Dr. O’Neill, may I present Dr. Boudreaux?

In Santa Fe recently, Don Boudreaux was speaking extemporaneously. At one point, he paused, looked down, touched the table before him deliberately, and said something like, “I don’t presume to know what’s best for other people [on this topic] or that I could possibly ever know such a thing.”

It was a simple, matter of fact, acknowledgment of the limits of his moral authority and it struck me like a thunder bolt. It seemed to me to reveal an essential difference between two camps of social scientist: those who believe they know the moral order of things, and those who are prepared to defer to the arrangements the world works out on its own.

When I listen to many social scientists these days, they are plumping for their preferred order of things. They take this to be the point, the very obligation, of their scholarship. It is this presumption of moral authority that has shifted their teaching in the liberal arts from a dispassionate engagement to a partisan one, provoking, in the process, the “culture wars” of the 1990s and the present day.

I was reminded of my Boudreauxvian illumination yesterday when I came upon a review of The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics (Economics as Social Theory), a book by John O’Neill. (I have not yet seen the book itself, and you will forgive me, I hope, if I rely upon the review.)

Apparently, O’Neill laments ‘the rejection of the Enlightenment project of a rationally ordered social life.” In the words of the anonymous reviewer:

O’Neill presents the market as having encroached too far upon non-market associations: … [T]he market corrodes conditions of human well-being, the commitments of personal relationships, social bonds and loyalties, social identity and the narrative order of human life, the norms of recognition that are vital to the internal order of the sciences, arts and crafts, skills and social esteem; and the public nature of the sciences and arts. … At the very least, markets need boundaries, ‘so that non-market associations and relations can flourish.’

The debate is joined. Dr. O’Neill believes that the moral order of world comes from non-market associations and an Enlightenment project in which men and women decide what their world shall be. It comes from ideas thought. Dr. Boudreaux, if I may speak for him, believes that the world emerges from the activities of many diverse groups and individuals as these activities emerge to shape the world. In this case, the order of the world comes from choices made. In O’Neill’s view, the market place is an enemy of moral order. For Boudreaux, it is order’s source.

Many social scientists treat Boudreaux’s position as an abandonment of responsibility and a willingness to “damn the consequences and let the market rip.” But what you could hear in Boudreaux’s remarks was not an eager abdication of responsibility, but a sober, scrupulous willingness to accept the world’s choice over the intellectual’s idea. For Boudreaux, I think, the world is, in a sense, imponderable. It is driven by an evermore active marketplace which in turn drives new social, cultural, and economic forms. The result is almost impossible to think. It is increasingly impossible to judge. To use the phrase ironically, the world is too much with us.

The debate is clear. O’Neill holds to the old mission of the intellectual. Powers of scrutiny and rights of judgment, these, he says, remain with us. From this perspective, Boudreaux and his like are barbarians who accept that, now to use the phrase ironically, “what ever is is right.” Scholar to the barricades! O’Neill takes up the defense of “non market associations.” He shouts the market back.

O’Neill does not see what was clear to the great American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins in the 1970s. “[W]e have a kind of empirical society which precipitates organization out of the play of real forces. Ours too may be a culture, but its form is constructed from events, as the system gives people license to put their means to the best advantage and certifies the result as a genuine society.”

He does not see what was clear to Hayek in the 1940s, that ‘through the market [we are] made to contribute ‘to ends which [are] no part of [our] purpose.’”

What O’Neill does not see is that his intellectual mission has been displaced by the sheer force of the culture that capitalism creates. But I wonder if other intellectuals do. Sometimes, I think I hear, in the work of Frank and Klein, a burst of bad temper that the world should have dared displace them. Their traditional hostility for the marketplace has been redoubled by the inkling that “idea elites” are outstripped not just politically but intellectually. They glimpse, I think, the mortal wound dynamism has inflicted on their self appointed place of usefulness, and the result is outrage. (My favorite text here is Carey).

In such a world, things change for “idea elites.” It is not for them to say, because it is increasingly difficult for them to see. Their moment has passed. Like it or not, our culture will come from ‘the play of real forces.” It will produce “ends which are no part of our purpose.” O’Neill believes, evidently, that the moral game is still in play. Boudreaux demonstrates that it is time for the intellectual to take a position of new modesty, of new integrity.

A question remains. Is the world imponderable? Is the world impossible to think? (I accept that it is impossible to judge; that we are, to use the phrase ironically, obliged to “let a hundred flowers bloom.”) Where does order come from, if not idea? If it comes from choice, how do choices “add up” and order emerge?

In a pluralistic intellectual world, we will have many points of view. For my own purposes, I think we can see things anthropologically and posit: 1) a new multiplicity of cultural forms (plenitude), 2) a new presumption of the right of individuals and groups to reinvent themselves (transformation), 3) a new loose boundedness of individual and group that makes them newly responsive to plenitude on the one hand and transformation on the other. (My favorite text here is Postrel.) Or, we might put this in the language of complexity theory, and observe a culture that has become ever more like a Complex Adaptive System, prizing “heterogeneity,” “diversity,” “a network of interactions” and “non linearity.” (My favorite text here is Clippinger.)

In a pluralistic world, there will be many more and better ways to think about dynamism. But the first order of business is to leave off the favorite inclination of the old order intellectual: to mistake provincialism for integrity. The new position is the Boudreauxvian one. Let us all pause, look down, touch the table before us deliberately, and repeat after him: “I don’t presume to know what’s best for other people or that I could possibly ever know such a thing.”


Anon. n.d. Review of The Market. (lightly edited.) Available here.

Boudreaux, Donald. Café Hayek. A blog to found here.

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Clippinger, John Henry. 1999. The biology of business: Decoding the natural laws of enterprise. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.

McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude. Toronto: Periph: Fluide. (available on this website for downloading.)

2001. Transformation. Toronto: Periph. :Fluide. (available on this website for downloading.)

2004. Our New Porousness. Entry on this blog. May 24, 2004.

O’Neill, John. 1998. The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics. (Economics as Social Theory). London: Routledge.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Sahlins, Marshall David. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 52.

Stark, David. 1999. Heterarchy: Distributing intelligence and organizing diversity. In The biology of business: decoding the natural laws of enterprise. editor John Clippinger, 155-79. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

With nods to Wordsworth, Pope, and Mao.

2 thoughts on “Dr. O’Neill, may I present Dr. Boudreaux?

  1. Patrick

    There’s a point where these meta-questions leave the realm of the social scientist and enter that of the philosopher. To wit, consider the Walzer’s _Spheres of Justice_. He argues, it seems rightly to me, that though the market is an acceptable (Ideal?) distriution system for some goods. Other Goods (big G- Goods?), require other means of distribution and rules of transfer. We get upset when the market is applied to other spheres (campaign finance), and likewise when other spheres meddle in the market (nepotism). It’s certainly a cultural question where we draw the lines between spheres (whence prostitution, for instance?), but I believe Walzer provides a useful analytic scheme, one pertinent to the question implied above.

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