians who oppose any kind of government interference in the arts and others who think that the very survival of the creative instinct depends on the generosity of governments. The book is a remarkable contribution at the conceptual level and also with the mass of information that he has assembled on the diverse forms of direct and indirect assistance that US governments have provided. He set out to bridge the gap between economic and aesthetic perspectives because neither of these approaches can stand alone as a tool for evaluating policy. He explains how the US managed to combine luck and cunning to organise arts funding in a remarkably effective way, bearing in mind that the controversial NEA program accounts for less than 1% of public support for the arts.

His chapter on “Indirect Subsidies: The Genius of the American System” catalogues the many forms of indirect support (form tax breaks to the universities) that represent the overwhelming majority of public funding for arts and culture. A chapter gives the history of direct funding, and he argues, contra received opinion, that direct funding is likely to be too conservative. The descriptive material in these two chapters conveys a surprising and counter-intuitive perception of the role of the US government in cultural affairs. Another chapter gives a somewhat disconcerting account of the mounting challenges from cyberspace to the benefits that creators and distributors of cultural have gained from traditional copyright laws. He ends his (possibly) somewhat rose-tinted account with suggestions for improvement of the system.

To get straight on the figures, he reports that donations (from both individuals and corporations) listed as tax deductions for ‘Arts, Culture and Humanities’ amounted to $30 billion in 2003. Compare this with NEA funding which peaked at $175 million in 1992. He estimates that donations of time amount to some 390,000 volunteers with a dollar value in the order of $20 billion. In contrast the French government limits tax deductions for the arts to 1% of taxable income for individuals and 0.1% for corporations. Germany allows deductions but bureaucratic restrictions make the scheme unworkable.  He  noted that some foreign firms make up for the parsimony of their own governments by giving generously in the US through their US-based subsidiaries!

Cowen casts his net wide for examples of indirect support such as the Government promotion of international free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation. Imported artworks are exempt from duty and until recently we are advised that the US government turned a blind eye to imports of antiques from ancient civilisations that may have been stolen or acquired in black or grey markets. Yet another form of support is the higher education system which provides a niche for large numbers of writers, artists and musicians despite reservations by many creative people about academic influences.

Direct funding commenced in a small way in 1817 with a commission of paintings to celebrate the Revolutionary War. The New Deal in the 1930s produced the first large-scale effort with assorted programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) employing 5000 artists per year at the peak and 40,000 all told. The total cost of WPA programs through the New Deal to their close in 1943 ran to the vicinity of $100 million, equivalent to $2 billion today.

The Cold War prompted government aid far in excess of the generosity of the New Deal, through such a wide range of agencies and programs (including comprehensive cultural control in Germany, Austria and Japan for several years) that the amount of money involved is very hard to estimate. Cowen estimated that cultural outreach peaked in 1953 at $129 million, over $700 million in current dollars and that was only a part of a much larger propaganda effort that spent up to $2 billion per annum, employed over ten thousand people and reached 150 countries. As a wry aside, Cowen notes that the current allocation for military bands at $200 million exceeds the funds dispensed by the NEA.

Getting back to the domestic function of direct support for the arts, Cowen points out that agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts can either act as venture capitalists to simulate new artistic ideas (hopefully picking artistic winners) or they can focus on works of high culture that have stood the test of time. Their efforts tend to be split between these roles, trying to be all things to all people to ensure their political survival. The sums of money distributed in direct support of the arts at home are negligible compared with the volume of indirect support and so the fuss about NEA funding is a storm in a teacup and it is most unhelpful that the debate on public funding for the arts is mostly about the use and abuse of these funds.

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Popper’s Institutional Turn

This paper is a tribute to two books which were inspired by Karl Popper, The Republic of Science by Ian Jarvie and The Organization of Inquiry by Gordon Tullock. Jarvie’s book attracted little attention and Tullock’s book has hardly been noticed in the Popper literature and so this is a belated call for recognition of their efforts. The paper contains a summary of the main theme of The Republic of Science and suggests that the social or institutional theme provides a common thread in Popper’s philosophy of science and his approach to politics, a theme which is shared with Hayek’s work on law, legislation and liberty.  Space permits only a limited commentary on Tullock’s powerful and subtle argument which is relevant to concerns about the governance of science today.

For English-speaking people Popper first signaled what Jarvie called his “social turn” in Chapter 23 of The Open Society and Its Enemies and in Sections 31 and 32 of the Poverty of Historicism.  Popper confronted Karl Mannheim’s exposition of the Marxist doctrine that our beliefs are determined by class interest and by the social and historical situation of our time. In defence of scientific objectivity Popper turned the sociology of knowledge on its head by arguing that its focus on the origin of subjective beliefs did not engage with its proper object of inquiry, namely knowledge as a public or social product. He claimed that the objectivity of science comes from the process of more or less free criticism in the scientific community.

“It may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science.” (Popper 1996 220)

Hence scientific objectivity is a situational or institutional problem which calls for such things as theoretical pluralism, clear formulation of the problems that the theories are supposed to solve, the design of critical experiments, the existence of journals, seminars and conferences to facilitate critical discussion. Some of these requirements have to be provided by individual scientists, especially new ideas and imaginative criticism while others call for institutions, including political institutions to maintain the autonomy of the journals and the research institutes.

In The Poverty of Historicism Popper carried the institutional analysis further in his argument against the psychological approach of Comte and Mill to explain scientific and industrial progress [Note 1]. He adopted the counter-intuitive procedure of trying to imagine conditions under which progress would be arrested.

“By closing down or controlling laboratories for research, by suppressing or controlling scientific periodicals and other means of discussion, by suppressing scientific congresses and conferences, by suppressing Universities and other schools, by suppressing books, the printing press, writing, and, in the end, speaking. All these things which indeed might be suppressed (or controlled) are social institutions…Scientific method itself has social aspects. Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts but of the free competition of thought. For science needs ever more competition between hypotheses and ever more rigorous tests. And the competing hypotheses need personal representation, as it were: they need advocates, they need a jury, and even a public. This personal representation must be institutionally organized if we wish to ensure that it works.” (Popper 1961 154-5)

Turning to Jarvie’s The Republic of Science, this book aroused little interest when it was published in 2001, too late for mention in Fuller’s The Governance of Science which first appeared in 2000. Wettersten wrote a critical appraisal (Wettersten 2006) and Heclo acknowledged it as an influence in On Thinking Institutionally (2008). In view of the limited circulation of the contents it is probably helpful to sketch the main lines of the argument.

The dust jacket announces:

“This book offers a careful re-reading of Popper’s classic falsificationist demarcation of science, stressing its institutional aspects. Ian Jarvie tracks Popper’s social thinking about science, individuals, institutions, and rationality through The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies as he criticised and improved his earlier work. New links are established between the works of the 1935-1945 period, revealing them as a source for criticism of the institutions and governance of science.”

Jarvie found a “social turn” in Popper’s first published work. He clearly took to heart one of Popper’s favourite catch phrases “We never know what we are saying” meaning that our theories have contents and consequences that we do not realize. He suggested that Popper, for all his resistance to the sociological approach, in fact anticipated it. Some comment is required regarding Jarvie’s use of the term “social turn” because this has created a deal of confusion in discussing this work with friends of Popper and others who ask whether this “turn” marked a change in Popper’s thinking or a deviation from the line of the logical positivists. It may be more helpful to talk about the social or institutional theme in Popper’s work and so my gloss on Jarvie’s thesis is that a significant achievement of Logik der Forschung was to emphasise the need for a critical approach to methodological procedures and conventions which function as rules of the game in science. That aspect of the book was generally overlooked because commentators and critics concentrated on the concerns which Popper shared with his opponents, notably the problems of demarcation and induction.

