Comment of the Day: Lee Arnold: Why is it that Tocqueville, Keynes, and Polanyi are still "it" as far as policy-relevant useful social theory is concerned?: "I sometimes think about your question...

...and I think that the answer is because we still remain in their era, but we don't know it.

We are still working within the intellectual era of the 18th-19th Centuries (and some later writers, like Polanyi, understood this, even though he wrote in the mid-20th).

But we don't see this easily, I think for three reasons:

  1. Our current efforts at understanding have been mightily distracted. We lost the 19th-century thread prematurely, because the 20th Century's world wars, technological acceleration, etc. (including the growth of the 'middle class' and the 'Great Moderation') led us down long side paths, into social and economic thought that seemed more long-lasting than they really are.

  2. Psychology matters, and these writers had a psychological depth that we currently lack. They knew a taste of the social psychology of the world that existed before total market capitalism. Their personal heritages gave them one foot firmly planted in the ancien regime. The currently-dominating 'economizing' psychology of trade was not a strong factor in most societies before the middle of the 18th Century (beyond the obvious imperative of finding subsistence under those non-market traditional structures). These writers understood, more or less, that our present social psychology is quite new, and perhaps ephemeral. (You can even sense this in the old-world style of their writings.)

  3. The explosive increase of knowledge has led to the impossibility of polymathism, which characterized many of the great thinkers of the 19th Century, thinkers whom Keynes and Polanyi emulated. Further, the ongoing disciplinary specialization in science and the academy in the 20th Century has led to an uncertain evaluation of any new attempts at integrative and synthetic thought. The default intellectual position now seems to be that it will all somehow come together anyway, in a sort of marketplace of the mental sphere, or voting-booth of the brain, allocated or adjudicated by whatever-it-is that intellectual consumers find interesting or compelling or frightening at the moment. The thinkers in the list would never have made such an assumption.

I would also add Schumpeter to this list -- for his polymathism, the astonishing psychological depth from his old-world roots, and his intellectual honesty and clarity.

Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis (sadly unfinished) is sui generis, with polymathic asides, all too brief, that make it an excellent side-dish for a grad course in general intellectual history, especially for econ grads.

Above all, Schumpeter's prescient examination of our current social psychology in chapters 11-14 of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy is similarly unsurpassed, and very important to our present dilemmas. (The lack of understanding of these passages, demonstrated even among Schumpeter's avid readers, is further evidence of the psychological inability that has befallen the world.) These chapters are crucial to policy-relevant useful social policy.