Liberty Matters

Communication Is Enrichment

I cannot pretend to understand Professor Martin's distinction between enriching and communicating Hayek's "insights."  These are not distinct activities.  Martin himself says, "Communicating Hayek's ideas typically involves finding connections with mainstream economics."  Right.  If I communicate some idea of Hayek to mainstream economists, I must show the reader that it matters to them.  But that means that I must somehow introduce the Hayekian idea to the reader's existing, putatively non-Hayekian, framework of analysis.  Hayek's ideas must meet their ideas.  But once Hayek's ideas start to rub up against the reader's ideas, they are sure to have sex.  As Matt Ridley (2010, 6) has said, "At some point in human history, ideas began to meet and mate, to have sex with one another."  And that intercourse will enrich me and my reader both, at least if I'm doing it right.  Even before I can attempt such an enriching communication of Hayekian "insights," I must have engaged them myself.  But that means some earlier idea of mine and the previously unknown idea from Hayek will have been rubbing up against one another and, if I have been serious in my studies, ravishing one another thoroughly.  Thus, the very Hayekian idea I might wish to communicate to another scholar is already not Hayek's idea at all.  It is the bastard child of Hayek's idea and some previous idea of my own.  And if I'm doing it right, it will enrich the family of Hayekian ideas – and the family of non-Hayekian ideas as well.   
Let's see how this works with an example.  Adam Martin has written a beautiful and valuable essay entitled "Degenerate Cosmopolitanism." (2015)  In this work, Professor Martin defends cosmopolitan liberalism and polycentric order by appealing to the technical notion of "degeneracy" that originated in biology.  (In Expert Failure I suggest we start calling it "synecological redundancy.")  Degeneracy is "the ability of elements that are structurally different to perform the same function or yield the same output" (Edelman and Gally 2001, 13763).  Following Wagner (2006), Martin imports this notion from biology and brings it to political economy.  Ideas are having sex.  And Martin uses the idea to defend relatively concrete policy proposals such as more-open borders.  He thus communicates and enriches the ideas of polycentrism and cosmopolitan liberalism.  In other words, Martin does not practice what he preaches (the separation of enrichment and communication), and it's a good thing he doesn't.  Adam believes that communication and enrichment are separate things.  But his own (very fine) scholarship on other topics shows they are not.
Martin acknowledges that there may be "enrichments that simultaneously make Hayekian ideas more broadly accessible."  But, he says, "I suspect those are exceptional cases."  I would say, on the contrary, that it is only by enrichment that we can hope to communicate.  And I would point out, further, that only enrichment allows us to ourselves understand that which we might propose to communicate to others.
Adam might object that he meant something else by "enrichment."  Maybe.  He does say, "It is not a winning strategy to tell a mainstream economist: 'You've misunderstood Hayek. Now read Menger, Mises, Kirzner, Lachmann, Schutz, and slog through The Sensory Order.'"  This seems to be a brief against playing hard to get.  I quite agree.  And I deny playing hard to get or advising others to do so.  Earlier in this discussion I said, "We must continually connect our existing tradition and framework to recent developments and current science."  Nor do I think Steve Horwitz has been too shy to connect his more or less Hayekian ideas to modern developments.  For example, he relies on evolutionary psychology in his recent book Hayek's Modern Family. (Horwitz 2015)
Maybe Adam meant to warn us against too heavy an emphasis on the history of economic thought.  I don't know if "Austrian" economists in general give too much, too little, or just the right amount of attention to history of thought.  I would note, however, that economists who do not practice the history of economic thought are less likely to make progress on unsolved problems and more likely fall into old errors or shallow thinking.  As Peter Boettke (2002, 354) has said, the "human sciences in general have mainly progressed through an extended dialogue between past and present."  Presumably, however, Professor Martin was not telling us to do less history of thought.  If so, I would protest that the other participants in this discussion, Boettke, Horwitz, and me, have not failed to give our attention to current issues in political economy.
In the end, I confess, I cannot understand what Adam's trade-off is supposed to be.  Until further notice, then, I will deny that there is a trade-off between communication and enrichment of scholarly ideas.  And I will continue to feel happy and relieved that Adam does not practice what he preaches in this regard. 
Boettke, Peter. 2002. "The Use and Abuse of History of Economic Thought: The Case of the Austrian School of Economics," History of Political Economy, 34: 337-60.
Edelman, Gerald M., and Joseph A. Gally. 2001. "Degeneracy and complexity in biological systems," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98(24): 13763-68.
Horwitz, Steven. 2015. Hayek's Modern Family. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Martin, Adam. 2015. "Degenerate Cosmopolitanism," Social Philosophy and Policy, 32(1): 74-100.
Ridley, Matt. 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  New York: Harper Collins.
Wagner, Richard E. 2006. "Retrogressive regime drift within a theory of emergent order," Review of Austrian Economics, 19: 113-23.