For those who are equally interested in Poppers work in the philosophy of science and politics the critical approach to the rules of the game can be seen as a theme which is common to both. One of the functions of the philosophy of science is to formulate and criticize the rules of the game of science while political philosophers may do the same for the rules of social and political life. Some of these rules are written laws, regulations, protocols and procedures and others are unwritten customs and habitual practices. In science these would appear to include what Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”.

The Introduction, ‘Science as an Institution’, sets out the major issues in the complex relationship between science and society. The word science may refer to a body of public knowledge, a set of beliefs about the world, the whole range of activities performed by scientists, some subset of those activities that are supposed to be special, the complex of social and political institutions which support and influence the activities of scientists. Jacques Barzun wrote wrote an important book with the unlikely title of Science: The Glorious Entertainment and Popper referred to scientific research as possibly the ultimate example of roundabout production, a concept from Austrian economics. Jarvie surveyed various approaches including the positivist and falsificationist demarcation principles and Merton’s account of the distinguishing features of scientific knowledge.

Chapter 1 unpacks the hidden elements of the “social turn” in Popper’s early philosophy of science. Jarvie identified a number of procedural rules which constitute what he calls Popper’s “proto-constitution of science”. This is the foundation of his project and it is spelled out in some detail, drawing from Logik der Forschung.

“My argument will be that thinking socially (rather than logically or psychologically) is central to Popper’s philosophical enterprise beginning with [the German prototype of] The Logic of Scientific Discovery, continuing for his ten most creative years, and emerging sporadically after that. Popper’s consistent ability to think socially also does much to account for his originality, since it is hard to do and its difficulty is attested by how often readers and critics of Popper do not grasp that this is what he is doing.” (The Republic of Science 21).

Jarvie argued that the roots of Popper’s social/institutional thinking can be traced back to Logik der Forschung but after The Open Society and Its Enemies Popper did not expanded on the theme. Wettersten suggested in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy “He was so concerned not to explain away scientific knowledge as a mere social phenomena that he did not engage in the social studies of science even though his view called for such studies.” This looks like an example of “snowblindness”, a term which Arthur Koestler used in The Act of Creation to refer to “that remarkable form of blindness which often prevents the original thinker from perceiving the meaning and significance of his own discovery” (Koestler 1969 217-21).

The second chapter is ‘Popper’s 1935 Proto-Constitution for the Republic of Science’. This contains Popper’s supreme or meta-rule (SR) and 14 subsidiary rules (R1 to R14), which constitute the rudimentary scaffolding for Popper’s republic of science.

SR: The other rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science against falsification.

R1: The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.

R2. Once a hypothesis has been proposed and tested, and has proved its mettle, it may not be allowed to drop out without ‘good reason’ (LScD 53-54).

The “supreme rule” and the first two subsidiary rules were proposed by Popper and Jarvie identified additional rules in the text of Popper’s book.

R3. We are not to abandon the search for universal laws and for a coherent theoretical system, nor ever give up our attempts to explain causally any kind of event we can describe (LScD 61).

R4. I shall…adopt a rule not to use undefined concepts as if they were implicitly defined (LScD 75).

R5. Only those auxiliary hypotheses are acceptable whose introduction does not diminish the degree of falsifiability or testability of the system in question but, on the contrary, increases it (LScD 83).

R6. We shall forbid surreptitious alterations of usage (LScD 84).

R7. Inter-subjectively testable experiments are either to be accepted, or to be rejected in the light of counter-experiments (LScD 84).

R8. The bare appeal to logical derivations to be discovered in future can be disregarded (LScD 84).

R9. After having produced some criticism of a rival theory, we should always make a serious attempt to apply this criticism to our own theory (LScD 85n).

R10. We should not accept stray basic statements – i.e logically disconnected ones – but…we should accept basic statements in the course of testing theories; or raising searching questions about these theories, to be answered by the acceptance of basic statements (LScD 106).

R11. This makes our methodological rule that those theories should be given preference which can be most severely tested…equivalent to a rule favouring theories with the highest possible empirical content (LScD 121).

R12. I propose that we take the methodological decision never to explain physical effects, i.e. reproducible regularities, as accumulations of accidents (LScD 199).

R13. A rule…which might demand that the agreement between basic statements and the probability estimate should conform to some minimum standard. Thus the rule might draw some arbitrary line and decree that only reasonably representative segments (or reasonably ‘fair samples’) are ‘permitted’, while a-typical or non-representative segments are ‘forbidden’ (LScD 204).

R14. The rule that we should see whether we can simplify or generalize or unify our theories by employing explanatory hypotheses of the type mentioned (that is to say, hypotheses explaining observable effects as summations or integrations of micro events) (LScD 207).

Jarvie’s commentary on the “constitution” begins with the reminder that it is very incomplete and very abstract, as though the whole of science is a kind of debating society, leaving out of account a great deal of gritty reality, such as the question of leadership. He noted Polanyi’s discussion in Personal Knowledge of rules in scientific practice which he called maxims . Polanyi considered that these are “tacit”, picked up in the process of training and induction into the scientific community. They are interpreted and administered by the leadership of the scientific community but they do not include any guidelines for critical appraisal and reform of the maxims even in the republic itself, much less by outsiders.

Chapter 3 “The Methodology of Studying Social Institutions” takes up three topics in The Poverty of Historicism; first Popper’s ideas about the emergence of institutions, second his ideas about individuals and their function in science and third his ideas on rationality and the scope for objectivity and testing in the human sciences. He was influenced by the ideas of Carl Menger and the “Austrian school” of social and economic thought which were “in the air” in Vienna at the time. Two of the central “Austrian” doctrines which Popper took on board are the theory of the origin of social institutions and methodological individualism.

In chapters four and five on The Open Society and its Enemies Jarvie aimed to capture Popper’s published ideas over the decade 1935 to 1945, avoiding the complications of subsequent changes to the original texts. This is where a problem of organisation becomes apparent, partly due to the density of argument. Popper spent several hundred pages to spell out his arguments and Jarvie in a hundred pages set out to convey the gist of those arguments along with his first take on the way that Popper’s ideas about society enrich his ideas about science and vice versa. There are two or three books in here, jostling for attention. There is the strong thesis regarding Popper’s “social turn”; the analogy between Popper’s approach to the rules of the game in science and society; the parallels between Popper and the “Austrians” in the methodology of the social sciences; the exegesis of The Open Society and Its Enemies; and the implications of all of the above in working out the relationships between science (in all its various aspects) and society (and politics).

Many issues arise from the troubled relationship between science and politics since applied science became vital for national defence and pure science moved beyond the point where people could win Nobel Prizes with equipment purchased from the local hardware shop. Much of Jarvie’s discussion on these matters is directly or indirectly concerned with the governance of science (another book trying to get out) and Steve Fuller’s comments on these parts of the book will be welcome.

Implications and Applications

Moving on to the implications and applications of the social/institutional approach by Popper and others.

  1. A common thread in Popper’s philosophy of science and his approach to social and political issues.
  2. A common thread in Popper and Hayek.
  3. The governance of science.

Regarding 1 and 2 Popper’s criterion for the value of his proposals in Logik der Forschung was their utility in helping scientists to get on with their work. He didn’t quite put it like that, he referred to “their fertility – their power to elucidate the problems of the theory of knowledge” (LScD 38). The point is that working scientists are disadvantaged if they operate with dysfunctional ideas in the theory of knowledge such the notion that they should start with observations. The working scientists applauded, notably Einstein, Medawar, Monod, Eccles and countless others including soil scientists in New Zealand, Melbourne and Adelaide.

The point is to begin with the right questions, that is, questions which facilitate purposeful and effective action both in the experimental sciences and in social and political matters. Collingwood made the same point in writing about “the logic of question and answer” (Collingwood 1957 Chapter V). Working scientists are expected to carry out experiments and make observations. They have to be active and Popper’s proposals (rules) can be applied to their activities including their deliberations before and after experimental and observational work. In the realm of politics and social action Popper similarly provided some rules, starting with the suggestion to use the language of political demands or proposals instead of the language of essentialism and historicism.

