Orwell, Orthodoxy and Organization

This summer, I joined the reading group for Kevin A. Carson’s daunting, 600 page tome Organization Theory. In the first section, Carson presents a compelling mass of research and careful criticism of cross-ideological views of economies of scale. He argues that top economists, from Ronald Coase to John Kenneth Galbraith and Joseph Schumpeter, “accept ‘economies of scale’ as a sufficient explanation for the rise of the large corporation from a supposedly ‘laissez-faire’ economy”, failing to consider the systemic effects state intervention has on the architecture of large firms that would otherwise bow to real market forces.

Five pages in, Carson takes a heavy swing at the Austrians over this issue. “The irony is that the Austrians”, he scolds, “who consider themselves such iconoclasts in savaging so much of the received wisdom of neoclassical economists and liberal managerialism, also accept without critical awareness many of its implicit assumptions… So it’s somewhat jarring to see them… become ardently triumphalist enthusiasts for the sheer Hegelian ‘is-ness’ of things when it comes to Wal-Mart and sweatshops. It’s a bit odd to be so anti-Hamiltonian, and yet so fond of an economy founded on Hamiltonianism.” – Ouch.

Bad theory has an unfortunate tendency to slip between the cracks of active thought and critical inquiry, and Carson is not the first libertarian to bring it up. Henry Hazlitt warns us in the first sentence of the preface to Economics in One Lesson, “This book is an analysis of economic fallacies that are at last so prevalent that they have almost become a new orthodoxy.” Here, Hazlitt uses “orthodoxy” to refer to a generally authorized doctrine that includes both accurate and inaccurate insights, like subjective value theory and the broken window fallacy, respectively.

George Orwell, however, takes the meaning of orthodoxy even further in 1984, defining it to refer strictly to subversive ideas that have become the mainstream via their uncritical reception. In this passage, Winston is speaking with Syme, a dedicated and passionate agent of the state, who is tasked with compiling the latest edition of the Newspeak Dictionary:

Even the literature of the party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking-not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

This sort of Orwellian “unconsciousness” is precisely the state of mind that allows bad ideas to fester. Like a virus, these bogus theories permeate the uncritical mind and feed on passive acceptance, reproducing to latch onto new generations of economists, psychologists, scientists, and all other manner of inquiring minds who seek valid answers to key questions.

This tendency of orthodoxy is important to recognize, because a passive thought process is unlikely to stop after letting just one unchecked notion skate by. Liability to let anything at all past the threshold of intellectual scrutiny could be indicative of a more systematic problem. As William Gillis put it, preferring the term “faith” to orthodoxy,

Faith is innately unethical. Ethics without vigilance is meaningless and faith is defined by an abdication of cognitive vigilance… a mind filled with hardened tumors of faith and the rot of lazy habits is a mind always at risk of more proactive cancers.

Orwellian orthodoxy is a threat to all ideologies and fields of study and a potential menace to the development of inquiring minds, which is precisely why libertarians ought to oppose it most fervently.

As libertarians, we take pride in logical discourse and ethical rigor. We condemn the hypocrisies and failed policies of the statist left and the nationalist right. Turning our gaze inward, we are relentless when discussing matters of what is “truly libertarian”, be that tactics, tastes, culture, and other thick conceptions of liberty. Rational thought led us to our conclusions about free markets and individual liberty, and, if exercised consistently, should keep us on the right track with more complex issues that crop up the further we delve into economic and philosophical theory.

But despite our general steadfastness, Carson’s insight teaches us that we are not even safe from orthodoxy within the borders of libertarian thought. We too are liable to let an unexamined notion pass by unchecked, maybe because it confirms our preexisting feelings about the way something works, or perhaps because an idea simply carries the banner of “libertarian”. Either way, allowing these malignant manifestations of orthodoxy in is thoroughly un-libertarian.

The pursuit of truth for truth’s sake is a constitutive part of libertarianism, and for this reason, libertarians qua libertarians owe it to themselves to form an intellectual climate that promotes perpetual scrutiny of all ideas, regardless of whether those ideas were forged by hand-wringing statists or well-intentioned fellow libertarians. This intellectual climate should resemble important features of the economic arrangements that Jason Lee Byas describes in his essay Toward an Anarchy of Production, Pt. I. Calling for markets and the profit motive as agents of social change, he explains that,

by constantly approaching equilibrium yet never reaching it, unchained economic activity is exactly the kind of social dynamic that radicals desire: permanent revolution.

Market forces are robust because they are unyielding in adaptation and growth. By “constantly approaching equilibrium”, markets continuously reach to perfect allocation of resources both material and immaterial. This profound dynamic, which simultaneously optimizes productive efficiency and social flourishing, must be mirrored by any ideological community that wishes to grow into the best version of itself. Through unforgiving intellectual resilience in the face of propositions both pleasant and precipitous, libertarianism can stand athwart orthodoxy and achieve the kind of intellectual dynamic that the liberty-minded deserve: permanent cognitive revolution.

flattr this!