Liberty Matters

Sharp Objects and Beautiful Visions

Pete's last contribution makes an absolutely essential point about the importance of "sharp objects" for social theory along with his points about a "morality for mortals" and institutions that can generate social cooperation on the margin. I just want to zoom out from those more particular points to talk about larger visions. And I want to pose my thought as a question: is there a way to capture this correct understanding of good social analysis in a beautiful, larger vision that still manages to avoid the utopianism (in the bad sense) of Marx?
Institutional improvement and continual gains in social cooperation on the margin are great things, and to political economists, they probably have some sex appeal. But one of Marxism's great attractions is that it offers a larger, and beautiful, vision of a better world. I think it's hard for people who are not inside the theoretical edifice of Smith, Menger, and Hayek/Buchanan/Ostrom to appreciate the sum of those marginal improvements when we focus on the margins rather than the sum and when we don't offer them as a beautiful vision of a better future.
I honestly do not know if there's a way to paint that beautiful vision of a society of free and responsible people slowly improving the lives of all through the gradual extension of the division of labor and the growth in social cooperation, peace, and prosperity that it produces. And I certainly don't know if there's a way to do it that avoids the problem of perfectionism and utopianism that Pete and I have both noted.
Perhaps we can keep pounding away with careful, detailed presentations of the historical facts and with larger narratives like Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues trilogy or the recent books by Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling. It's my own sense that in recent years these sorts of projects have made a dent – there is a greater understanding among public intellectuals of just how much human progress has been produced by the very forces that Marx rejected. Yet the critics of markets still point to what is left undone and the remaining sharp objects that might be inevitable parts of social interaction for really-existing humans -- and those critics do so using the broad approach that Marx provided. Perhaps people just get more upset by the remaining smaller problems when so many big ones have been solved. Perhaps there is just something deep in human nature that longs for the perfected world that will never be satisfied with marginal improvements, even when the sum of those margins would appear to our ancestors as something akin to heaven.
Sometimes, when I'm going through a typical day, I will pause and ask myself what would Thomas Jefferson think about some particular aspect of life in the 21st century if we could bring him back to life? It's an interesting exercise not just in gratitude for what humans have produced but also in realizing how much dulling of sharp objects we take for granted every single day. Every day, we walk through what to Jefferson would seem like miracles and magic, and we know what sorts of institutions produce them: the very same ones that Marx and so many modern intellectuals wish to supersede. I suspect that it will always be a source of frustration that so many intellectuals can't see that the really beautiful vision is actually all around us as the institutions of a free economy enable us to dull the edges, measurably but slowly, of the unavoidable sharp objects of life for mere mortals.