For example while the essentialist wants to find the essence of justice (or the state) and the historicist wants to look at the history of the state or the way things are going Popper suggested that we should consider what we want from our system of justice and from the state.

“In a clear presentation of this theory [of the protective state], the language of political demands or of political proposals should be used; that is to say, we should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political obligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity?” (Popper 1966 109 my emphasis)

That is not to dismiss studies which search for patterns or regularities in social or political processes.  Similarly, we do not dismiss historical studies, it means that we do not confuse trends with laws and it means that we do not have to submit to historical tendencies like ruin of democracy under communism in Russia and state socialism in Germany.

Hayek took a similar approach in The Constitution of Liberty where he discussed the pros and cons of democracy. He noted that the power of the state was not expected to be a problem after power came into the hands of the people because the new rulers (replacing kings, emperors and despots) would not harm themselves. However the people are represented by politicians, parties and factions which are not under the immediate control of the people. Hence the danger of the abuse of power persists under democracy “But it is not democracy but unlimited government which is objectionable…It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” (Hayek 1976 403 my italics)

Compare that with Popper’s criticism of the idea that the question of sovereignty (who shall rule) is a fundamental issue in politics. “It is high time for us to learn that the question ‘who is to wield the power in the state?’ matters little as compared with the questions ‘how is the power wielded’ and ‘how much power is wielded?’” (Popper 1966 162). Writing on Marxism and revolutionary violence Popper pointed to the need for “rules of engagement” for the use of violence by the state both in defence of the realm and in policing law and order. This approach calls for rules for revolutionary violence in the extreme situation where the rulers cannot be dismissed by democratic means.

Hayek’s last book The Fatal Conceit (edited by Willliam W. Bartley) pulled together the threads of his project on rationality, law and liberty [Note 2]. He argued the case for the importance of evolved moral conventions which he called the ‘extended moral order’ of western civilization including rules related to markets and especially dealings in private property. Other important rules concern honesty, contracts and privacy. Popper also referred to the vital function of the moral framework of society (Popper 1963 Chapter 17) and more recently Deirdre McCloskey has written extensively on the “the bourgeois virtues” and related matters (McCloskey 2006 and 2010). Popper and Hayek can be glossed as discovering, criticizing and improving those principles which function as the rules of the game in social life.

“The ‘rules of the game’ range from the possibly innate rules of grammar, through the tacit knowledge of local traditions and folkways to the rules of games and other codified forms of procedure. They include the laws of the land embodied in common law, statutes and constitutions. At another level they include the unformalized rules of the moral framework which Popper noted in his essay “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles”. The study of these rules would need to probe the way that different sets of rules support or undermine each other and the effect of changing from one set to another. This would be essentially an ecological study with the emphasis on unintended ‘downstream’ effects of changes in the prevailing order. This does not imply a rigidly conservative attitude to the status quo, it merely signals that we need to learn from our conscious or unconscious social experiments. This approach would supplement the methods of conceptual analysis and crude ‘positivist’ empirical description of social and political systems. It would have the theoretical advantage of linking disciplines and the practical merit of being continually in touch with problems and their possible solutions.” (Champion 1992)

This is a program which might engage followers of Wittgenstein if they pursue their interest in “life games” and “forms of life” into problems of politics and public administration.

The governance of science

Popper’s reference to the institutional context of science in The Poverty of Historicism points to the governance of science which became a big issue in Britain when Marxists such as Bernal pushed for government control of the national research effort (Bernal 1939). This provoked a reaction to defend autonomous science led by Michael Polanyi and in this context he wrote “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory” published in Minerva (1962). For an account of this episode and a survey of the range of issues involved, see Ravetz Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (1971).

Other postwar developments intensified the issue of governance, notably the rise of Big Science and the official discovery of the phenomenon of “normal science”. Big Science refers to the major research and development projects on the model of the Manhattan Project which transformed the scientific and academic landscape (Shills 1972,  Greenberg 2001). In his unpublished lectures Popper referred to the menace of Big Science with too much money chasing too few ideas and other adverse effects. Speaking from a very different vantage point President Eisenhower in his farewell speech to the nation in 1961 warned that the nation’s scholars might be dominated by Federal employment and project allocations.

“…the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Then came Kuhn’s account of normal science which was taken up in some quarters as a recommendation about the proper way to go, especially in the social sciences which were keen to copy the more prestigious disciplines (Notturno 1984).

A more recent development is a rapidly-growing literature on problems in the quality of published research. Richard Horton in his capacity as editor in chief of Lancet wrote “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may be simply untrue…Science has taken a turn towards darkness” with reference to small sample sizes, invalid analyses, conflicts of interest and obsession with fashionable trends (Horton 2015). There is concern about the increasing incidence of retractions and the higher rate of retractions in high impact journals (Fang et al 2011) and the dangerous liaison of science and politics (Butos and McQuade 2006). Less than 12% of articles in 2004 in The Journal of Economic Theory passed three tests – stating a theory, explaining why it mattered and testing it (Klein and Romaro 2007). There are problems of replication of results and politicization in some fields such as climate science . Another concern is the declining publication of negative results (Fanelli 2012) and it would be interesting to explore if this has any basis in the persistent teaching of confirmation theory rather than critical rationalism in epistemology and the philosophy of science.

The economist Gordon Tullock (1922-2014) was inspired by his contact with Popper to make a significant but little appreciated contribution to the literature on the governance of science. He is regarded as one of the most gifted and innovative economists not to win a Nobel Prize [Note 3]. In The Organization of Inquiry (1966) he approached the topic of scientific research and publication as a student of legal, social and economic systems to sketch a scenario for the decline of a scientific discipline, given a particular combination of motivational factors and institutional incentives.

Concerning the people who engage in pure and applied research he identified three kinds of curiosity:

1. Pure curiosity and compulsion to find how the world works. This drives the great scientists.

2. The passionate desire to solve practical problems. This drives the great builders and engineers.

3. “Induced curiosity” directed to either pure or applied problems.

The researchers with induced curiosity are those who do not have a consuming passion for research but do it as a job. The most obvious examples are academic staff who have to “publish or perish” in the struggle for tenure and promotion and the scientists who work “nine to five” in public and private research laboratories. Of course outstanding work can be produced by academics seeking promotion and even by nine to five scientists but Tullock’s analysis addressed some tendencies which could emerge in a system where more and more of the workers have “induced” curiosity and less and less (in proportion) harbour a burning commitment to the quest.

Closely related to the motives of the investigators is their concern for the quality of the work and their willingness to test their assumptions and their results. Tullock noted that the dedicated truth seeker and also the serious practical problem-solver must pay close attention to reality to align their ideas with it and this demands constant testing and critical evaluation. In contrast, the researcher who is only aiming to publish to satisfy the requirements of an employer or grant-giving agency can be happy with results that are merely publishable even if they are not robust. As Tullock put it, scientific concern with the real world can run second to other matters.

“If he could establish and maintain his reputation, and hence his job, by reporting completely fictional discoveries, this would accomplish his end. While an investigator motivated by curiosity or practical utility must, of necessity, concern himself with real phenomena, the man motivated by induced curiosity could, if the risk of discovery were not great, simply ignore reality.” (Tullock 1965 56)

He suggested that a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by investigators with induced curiosity (or “normal” or “uncritical scientists”) so the work could “gradually slip away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”. The peer review process is designed to avert such a decline however if the reviewers are too closely associated with the authors either personally or by membership of a school of thought then the rigor of the process may suffer. Tullock speculated that this would be most likely to happen in a field dominated by “induced” and “normal scientists” rather than the dedicated truth seekers. Towards the end of that slippery slope is the situation where there is a widespread belief in the field that the function of the researcher is to support a “side” on some issue. Simply presenting a rationalization for some position chosen on other grounds may be acceptable as an objective of research, and the principal criterion in judging journals may become their points of view.

