Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is the Pope a Polanyan?

In a column at The Atloantic, Heather Horn makes a very strong case that the Pope has been heavily influenced by Karl Polanyi. She concludes:
One of the tricky and crucial parts of Polanyi's argument is that he doesn't actually believe (at least, back in the 1940s, when he was writing) that we're living in a world where the economy has become fully disembedded from society. This "Utopia," he writes, that many economic theorists and policymakers are foolishly striving for, "could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness."

Pope Francis has a similarly gloomy view of global survival in the face of unchecked capitalism: "In this system, which tends to devour anything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule."

So what's the way out? At the time Polanyi's book was published, he was betting on social democracy being the answer, so long as governments worked together internationally. And you know what? That is pretty darn close to what the pope urges as well.
Here's Murray Rothbard on Polynai:
Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is a farrago of confusions, absurdities, fallacies, and distorted attacks on the free market. The temptation is to engage in almost a line-by-line critique[...]

One basic philosophic flaw in Polanyi is a common defect of modern intellectuals—a defect which has been rampant since Rousseau and the Romantic Movement: Worship of the Primitive. At one point, (in dealing with the Kaffirs), Polanyi actually uses the maudlin phrase "noble savage," but this idea permeates the book.[...]

it is implicitly and even explicitly assumed that the way primitive tribes act is more "natural," is somehow more appropriate to man than the "artifices" of civilization. This is at the root of Rousseauism. The way ignorant, fear-ridden, quasi-animalistic savages act is somehow more natural, because presumably more "instinctual," than the ways of civilization. This is the root of Rousseau’s, and many other leftists', view that man is "naturally good," but is corrupted by his institutions. This basic idea is fundamentally and radically anti-human, because it denies the basic facts about human nature and the way human beings must necessarily operate. Animals are born with "instincts"; these instincts are, in essence, sense-determined responses. Animals do not possess a free will, rational consciousness; hence, they can only adapt, in sensory fashion, to their environment. Man, on the other hand, can alter his given environment by use of his reason and his free will[...]

Civilization is precisely the record by which man has used his reason, to discover the natural laws on which his environment rests, and to use these laws to alter his environment so as to suit and advance his needs and desires. Therefore, worship of the primitive is necessarily corollary to, and based upon, an attack on intellect. It is this deep-seated "anti-intellectualism" that leads these people to proclaim that civilization is "opposed to nature" and [that] the primitive tribes are closer to it[...]

[T]he primitive’s life is a life of almost constant terror. Terror of the world about him, which he does not and cannot understand, since he has not engaged in any sort of scientific, rational inquiry into its workings. We know what a thunderstorm is, and therefore do not fear it, and can take rational measures against lightning; the savage does not know, and therefore surmises that The God of the Thunder is displeased with him, and that therefore that god must be propitiated with votive offerings and sacrifices (sometimes human sacrifices). Since the savage has no concept of a world knit together by natural law (a concept which employs reason and science) he believes that the world is governed by a whole host of capricious spirits and demons, each of which can only be propitiated—with only partial "success"—by ritual, by magic, and by a priestcraft of witch doctors who specialize in this propitiation. So fearful is the savage that he can do nothing on his own, that his individuality is virtually completely undeveloped—because the individual savage makes almost no use of his reason and of his mind. Therefore, virtually everything the savage does is governed by immutable, utterly irrational, taboos or command: by custom.

And this is the fear-ridden, barely-human, creature whom we, people who have used our intellect to "conquer" nature, are being asked to emulate, whom Polanyi extols as being truly "social," and as being happily tree of the "inhuman" despotism of the free market[...]

Polanyi admires the tribal and other caste societies, because "nobody starves." Everyone might admittedly be on a subsistence level, he concedes, but no individual starves. Is it that great a comfort that everyone starves together? This is a grotesque statement. The primitive world—indeed all worlds before the Industrial Revolution—[is] constantly racked by famine and by plague. "Famine" was a continual occurrence before the Industrial Revolution; since the I.R. we have never heard of famine (the only recent famines have been in Communist China, and earlier, in Soviet Russia). Famine emerges from a lack of inter-local trade; when one locality’s food crop fails, since there is virtually no trade with other localities the bulk of the people starve. It is precisely the permeation of the free market throughout the world that has virtually ended this scourge of famine, by permitting trade between areas. It is this market that Polanyi castigates as the bringer of virtually all evils[...]

