Monday, April 21, 2014

The APEEmath vol 2: the (Wo)man of System, Vachris on Austen's Emma

Dig, O brethren. And always open with Smith.

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
Ah, statecraft. Aristotle's highest calling (esp NE Bk I where he also speaks highly of Solon). Smith cautiously advances what we might recognize as a precautionary principle of governance: "never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents." To accommodate (read: tolerate) the habits and prejudices of a constituency would strike the ear of a classical thinker as the virtue of temperance as she is applied to statesmanship. Right on. Nothing our readers here at EE haven't already heard a thousand times before. But your median Smith reader will probably be more familiar with the following passage, and your median armchair libertarian will probably be more familiar with it as filtered through Hayek (not that there's anything wrong with that).

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
 Mind you, mind you, mind you, these paragraphs appear right in order, one smack dab after the other. So it was with some pain that I wrestled with APEE 2014 Session M2.5, in which a paper by Michelle Vachris argued that Jane Austen's character Emma Woodhouse was an avatar for Smith's Man of System.

So I says to myself, I says: "Man of System? Get outta here. Emma might be a meddler, she might have the conceit of social engineer, but it's all small-scale stuff and nonsense. Why, she's even held to account for her excesses of planning in the text of the novel. Weren't Smith and Hayek (and, yes, even Aristotle on a careful reading) warning against the intemperance of unaccountable political chicanery?"

Those of you who know me in person may be astonished to discover that I held my tongue. I really had to mull my objections. To me, the "great society" phrase there in the second graf is essential to interpreting Smith. Emma was clearly not arranging the chess-pieces of a great society, but rather fiddling with the tender sentiments of her close social network. Her actions may have been intemperate and unconsidered, even worthy of censure, but if you want to level a Public Choice critique at her, what's missing is feedback.

Politicians are vaguely accountable to an ersatz constituent cobbled from opinion polls and loud-voiced, well-organized members who lobby for this policy or that. Emma, contrariwise, is directly accountable to the other characters, face-to-face, so to speak. She is obliged to defend herself to the very objects she wishes to manipulate. And in this sense, I overcame my objections. For it is here that I found my strongest affection for Vachris's interpretation. The Man of System as an aspirational ideal is contained in the person of Emma. Indeed, in the course of the novel, she is roundly upbraided for her meddlesomeness. And how delightful would it be to sit the numb nudgers, prideful paternalists, and solipsistic social shepherds in the academy down and deliver to them a rich tongue-lashing for the conceit they have arrogated themselves in their own ideal plans of government. As escapist fantasy, this should appeal to many of my friends and colleagues.

But there's a larger question squirreled away in there: how euvoluntary is matchmaking? It seems to have some quasi-coercive elements (on occasion, depending on the culture, quite directly coercive), but is it possible that there is such a thing as economically efficient matchmaking institutions? What coordination failures might exist in an unregulated marriage market? What are the costs, benefits, and transfers of, say, the Shidduch? Fodder for a future post. For now, consider it a bug in your ear, something to think about. Over a nice cup of tea.

Edit: I got the author wrong. This was Lynne K, not M. Vachris. Apologies to any offended parties. Applesaucy.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?