“The concern with reality that unites the sciences, then, may be absent in this area, and the whole thing may be reduced to a pseudo-science like genetics in Lysenko’s Russia…these symptoms may be found in some of the social sciences.” (ibid 56)

When Tullock wrote the book in the 1960s he considered that the natural sciences were sound but he thought that parts of economics and the social sciences were well down the slope that he sketched. In view of the concerns that are being expressed about the state of science at present it may be time to revisit Tullock’s analysis to see how much we can learn from it.

Conclusion

We can be grateful for the contribution of Jarvie and Tullock for their wide-ranging contributions to their respective fields and for the two books cited for special mention here. It seems that Jarvie’s book did not arouse the interest which I think is warranted by the  implications and applications of the social/institutional approach to research and the institutions where it is done. Let us ensure that there is a more expansive and inclusive conversation on the themes and issues which Jarvie and Tullock addressed, especially in relation to the governance of science. The parties to this conversation could include other followers of Popper such as Wettersten, Agassi and Shearmur who have addressed the social aspects of science, Steve Fuller,  and the exponents of the strong program in the sociology of science. This could generate more heat than light but it will be an opportunity lost if it does not occur.

NOTES

Note 1. The institutional approach points to the type of work which Douglas North pursued to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. In his acceptance address North stated “Institutions form the incentive structure of a society and the political and economic institutions, in consequence, are the underlying determinants of economic performance” (North 1993).

Note 2. An interesting feature of this book is the Hayek’s introduction of the concept of non-justificationism to support his criticism of “constructivist rationality”, presumably due to the influence of Bartley (Champion 2013b).

Note 3. He may wasted too much time and energy trying to interest Popper in his ideas about physics. This is revealed in extended correspondence between them from the 1950s to 1992 (Levy and Peart 2015).

REFERENCES

Barzun J   1964   Science: The Glorious Entertainment. Secker and Warburg, London.

Bernal J D 1939 The Social Function of Science. Routledge, London.

Butos W N and McQuade T 2006 Government and Science: A Dangerous Liaison? The Independent Review, 11(2): 177–208.

Champion R A 1992 Review of The Fatal Conceit in the Melbourne Age Monthly Review August. Reprinted in Champion (2013) Chapter 4.

Champion R A 2013 Commentary on Hayek. Amazon.

Champion R A 2013b Hayek, Bartley and Popper: Justificationism and the Abuse of Reason in R Leeson (ed) Hayek: A Collaborative Biography. Part 1 Influences, from Mises to Bartley. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Collingwood R G 1957 An Autobiography. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Eisenhower D D 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm

Fanelli D 2012 Negative results are disappearing from most disciplines and countries. Sociometrics 90 (3): 891–904.

Fang F C, Casadevall A and Morrison R P 2011 Retracted Science and the retraction index. Infect. Immunol. 78 (10) 3855-3859. http://iai.asm.org/content/79/10/3855.

Fuller Steve 2000 The Governance of Science. Open University Press, Buckingham.

Greenberg D S 2001. Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. Chicago University Press.

Hayek F A 1976 The Constitution of Liberty. Routledge, London.

Hayek F A  1991 The Fatal Conceit. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Heclo H  2008 On Thinking Institutionally. Paradigm Publishing, London.

Horton R  2015  Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma?  www.thelancet.com Vol. 385 April 11.

Jarvie Ian C 2001 The republic of science: The emergence of Popper’s social view of science 1935-1945. Ripodi, Amsterdam.

Klein D B and Romero P P 2007 Model building versus theorising: The paucity of theory in The Journal of Economic Theory. Econ Journal Watch 4 (2): 241-271.

Koestler A 1967 The Act of Creation. Pan, London.

Levy D M and Peart S J 2015 Gordon Tullock and Karl Popper: Their Correspondence. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f938/17b5783522387fe674e112ca7fdd95ff753a.pdf

McCloskey D N 2006 The bourgeois virtues: Ethics for an age of commerce. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/bv_selection.pdf

McCloskey D N 2010 Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.North D 1993 Economic Performance Through Time.  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1993/north-lecture.html

Polanyi M 1962 The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory, Minerva1:54-73.

Polanyi M 1958 Personal Knowledge. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1966 The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1963 The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1963 Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1972 The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, London.

Ravetz J 1971 Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Shills E 1972 The Intellectuals and the Powers, and Other Essays. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Tullock G 1965 The Organization of Inquiry. Duke University Press, Durham NC.Wetttersten J 2006 Essay review of The Republic of Science, Philosophy of Science 73 (1): 108-121.

Wettersten J Karl Popper: Critical Rationalism The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/cr-ratio/

Posted in CR scholars | 1 Comment

Hamming and Mills on research and scholarship

Richard Hamming and C. Wright Mills each made helpful contributions on the strategy and the craft of research, scholarship and writing. Hamming conveyed the results of his experience and research in a long talk which can also be found in a short form (Google Hamming+your research). He offered suggestions for people who want to do work that makes a difference, in contrast with the average paper which is read by the author, the referee, and perhaps one other person. The Mills contribution is an appendix to his book The Sociological Imagination.

Hamming observed many outstanding thinkers at close range, notably Feynman and others in the Mannhattan Project and Shannon (a great pioneer of information theory) when they shared a room at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

His advice in a nutshell: Work on the right problem at the right time in the right way.

Choosing the problem

He emphasised the need to work on the important problems in the field at the time, so the best scientists will have a list of those problems, they will constantly review the list to re-set priorities, and they will focus on a problem where there appears to be an opening or an “attack”, as he called it. He suggested to be careful about the company we keep, aim to spend time with people who are themselves working on major problems and who are willing to share ideas about them.

“I begin with the choice of problem. Most scientists spend almost all of their time working on problems that even they admit are neither great or are likely to lead to great work; hence, almost surely, they will not do important work.”

At the Bell Telephone Laboratories he ate lunch with the mathematicians for some time until he found that they were not serious enough so he moved on to dine at the physics table. That was good for a few years until the Nobel Prize, promotions, and offers from other companies took their toll and he shifted to the chemistry table.

“At first I asked what were the important problems in chemistry, then what important problems they were working on, or problems that might lead to important results. One day I asked, “if what they were working on was not important, and was not likely to lead to important things, they why were they working on them?” After that I had to eat with the engineers!”

Personal characteristics

On personal traits, he nominated high levels of activity and energy, emotional commitment, willingness to go “the extra mile”, courage and the ability to tolerate ambiguity.

“There is another trait that took me many years to notice, and that is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Most people want to believe what they learn is the truth: there are a few people who doubt everything. If you believe too much then you are not likely to find the essentially new view that transforms a field, and if you doubt too much you will not be able to do much at all. It is a fine balance between believing what you learn and at the same time doubting things. Great steps forward usually involve a change of viewpoint to outside the standard ones in the field.”

For that reason, he was impressed by the way that transforming steps often came from outsiders; he instanced carbon dating which came came from physics and the first airplane was built by the Wright brothers who were bicycle experts.

Arthur Koestler in “The Act of Creation” developed a theory to account for scientific discovery by way of a “bisociation of matrices” or in other words the intersection of lines of thought which brings together hitherto unconnected ideas from different fields. This accounts for the fertility of interdisciplinary work and the phenomenon that someone described in terms of “the poacher (the intruder who should not be there) getting the fattest rabbits”.

Liam Hudson speculated on the characteristics of original thinkers in the concluding pages of his book Contrary Imaginations. He listed persistence, self-confidence and predatoriness. The successful scientists is likely to be adventurous, something of a swashbuckler, quoting from Freud.

I am not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador (italics) – an adventurer, if you want to translate the word – with all the curiosity, the boldness, the tenacity that belongs to that type of being.

Selling  

When the work is done, then there is a need for selling, something that many scientists find beneath them. The good scientist will become expert in three types of presentations, first the major paper (preferably in a high impact journal), second the short summary presentation and the “on your feet” contribution in the heat of discussion at conferences and seminars.