In all of his complaining about laissez-faire and the free market, Polanyi somehow overlooks probably the single most important aspect of this system: freedom. In a free society, no one compels Polanyi or anyone else to join in the free market. If Polanyi or any other critic is so hostile to the alleged tyranny, "instability," etc. of the market, the free society leaves them free to get out. Anyone, at any time, can leave the market: can go off in the woods and live on berries in a cave, can buy his own farm and be completely self-sufficient, cut off from the rest of the world, or can vary his participation as much as he likes. Anyone who wants to can, in a free society, even join a voluntary commune, like Brook Farm, or an Israeli kibbutz, and lead as blissfully communistic a life as he or she wishes. Since everyone still has the option to do so, since anyone has the option to go oft to a desert island or join a commune, why is Polanyi bitter about the market??[...]

The reason is precisely that the vast bulk of the people, in the past and in the present ages, don’t agree with Polanyi: they vastly preferred the so-called instability, unhappiness, et. al. of the market to the supposedly happy subsistence-life of a communal savage. For, if they had not vastly preferred it, they would not have joined the market; they would have sacrificed monetary income for their tribal or self-sufficient farm life. Yet they did not. There is no better way of thoroughly refuting Polanyi’s weeping about the lost glories of "society" than to observe the numberless millions who have chosen the way of the market when they had the free choice.[...]

Even in backward countries that are hostile to capitalism: such as India, Ghana, etc., these countries do not at all reject the fruits of Western civilization on behalf of their seemingly joyful tribal traditions. On the contrary, they want Western products and conveniences; it is just that they have not understood that capitalism is needed to obtain them.

Given a choice, then, almost everyone chooses the market economy and its advanced civilization, even, curiously enough, Prof. Polanyi himself, who most conspicuously did not rush off to some tribe or commune.]...]

I could go on almost indefinitely in detailed criticism of Polanyi, but there is no point in prolonging this too much further. That by "society" Polanyi means force and the "political means" is indicated by his repeated warnings that "social reality" necessarily must involve force and violence. (But why not force limited to combating aggressive force, thus minimizing the role of force in society?) Polanyi, in caustically rejecting the ideal of free trade, doesn’t realize that he is thereby rejecting international peace, for a world of socialist nations will inevitably conflict with each other’s plans, and precipitate conflict of interest and wars[...]

Finally, in the final chapter, Polanyi tries to assure us that his projected collectivist society would really preserve many of the "freedoms" that, he grudgingly admits, the market economy brought us. This chapter is almost a textbook presentation of utmost confusion about the concept of "freedom"; and of confusion between the vitally distinct concepts of "freedom" and of "power."[...]

To sum up: I have read few books in my time that have been more vicious or more fallacious.

Horn's important must read column is here.


  1. I had to read "The Great Transformation" in my history of economic thought class, it bothered the hell out of me so I was thrilled when imfoundbthatbarticle by Rothbard. Of course this is usually the case when I find a Rothbard article on anything that is currently bugging me, econ wise.

  2. The Pope is following the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. That is it, nothing more. Most right wing Christians get the Koch Bros interpretation of the Bible so they are not confused by the Pope.

    1. Nah. He's following stupidity and ignorance. This fucker shouldn't be pope. Why have a brain dead moron leading millions of people?

    2. Jerry knows all and see's all. Today he is a Christian theologian, tomorrow maybe a nuclear physicist and the next day perhaps a theater critic. Jerry is a polymath of extraordinary ability. It just doesn't seem to show up in his comments.

      Jerry, take your meds and go back to mommies basement.

    3. Yep, the welfare state was exactly what Jesus was thinking. Compassion through the threat of violence. Doing good works using evil methods to force people to comply. He would absolutely relish the idea of society turning over the poor and suffering into the hands of a cold-hearted bureaucracy where the motivation for those looking after them is to collect a paycheck and pension. Yep, that's real compassion. And we all remember when Jesus said "you will provide money to the church and if you resist I will beat the living crap out of you and may even kill you in the process". Yes, I can see the parallels that Jerry sees. Its all so clear.

  3. Wow Wolfgang is like the bizarro world thinker...never a touch of reality involved.

  4. For me the real issue is not what dead collectivist thinker influenced The Pope but rather why does anyone give credence to the opinions of any pope. I was raised Catholic, very Catholic, but I long ago rejected this particularly bizarre sect of a rather bizarre religion. Those who care what The Pope thinks in such matters are probably beyond reason anyway.

    1. Romanism is not Christianity or iow the catholic church is not Roman.
      is on the Roman Catholic agenda.
      Not cool.

  5. "Those who care what The Pope thinks in such matters are probably beyond reason anyway."

    I presume that would include such unreasonable folks as Thomas Woods, Gerard Casey, and Robert Sirico?

  6. "Those who care what The Pope thinks in such matters are probably beyond reason anyway."

    Would such unreasonable people include Tom Woods, Gerard Casey and Robert Sirico?