Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on June 30, 2011

in Growth, History

… is from page 156 of Helmut Schoeck’s essay “Individuality vs. Equality,” in Essays on Individuality, Felix Morley, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1977 [1958]), pp. 145-175:

With very few exceptions, which were years of economic growth and innovation, the periods of human history have seen individuals labor under the controlling myth of a “whole society.”  So we tend to forget that mankind’s emergence from stereotyped and stagnating ways of life, on low subsistence, has exclusively depended on the emergence of independent and enterprising individuals, in various fields of endeavor, who had enough resistence to escape from social controls which were usually imposed in the name and interest of “the whole society” or nation.

In light of Deirdre McCloskey’s thesis that the industrial revolution was sparked by the unusual amount of dignity that was first accorded merchants and economic innovators in the northwest corner of 18th-century Europe, how compelling is Schoeck’s claim?  (My question is not, pardon the phrase, merely rhetorical.  It is genuinely sincere and open.)

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David Daniel Ball June 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm

I think it is a mistake to confuse revolution with progress. It overstates things to say that because something is radically different that it was mere stuffiness which suppressed it. It is a visual mistake. Like when people questioned if it was wise to travel too quickly on a train, for fear that the great speeds would render it difficult to breathe. Or the observation that making a device which could fly like bird was ridiculous and so mechanical flying was impossible.
In some ways innovation is not considered, but inspired. Like the transfer of cold climate farming techniques to warmer climates. Or, in modern terms, the resistance to AGW which clearly serves a valuable end to the community which resists it even though some say it is a great idea.
There needs to be resistance to ideas so they can grow and be improved, but to say that they are all resisted is to overstate the effect.

kyle8 July 2, 2011 at 8:16 am

Or, resistance to some ideas might be because those ideas are a silly tissue of lies, like AGW.

Ken June 30, 2011 at 8:29 pm


“how compelling is Schoeck’s claim?”

Do you not think the “unusual amount of dignity that was first accorded merchants and economic innovators in the northwest corner of 18th-century Europe” was an idea that finally gave way to “enough resistence to escape from social controls which were usually imposed in the name and interest of “the whole society” or nation” such that Europeans started to emerge “stereotyped and stagnating ways of life”?

I’d say that in light of McCloskey’s thesis and if you found McCloskey’s thesis compelling, then Schoeck’s thesis is compelling. McCloskey’s thesis is a specific example of Schoeck’s.


kyle8 June 30, 2011 at 8:31 pm

My own pursuit of history reinforces this Idea. If you look at China, for instance (but there are also plenty of other examples) The merchants and artisans were held in low esteem. The bureaucrats and nobility did not allow them to become wealthier than they were.

The result was that a huge nation, which was at one time on the cutting edge of innovation, became stagnant and fell under the influence of nations which were much smaller.

Curious June 30, 2011 at 9:05 pm

What does he mean when he talks about the controlling myth of the whole society.

vikingvista July 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

People are born into their predetermined societal roles, and the set role had not and should not or would not change.

It is very much the same historically cemented thinking that leads many libertarians to believe that freedom requires a monopoly gang of thugs empowered to violently strip people of their freedoms.

Methinks1776 June 30, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Interesting (to me alone maybe) is that in Russia the natural poverty of the soil compelled most Russians to engage in trade and manufacture – a much larger percent of the population than was engaged in such activity in the West. Western travelers to Russia were astounded by this.

Johan de Rodes, a swedish commercial agent, wrote in 1653 that in Russia “everyone, from the highest to the lowest, practice trade…No doubt, in this respect this nation’s zeal almost excels that of all the others”. Twenty years later, Johann Kilburger, a German visitor, believed that some day Russians could become a great commercial nation. Western visitors to Russia were impressed with the contrast to the West, where engaging in trade was regarded as a lowly occupation. “All the boyars without exception, even the ambassadors of the Great Prince to foreign sovereigns everywhere occupy themselves with commerce. They sell buy, and barter without hypocrisy and concealment.”, wrote another visitor.

Yet, Russia never developed a Bourgeoisie. It lacked the institutions that were present in the West. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the entire citizenry was slowly enserfed and that extreme serfdom lasted for about two hundred years. Every Russian – from boyar to peasant – was the property and in service of the Czar. The crown expropriated not only land, but all other private property, establishing royal monopolies protected from all by the most trivial commercial activity. If an entrepreneur foolishly created a particularly successful enterprise, it was confiscated by the Czar. As a result, people rarely wished to grow their business beyond cottage industries (a problem that plagues modern-day Egypt and for some of the same reasons).

So, while there was enormous respect for trade and manufacture in Russia, that respect was not sufficient to establish a bourgeoisie. The West had institutions, a legal system and a financial system that supported the fire of progress sparked by the change in (if McClosky is correct) in the way people talked and thought about people engaged in business.

Brent Crater June 30, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Actually, I think you’ve restated Schoeck’s claim. The critical element was and is respect for the PERSON in trade and production. The success of a business model (profit) is not even the slightest evidence that it is “theft” or “exploitation” or “environmental destruction” or whatever. Put religiously, the attribute “government” does not sanctify an action or its absence profane an action.

Methinks1776 July 1, 2011 at 8:25 am

The respect for the person in trade existed. The respect for commerce as an activity existed. Very much so. However, it existed within an autocratic regime, so those people, who were all respected, never had room to get anywhere. Respect for the person and his commercial pursuits is critical, but so is the liberty to allow him to pursue commercial activity on a scale larger than a cottage industry.

Nicolas Martin June 30, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Thomas Szasz has been making interesting observations about human nature for decades. It’s a shame that most libertarians are so obsessed with economics that they haven’t listened to Szasz. Or could it be that they believe the state has legitimate power to incarcerate “crazy” people who have committed no violent acts. Someone should survey prominent libertarians about this. Is this the Achilles heel of the libertarian movement? Szasz and Rothbard are/were forthrightly opposed to this exercise of state power, but few others have taken a position.

W.E. Heasley June 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Helmut Schoeck is exactly correct.

Harold Demsetz, in the book From Economic Man to Economic System, expounded on the same topic. Particular attention should be paid to chapter four entitled Economic Man’s Escape From Malthus’s Population Trap.

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