No one ever told me the kinds of things I have just related to you; I had to find them out for myself. Since I have now told you how to succeed, you have no excuse for not trying and doing great work in your chosen field.

Intellectual craftsmanship

Moving on to C. Wright Mills “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“. This is written for serious scholars and researchers who regard themselves as a part of a classic tradition, for whom “soial science is the practice of a craft”. The practice of this craft is an integral part of life; “scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of a career”.

This calls for serious organization and a certain amount of “life planning”, starting with a set of files which function like the journal of the creative writer. In the file “there is joined personal experiences and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned”. The file has to be under constant review, storing personal experiences and drafts of material that will eventually find their way into project plans and publications.

As for plans, he deplored the usual practice of planning in the course writing grant applications. These are more like PR than serious planning, angling to get funds for topics that are fashionable, fitting the prevailing paradigm, maybe “politically correct” or “trendy” (not terms he used).

A scientist in full flight should have so many plans, or ideas, that the problem is – which to work on at any given time? “He should keep a special little file for his master agenda, which he writes and rewrites just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time he ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes, too, when he is relaxed.”

Three interludes

In a flourishing intellectual community there will be interludes of discussion about future work.

“Three kinds of interludes – on problems, methods, theory – ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by the work in progress and to some extent guide that work”.

As work proceeds over the years and decades the files will multiply into sets and subsets reflecting work that is being completed and published, work in progress, work that is seriously planned and more nebulous and speculative ideas that may bear fruit if an “attack” turns up.

The files will contain masses of notes based on reading and Mills explained the various types of reading, and the various types of notes that are required at the different stages of a project, illustrated by his own series of books on the various strata of US sciety, possibly inspired by the French novelist Balzac who set to write stories about life at levels of society in France at his time.

As to the conditions of work, like Hamming he commented on the need to cultivate good friends and professional associates, people who will listen and talk, even including imaginary characters!

“I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment- socia and intellectual – that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above on the fusion of personal and intellectual life”.

One of the tasks of research in sociology as Mill practiced it is to shuttle back and forth between the classic work in the field and the contemporary literature. Out of this dialectic comes the quest for information to test his ideas. He was under no illusion about starting with facts and one of the chapters in The Sociological Imagination is a crushing critique of “Abstracted Empiricism”. Another chapter is an equally devastating criticism of “Grand Theory” that is not controlled by testing.

“There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading a book. The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning“. (my emphasis).

Of course he was using reason in the broad sense to include imagination and the use of the mind in all sorts of ways.

Writing: themes and topics

Mills addressed the task of writing up the book (which he assumed to be the outcome of the project) in terms of themes and topics (a distinction which he attributed to a great editor, Lambert Davis). A topic is a subject which might be treated in a chapter of the book. The order of chapters brings up the issue of themes.

“A theme is an idea, usually of some signal trend, some master conception, or a key distinction, like rationality and reason, for example. In working out the construction of a book, when you come to realise the two or three, or as the case may be, the six or seven themes, then you will know that you are on top of the job. ”

These themes will keep turning up in connection with the different topics, they may appear to be repetitious, they may at first be confused and poorly formulated.

“What you must do is sort them out and state them in a general way as clearly and briefly as you can…cross classify them with the full range of the topics…At some point all the themes should appear together, in relation to one another…maybe at the beginning of the book, certainly near the end…It is easier to write about this than to do it, for it is usully not so mechanical a matter as it may appear…Sometimes you may find that a book does not really have any themes. It is just a string of topics, surrounded of course by methodological introductions to methodolgy, and theoretical introductions to theory. These are indeed quite indispensable to the writing of books by men without ideas. And so is lack of intelligibility”.

Communication

“To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose. It is much less important to study grammar and Anglo-Saxon roots than to clarify your answers to these three questions: (1) How difficult and complex after all is my subject? (2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? (3) For whom am I trying to write?”

This is probably the time to re-read George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

People who are serious about research and writing could do worse than re-visit the Hamming and Mills papers and Orwell’s essay every four or five years to check that we are on track and getting the small things right, as football coaches like to say.

Posted in epistemology | 1 Comment

On the road in the Middle Kingdom

This is a report on my visit to China with my friend Amy to broaden my  mind,  to meet her family in Beijing and to visit the village where she spent 8 years as a peasant in the Cultural Revolution. Her father owned a factory and shops to sell bowler hats and accessories to the pre-revolutionary gentry. He was allowed to manage his shop after the 1949 revolution but in the 1968 Cultural Revolution he and his family was declared black and he was put in confinement without communication for the ten years of the revolution. The five older children were dispatched from their university studies to separate provinces to learn from the factory workers, soldiers and peasants. They all survived and resumed more or less normal life when Mao died and the Gang of Four were executed.

Amy studied English and taught at university until she came to Australia in 1994 to teach Chinese to Australian businessmen. She took a degree in maths and stayed on as a high school maths teacher until she retired last year and turned her mind to a memoire of the Cultural Revolution and started a uni course in Philosophy.

Starting in Beijing we are housed by  one of her sisters. Amy is one of seven who all have one-child families so she is spared an army of nephews and nieces. Some of them are having children so the numbers are growing.

There is no access to google or Facebook. Baidu is the search engine and WeChat is for communication. Email comes to my phone but not the computer.

One of the nephews took some time off to join us on the trip to the country. He is 45, did Law in Germany and now works in the administration on regulation in the finance sector, especially investment trusts. He is alert and interested in what his happening in the world, in the US and in relations between China and US. We managed to discuss a few issues but it was pick and shovel work going through Amy as the interpreter.

We took the fast train together from Beijing to Loyang. Cruising at a lazy 300 kpm we were well within the capacity of 400. The country was very flat and mostly close cropped farmland and nurseries of poplars. And a couple of small herds of Fresians in sheds!

After overnighting we took a hirecar to the village. Amy had previously made arrangements with the Head Man of the village and she knew that he had located a small number of people who remembered her.

The village is located 850 km west of Beijing, slightly south. It is on a plateau and the soil is deep yellow soil no stones.  There were virtually no trees although a lot of fruit trees and poplars have been planted in recent times. No flies and no mosquitos. No rivers or streams for irrigation. Farming depended on the rain. The village well for domestic use was 120 meters deep.

A generation ago there were almost 2000 people in the village, divided into 15 brigades of 100 to 200 people. Each brigade had its own field. Everyone except children worked in the fields from dawn to dusk, seven days a week apart from a few religious festivals. At important times like the harvest, working from dawn to dusk meant getting up and going to the field in the dark so work could start at crack of dawn.

The crops were wheat and cotton. The diet was essentially bread from the local crop with next to no vegetables and meat once a year. No local train, no high school and no electricity. Half the villagers lived in caves and the others in houses made of the local soil pounded into adobe between temporary wooden frames.

We had no idea what to expect and indeed the place was completely transformed. It had the appearance of a small run down Australian country town, main roads and streets sealed, then gravel or dirt. Nobody was in caves and most of the adobe houses were replaced with modest brick dwellings. All around were neatly sown fields of wheat about knee high, and a lot of peaches. No cotton. There are 17 bores replacing the well, they are 220 metres deep and they draw water for the peaches and vegetables.

We found the Head Man and he introduced us to a family who run a small flour mill. We were joined by the local Party Secretary. The HM and the PS were the very heart and soul of hospitality and they took as to lunch at the village restaurant. This was a veritable banquet and they were obviously out to impress! The Miller was our designated guide and he stayed with us after the HM and the PS took their leave soon after lunch. The Miller is 49, he runs the family business and he also sank two bores which enables him to sell water.

The really interesting news is that the land is fully privatized. Each brigade was allocated their field and that was subdivided equally among the families. Anything they produce above their own needs they can sell in the open market without government tax!! Some of the more enterprising villagers specialize in planting and harvesting with small machinery, so the equipment is not jointly owned but subcontracted. Farmers can sell their plots. No doubt they will be consolidated. This area is moderately prosperous, in the poor farmlands the state supports farmers to stay on the land to slow the drift to the city.

We had some questions and Amy translated the answers, more pick and shovel work. We were told everyone in the village has a car, actually that translates as motorized transport by scooter or motor tricycle. The only car we saw was a small sedan driven by the HM. The only significant vehicles were strictly work-related small trucks and pickups. People used to eat meat once a year, now they can have meat every day. A bit of exaggeration, even the middle class professionals in Amy’s family eat little meat. Still, a different universe from the 1970s.

Electricity for lights came in the mid 1970s. Amy did not remember it, she only had light after dark from a tiny bowl of oil with a wick, so no reading! In the last 10 years there has been electricity for other domestic purposes and also the pumps for the bores, hence the fruit and vegetables.

In the afternoon we got to meet some people who could remember Amy and there were some touching scenes, especially with a very old couple who used to cook every evening meal for Amy and her companion when they first arrived. They were virtually schoolgirls from the urban elite with no experience of working all day and fending for themselves in the evening. Amy was so pleased to have the opportunity to thank them for their kindness almost 50 years ago but she was sad to see how they were aged. The old lady was bent double with arthritis and the old man was almost equally stooped. Amy remembered him as a tall man with the looks of a film star.

Many pictures to recall the day but no opportunity to post on Facebook☺

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Hayek in Australia 1976

Between 3 October and 6 November 1976, F.A. Hayek spent five busy weeks in Australia with more than 60 appointments, seminars, informal meetings and formal presentations (Appendix 1). He and his wife travelled almost the full length of the east coast from Cairns and the Barrier Reef in Queensland to Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide in the south with excursions to the country in Victoria and Queensland. Roger Randerson, a finance journalist and economics commentator, masterminded the tour.

The suggestion of a tour arose in 1975; but Hayek (1899-1992) did not pursue that proposal until he accepted an invitation to visit Japan late in 1976 and indicated to Randerson that he could fit in a short Australian tour. Initial inquiries yielded no major sponsors for the tour so Randerson (1912-1991) and Ronald Kitching (1929-2011) underwrote the costs. Eventually some sixty donors contributed sums ranging from AU$50 to AU$2000.

The political situation, 1976

The central issue in Australian politics was the willingness and ability of the newly-elected Liberal and Country Party coalition led by Malcolm Fraser to regain control of the economy after the big spending and other initiatives of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) administration under Gough Whitlam (1972 – 1975). Inflation peaked at over 15 per cent in 1974: unemployment was 6 per cent during Hayek’s visit. There were also major issues to be resolved regarding monetary policy and the then-fixed exchange rate.

The political debate was soured by the resentment of Labor Party supporters following the 1975 Constitutional crisis which the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, resolved by dismissing the Whitlam government (11 November) and appointing Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. The Liberal-Country Party coalition won the resulting general election in a landslide (13 December).

There were high hopes for the Fraser administration in conservative circles; some progressives were alarmed by a rumour that he was a reader of Ayn Rand. That was before it became apparent that Fraser was the kind of conservative who Hayek (1960, Appendix)  had in mind when he wrote “Why I am not a conservative” – a man more concerned with holding political power than limiting it and prepared to protect existing industries rather than sweeping away obstacles to free development.

A little-noticed chapter suggested that the conservative side of Australian politics at the 1974 election was less market-oriented than the Labor Party (Ray 1974).  Consequently, Hayek’s views were not music to the ears of Prime Minister Fraser (or the elders of the Coalition government), as indicated by recollections of their meeting (Appendix 2). Milton and Rose Friedman (1998, 431-432) received much the same reception from Fraser (then leader of the Opposition) when they visited Australia in 1975.

 The climate of ideas, mid-1970s

In the mid-1970s, interventionism dominated the formation and discussion of public policy. The strength of interventionist tendencies on the both sides of politics can be seen in the tenor of criticism of the so-called New Right a decade later when the Labor administration led by Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating  initiated  some significant deregulation.

For many years the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne was the major source of informed economic commentary on the conservative side of politics. Formed in 1943 – pre-dating the Mont Pelerin Society (1947) – it functioned as a check on the socialist agenda of the Australian Labor Party. J. Walter (1988) described how the war provided the incentive for central planning and the federal public service doubled in size Australia between 1939 and 1945: “Curtin’s reform-oriented ALP government in 1941 caught the imagination of the intelligentsia who saw it as the vehicle for the new order”. Walter drew on the autobiography of H. “Nugget” Coombs (1981), the most influential advisor to Labor and Liberal governments over many years, to show how the new order would be based on central control of the economy, using the Keynesian insights to deliver sustained economic growth with full employment and other social benefits.

It was not only ALP supporters who were impressed by John Maynard Keynes. Much the same happened to the some leaders of the non-Labor forces, chief among them the remarkable mover-and-shaker, Herbert Gepp, who formed the IPA and charged C. D. ‘Ref’ Kemp with the task of producing a program for it. This work turned out to be a major source of ideas for the new Liberal Party under Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1943-46; 1949-1966). According to Walters (1988), “By the late 1930s Gepp, like Coombs, had discovered Keynes, and begun to propound a version of neo-Keynesian economic planning. Unlike Coombs, however, he drew the line at anything that looked like collectivism”.

Walter’s account is supported by Kemp’s (1988) contribution to the same volume and by John Hyde’s (2003) later research.  The Keynesian synthesis of private ownership and state planning provided a framework of ideas that the social engineers and the business community could share, even while they disagreed on details. This framework included a highly interventionist function for the state, and neglected the microeconomic foundations of productivity. Much of the institutional framework had been put in place by the first Federal Government in the early years of the twentieth century with tariff protection for industry and central wage fixing for the workers.

Classical liberalism and libertarianism had practically no profile in Australia – until in 1975 a new party with a libertarian program and aroused a deal of disbelief but little electoral support. First called the Workers Party – heightening disbelief -, later the Progress Party, and currently the Liberal Democratic Party, it has recently won a seat in the Federal Senate. In 1976, the pros and cons of economic rationalism or deregulation were not yet significant topics for public discussion, and there was still a serious battle to be fought on the conservative side of politics before the agenda of deregulation achieved full support in the Liberal Party at the end of the 1980s.

Hayek’s Australian tour came some time before the network of academics, the new think tanks and the “backbench Dries” of the Liberal Party achieved some traction in the debate on public policy. For example the flagship of the new thinktanks, the Centre for Independent Studies, was not even a drawer in Greg Lindsay’s filing cabinet when Hayek visited, although it rapidly progressed and three years later published some of the papers that Hayek (1979a; 1979b) delivered on the tour.

 Hayek on Tour

Hayek arrived two years after sharing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for their work on money, economic fluctuations and the institutional analysis of economic phenomena. In a remarkable piece of synchronicity, in June 1974, a small group of American economists convened at South Royalton, Vermont, for the first of a series of meetings which started the revival of the Austrian School of Economics. Hayek’s most recent major works were the three-volume Law, Legislation and Liberty: Rules and Order (1973), The Mirage of Social Justice (1976a) and The Political Order of a Free Society (1979c); plus Full Employment at Any Price? (1975), Choice in Currency (1976b) and Denationalisation of Money (1976c).

The Law, Legislation and Liberty trilogy were products of his “pathology of reason” project that commenced with The Road to Serfdom (1944) and extended to his last book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988).  The three major speeches that he delivered on the tour drew upon that work which was primarily philosophical and political in nature. In ‘The Atavism of Social Justice’, delivered at the University of Sydney, Hayek (1979a, 15) pursued the controversial theme that dominated much of his mature work, that our instinctive moral sentiments were formed at a time when our ancestors lived in small bands and the ethos of sharing has been recruited in modern times to support the idea that justice is all about redistribution of wealth. The result is a push for systems and institutions which politicise and undermine the classical principle of equalitarian justice, and also impede the generation of wealth which is required to improve the lot of everyone in the long term. At the conclusion of the talk he very briefly made a crucial point about evolutionary theories and competition for “survival of the fittest”. His analysis had little to do with “social Darwinism” and competition between individuals; he was concerned with the sustainability of social and political orders and in this context the main benefit that we obtain from competitive selection is “the competitive selection of social institutions.”

‘Socialism and Science’ was delivered to the Canberra branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (Hayek 1976e). Wolfgang Kasper’s (Appendix 3) account of the meeting conveys a sense of the excitement of the event and the responses aroused from all sides. Hayek established a good rapport with the audience and delivered a line that “brought the house down”: “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?”

Hayek (1976e) mentioned some of the issues addressed in the “pathology of reason” project, namely the unhelpful theories of science and rationality that he labelled “scientism” and “constructivism” respectively. He examined the way that socialists attempted to quarantine their ideas from scientific appraisal and he went on to another aspect of the project concerned with rationality and the formation and appraisal of social norms and moral rules. His position in The Fatal Conceit (1988, 21) aroused concerns that his interest in social institutions had led him away from political individualism in the direction of collectivism and some passages in this paper stand as a partial corrective to that perception. Against the genuine collectivists whose efforts to apply reason to generate new moral codes hark back to primitive instincts, he argued: “The [classical] liberal must claim the right critically to examine every single value or moral rule of his society…Our moral task must indeed be a constant struggle to resolve moral conflicts, or to fill gaps in our moral code … [towards] the order of peace and mutually-adjusted efforts, which is the ultimate value that our moral conduct enhances. Our moral rules must be constantly tested against and if necessary adjusted to each other, in order to eliminate conflicts between the different rules, and also so as to make them serve the same functioning order of human actions.” The purpose is to promote rules of the social game that tend to generate peace, freedom and prosperity.[i]

Rules to promote freedom and democracy were the focus of Hayek’s (1979b) speech to the IPA (Sydney Branch) on ‘Whither Democracy?’ He articulated serious doubts about the sustainability of democracy as long as the notion of “majority rule” is not corrected by devices to minimise the risk of a tyranny of the majority. This has pressing contemporary relevance as the advance of welfare state entitlements has created a great deal of debt and doubts are raised about the capacity of any political party to find the will and the popular support required to make the system sustainable.

Hayek’s (1976d) extempore address at the IPA Annual General Meeting (taped and published in the IPA Review) dwelt on economic themes and revealed that Hayek’s longstanding connection with the Institute “played a considerable role in the development of my writings… I received an invitation to contribute an article to your Review. I wrote up for that purpose, which otherwise I would never have done, a diagnosis of the then existing situation…under the title ‘Full Employment, Planning and Inflation’ [1950].” He claimed that his analysis at that time essentially predicted the kind of outcomes that eventually emerged as “stagflation” in the 1970s, quoting the conclusion of the 1950 paper: “It must appear more than doubtful whether, in the nature of democratic institutions, it is possible that democratic governments will ever learn to exercise that restraint, which is the essence of economic wisdom, of not using palliatives for present ills which not only create worse problems later but also constantly restrict the freedom of further action”.

Hayek obtained significant public exposure on the weekly current affairs TV program ‘Monday Conference’ (11 October 1976) which was shown nationwide on the free-to-air public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).  This aroused strong reactions from supporters; and a persistent Marxist critic, University of Sydney Associate Professor of Economics Debesh Battarcharaya, received equally enthusiastic endorsement from the other side of the “house”.  Battarcharaya elicited from Hayek one of the memorable takeaway lines of the tour “I don’t want to trade discourtesies with you.” Robert Moore presided over the proceedings and maintained a balance of voices in the exchanges which enabled Hayek to range over many aspects of his social, political and economic ideas. One of these was the theme of his ‘Whither Democracy’ address, voicing concern that the erosion of authority by special interest groups would cause serious problems and this will discredit democracy.  But he insisted that “What has failed is not democracy as such, it’s a particular form of democracy which we have had.”

 Out of the public eye

There were many – mostly off the record – private engagements. The details of Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser have not previously been reported (Appendix 2).

Hayek and his wife went off-the-beaten track into the countryside. A trip to a Victorian forest enabled them to hear – and more rarely – see the famous lyre birds.  On his visit to Melbourne, Hayek and his wife stayed for some days at the home of C.D. (Ref) Kemp and Mrs. Betty Kemp at Mount Macedon. Mrs. Hayek, with her interest in astronomy, was keen to see an eclipse and Mt. Macedon was expected to be a good vantage point. In the event, clouds prevented a sighting. The Sydney Morning Herald (25 Oct 1976) reported: “Thousands of scientists and amateur astronomers, stationed at centres along the band of totality, were largely thwarted by the heavy cloud cover of much of south-eastern Australia on Saturday”.

Kemp had had a long acquaintance with Hayek’s thought and The Road to Serfdom had been one of the intellectual inputs into the work of the IPA, where Kemp had been economic adviser and then Director.  The IPA Review from the late 1940s published articles by Hayek which Ref Kemp had sought out.  The Kemps and the Hayeks got on well together and greatly enjoyed each others’ company. Hayek’s favourite room was the library. Ref Kemp recalled that Hayek took Tolstoy’s War and Peace off the shelves and commented that, in his view, this one was the best translations.  Hayek inadvertently allowed his cigarette to burn a mark on a small polished coffee table in the library: the Kemps ever after referred to it as ‘the Hayek table’ and refrained from repolishing it.

Ron Kitching hosted the Hayeks on his farm and provided an opportunity to come to grips with a giant bull named ‘Inflation’: “When he arrived we had a celebratory drink of his favourite tipple, Johnny Walker Black Label. ‘When ever I drink this brand of Scotch,’ Hayek announced, ‘I get ideas beyond my station’. He was a past master at putting people at ease. He then noticed hanging on the wall of the bar, a large picture of a magnificent Brahman Bull I owned. He asked about the Bull, so I told him he was a prize winning show bull which I had nicknamed ‘Inflation’ as he would not stop growing. He weighs 2,500 pounds in his working clothes. Hayek laughed and said that he knew a bit about inflation and that he would like to meet this one. Next day I took him down the paddock and took several pictures of him and the bull.  He was delighted to have a bit of fun. The caption of course was to be ‘Hayek’s Got Inflation By The Balls’” (Appendix 4).

Impact and outcome of Hayek’s visit

The major public record of the tour is a Centre for Independent Studies Occasional Paper containing the three major speeches with some information about Hayek and a brief account of the tour including the partial itinerary (Appendix 1). Hayek wrote the Preface with a graceful tribute to Randerson who organised the visit and “…was guide, philosopher and friend to Mrs. Hayek and myself; and finally crowned his efforts by editing these lectures and seeing them through the press.”

Hayek’s (1976d; 1976e; 1979d) address to the IPA appeared in the IPA Review as did his paper on ‘Socialism and Science’. A version ‘Whither Democracy’ was published as ‘Can Democracy be Saved?’ in Quadrant, November 1976.

A survey of four daily newspapers, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age and The Australian Financial Review revealed no mention of Hayek and the tour. The Sydney Morning Herald (15 October 1976) announced Friedman’s Nobel award on the front page and that was an opportunity to mention that a recent Prize winner was in the country at the time. Another place where the Hayek tour could have been noted was The Australian Financial Review (5 October 1976) which ran a story on Myrdal, Hayek’s co-recipient.

The impact of the visit is impossible to assess. Later in the decade, Hayek would have found many more interested listeners as the forces for reform became better organized and more articulate. There is no doubt that his ideas energised many of the people engaged in the push for reform – but it took more than a decade and a change of government to achieve real progress to a more open and competitive economy.

 Appendix 1 Itinerary

In the absence of a full itinerary, the following events are extracted from Randerson’s 1979 notes on the tour.

On the public record

6 October: “The Atavism of Social Justice” (9th R. C. Mills Memorial Lecture, Sydney University).

8 October: “Whither Democracy?” (address, IPA, Sydney).

11 October: ‘Monday Conference’ (ABC TV).

19 October: “Socialism and Science” (address, Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, Canberra branch).

Ex tempore addresses and academic seminars

14 October: official lunch (hosted by the University of Queensland University Vice-Chancellor; plus a combined seminar of Queensland and Griffith Universities to discuss “The Use of Knowledge in Society”).

20 October: address on “The Errors of Constructivism” (33rd Annual Meeting of the IPA, taped, transcribed and published in the IPA Review).

21 October: after-lunch talk on “Liberalism” (La Trobe University).

25 October: address on “Competition as a Discovery Procedure” (at Melbourne University for all the Melbourne universities, Melbourne, La Trobe and Monash).

27 October: address (to a lunch organized by the Victorian branch of the Economic Society).

2 November: combined seminar to discuss Hayek’s (1976b; 1976c) Choice in Currency and Denationalization of Money (at the University of New South Wales for the three Sydney universities, Sydney, New South Wales and Macquarie).

3 November: seminar on “Full Employment At Any Price?” (Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education).

Business, official and political

Discussions with The Commercial Banking Co., Bonds Coats Patons Ltd and ICIANZ Ltd.

Lunch with Enterprise Australia and Fortune (Aust) Pty. Ltd.

Seminar on inflation with the New South Wales Confederation of Industry.

Separate meetings with Prime Minister Fraser, Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, and Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Privately entertained by the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick

Meetings with the designer of the Australian central bank, Sir Leslie Melville, and the public health administrator, Sir Raphael Cilento.

 Off the beaten track

On the farm with the bull named ‘Inflation’ (Appendix 4).

The lyre bird excursion (an informal account provided by a professional associate of Ref Kemp who travelled with Kemp and Hayek to a forest on the outskirts of Melbourne to hear the lyre birds. They had the unexpected good fortune to see a pair of the birds which are more often seen than heard).

The astronomy excursion to Mount Macedon (an informal account was provided by associates of Ref Kemp and his wife).

Appendix 2. Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser

This account is based on personal communications with Roger Randerson (late in his life) and, more recently, with officers who served in the Commonwealth Public Service and the Prime Minister’s office at the time.

The meeting between Hayek and the Prime Minister occurred on 18 October 1976.  Hayek went to Parliament House accompanied by Roger Randerson; they were met on their arrival by a Prime Ministerial staffer.  Whilst waiting for Fraser to finish his previous meeting, the group chatted about Friedman’s recent Nobel Prize: Hayek declared himself to be very pleased.  It was mentioned that The Constitution of Liberty had been the subject of seminars in the Melbourne University Liberal Club during the 1960s; Hayek responded that “you never know the influence of your work. Sometimes you write and it seems to have no effect at all”.  Fraser emerged from his office and, after introductions, the party went into the Prime Minister’s Office accompanied by another of Fraser’s staff.

Fraser had discussed Hayek’s visit with his staff beforehand and received a written brief but it was apparent in the meeting that his mind was still on the issues of the previous meeting. After they sat down and exchanged pleasantries, Hayek opened the conversation by broaching the subject of the exchange rate, then under intense discussion, and asked the Prime Minister why it should not be allowed to float? Fraser responded by asking what further action would be necessary if this were done, but Hayek disclaimed enough detailed knowledge of the Australian scene to answer the question.  Fraser seemed unwilling to pursue the matter and Randerson commented that he had not suggested to Hayek that he raise the issue. Fraser courteously replied that he did not imagine that Professor Hayek needed people to tell him what to say.

Hayek, attempting to discuss a broader subject, turned to the issue of social justice: it was, he stated, a misleading and unsatisfactory term which encouraged the growth of government welfare spending.  Fraser responded sharply: “What do you do when aboriginal children are dying?”  Hayek suggested that the government should consider a minimum income system, to avoid the obvious problems of the current system which simply encouraged special interest pressures for more spending.  Fraser responded that this underestimated the common sense of the people, and that he had taken a strong stand himself in condemning politicians who kept promising new spending. Hayek responded that the system for deciding these matters was itself flawed and needed to be changed.

In the short time allowed for the meeting, Fraser did not attempt to engage his visitor on the major issues he was facing, despite the opening provided.  He had expressed interest beforehand but it appeared that the Prime Minister had not read the brief prepared by his staff, and the opportunity to engage one of the great minds of the modern era in a serious policy discussion was passed over by the Australian leader.

Appendix 3. Wolfgang Kasper on Hayek at the Australian National University (prepared at the request of the present author).

In 1969, I had visited Hayek several times when he recuperated in a sanatorium in the Black Forest in Germany and I was a staffer of the German Council of Economic Advisors. By 1976, I had moved to the Australian National University (ANU), and found the atmosphere among the social scientists there not very congenial, to say the least. They were mostly neoclassical model builders or left-wing economic historians, most of whom might not even have heard of Austrian economics. But they were all very sure that they belonged to the noble religion of do-gooding reform and that the sacking of Whitlam was a gross injustice.

It was against this background that the news of Friedrich Hayek’s visit came as a great and very pleasant surprise! Hayek was to speak at ANU in the big Coombs Lecture Theatre (named after ‘Nugget’ Coombs). When I turned up in the company of a businessman friend, the auditorium was already quite packed. I saw only few of my fellow economists from ANU in the audience, but many vaguely familiar faces from the Treasury and – oddly – the Canberra Fabian Society.

Then, Hayek – a gangly old fellow – began to speak after an introduction that assumed few in the audience had even heard his name. I do not even recall the contents of his address only that it was lively and the audience were spell-bound. My businessman friend (and Chris Caton, then of Treasury, who sat next to us) loudly approved of what was said, but some around us began shaking their heads. Hayek clearly hailed from a different intellectual universe than the model builders, who were trained to assume ‘perfect knowledge’.

After the talk, the questions came mostly from several senior civil servants, some of whom were eager to use our eminent visitor to score policy points. Hayek obliged in his good-natured and clear way. I do not believe that he changed minds of the ‘Whitlam tribe’, but he did much to cheer and reinforce those who shared his basic worldview and his understanding that economics is about a dynamic game to search and test useful knowledge. Well after the habitual closing time for such public events, the questions and answers were keeping the big audience spell-bound. The chair (it may have been John Stone from Treasury, I am not sure) pointed out Hayek’s advanced age, his recovery from serious illness and politely suggested we come to a close. Hayek interrupted him cheerfully: “Yes”, he said in his Vienna-accented English, “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?” This brought the house down! With hindsight, I know that this remark was one of his standard party quips at the time – but he certainly won over the hearts of the audience, though possibly not their minds.

His Canberra show was fondly remembered by those present, including the majority who were unable to jettison their old beliefs in favour of thinking in terms of Austrian-evolutionary economics.

[i] Hence the need to adopt a continuous “rules of the game” approach to social and political arrangements, in the way that the rules of the game of football can be adjusted to make the game safer for the players and more attractive for the spectators, the rules of the road are modified to facilitate traffic flow and reduce accidents, and the rules of scientific method can be tuned to promote the growth of knowledge. That was the little recognized thrust of Popper’s approach to science which Ian Jarvie (2001) called “the social turn”. The conscious and critical “rules of the game” approach that Popper introduced in to the philosophy of science is the counterpart to Hayek’s “rules of the game” approach to the social and political order. That approach is an alternative to the traditional methods which either focus on the “essentialist” effort to determine the essential meaning of the key concepts or the “historicist” or “genetic” approach to determine where the rules came from and where they are going in future. Wittgenstein and his followers made much of “forms of life” and games, especially “language games”, and if they had adopted a critical, problem-solving approach to social problems, and the function and consequences of institutional arrangements, they could have supported the projects of Popper and Hayek.

 

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