Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A number of email exchanges and blog posts at various sites recently spurred me to put my finger on something that has long troubled me about 4GW theoretical analysis; namely, a significant blind spot regarding economics that at times borders on sheer contempt. A few examples:

William Lind, writing in "Barbarians at the Gates"

"Buchanan breaks new ground in his discussion of the Republican Party’s disgusting defense of open borders, a position justified by the argument that the resulting cheap labor is good for the economy.

Scholar Jon Attarian gave a name to the cult that has captured the party of Goldwater and Reagan: “economism.” This neo-Marxist ideology is rooted in a belief that economics rules the world, that economic activity is mankind’s most important activity and the most conducive to human happiness, and that economics is what politics is or should be all about.

Economism does not just believe in markets, it worships them…The commands of the market overrule the claims of citizenship, culture, country. Economic efficiency becomes the highest virtue.

So far has the cult of economism spread that many conservatives now believe it defines conservatism. It does not. On the contrary, conservatives have never regarded efficiency as an important virtue. Buchanan does not fall into this vulgar error. He devotes an entire chapter of State of Emergency to the question, “What Is a Nation?,” and his answer would please Edmund Burke much more than it would Jeremy Bentham"

Lind has an extensive thesis on political correctness as cultural Marxism aping economic Marxism and P.C. advocates having a general and verifiably illiberal hostility toward Western culture and political norms. I think in many instances, at least where you deal with the zealous activist base of the academic/NGO hard left and its fellow travellers, Lind's theory holds water. My problem is where Lind generalizes off of that to an assumption that consideration of the actual weight of economic variables in a situatuional dynamic makes you a "neo-Marxist". No, it simply makes you intellectually credible.

Because Lind is an (if not " the") authoritative voice in the 4GW community, this anti-market attitude has been transmitted as if by osmosis to his followers and admirers who express it now almost a priori. Even John Robb, who certainly knows better than most about the power of the market as a complex adaptive system, wrote today on his less formal blog:

"This is the crux of the Bush/Neocon/Barnett plans. The only difference is the method. All of them assume they know where history is headed. All of them are wrong.

Even worse, they have recast Adam Smith as Che:

She attributed the setbacks to "counterrevolutionary forces" seeking to undo U.S. success in the region.

That's a little over the top. As the world's rentier elite, it's hard to imagine that we are a revolutionary force. The real revolutionary forces are destroying states."

There is a proper name for the valuation of atavistic identities uber alles - organic conservatism-
it has a very long pedigree and provides genuine saliency as an analytical perspective because group identities based on ethnolinguistic considerations, religion and culture are powerful political touchstones in their own right. They are very real factors in politics and war as Lind correctly emphasizes. What they do not do is cancel out or replace economic relationships but instead interact and coexist alongside them.

In my view, 4GW as a school of strategic thought has a number of critical insights to offer on geopolitics and military strategy that the official defense establishment has for too long resisted (or stridently attacked) that it would do well to consider in earnest. What 4GW thinkers in turn should do is make room for the power of economic drivers in their analysis. Disliking the cultural effects of the free market is fine, wishing them away is not.
I couldn't agree more. I think the problem stems from the misunderstanding of what economics is. Most people believe that economics is efficiency and financial markets or finance (it is odd that many people can not even differentiate between these last two.) It has been my frustration as well, especially when reading Robb. The lack of understanding that economics is an attempt to understand human action is frustrating at times. Economics is not the construction of unrealistic models, which has dominated the profession in the past several decades, but trying to understand and predict what drives human activity (and not merely financial activity.) Good post.


P.S. Sorry for commenting so much lately, but I have to support a fellow Chicagoan.

LOL. I guess I deserve a thumping after putting Barnett into near the Neocon camp.

However, the nature of the thumping is a little problematic. I think the disconnect is that you didn't understand the nature of my post and as a result, you lumped me in with Lind on this.


Hi John,

Oh, I know that you and Lind are not one and the same, just as GG and 4GW are not the same thing. And Tom's work does slide toward sunny economic determinism but economics weigh heavily in the long range forecast.

One point here of mine, that perhaps I did not make explicitly enough, was that when we oversimplify things (and blogging/online formats are great for that) we tend to minimize countervailing forces that are present in the complexity of reality.

Always feel free to comment here - your input is much appreciated feedback for me !
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In regards to Lind, I think that he and other cultural conservatives chaff against the primacy of economics in current conservative thinking. I think it is more of a reaction to excess than a complete disregard for economics as a force that can provide beneficial results.

BTW, tdl, I do frequently cite examples of economics as a means of explaining behavior.

Didn't mean signal you out. Since I am basically an "Austrian" I tend to find faults in most economic commentary. Another thing, since I check your site out on a daily basis there is a better chance of me finding something I disagree with ;-)

mark: excellent points, as always. this reminds me very much of current law and economics theory and how the remainder of the legal realists have dealt with L&E theory.

but i think TDL is quite right as well. we haven't been very rigorous in what we mean we say "economics", and as a result, the definition one interlocutor relies upon is often the antithesis of that which the other uses.

i think separating economics from finance, per TDL's suggestion, or at least seeing that the two are indeed distinct (yet perhaps still overlapping), would prove lind to be quite the economist. afterall, most cultural conservatives uphold intrinsic value, as do true economists. and only a true capitalist would argue otherwise. value and capital are different things indeed.

anyway, i wish i had more to say as this entire debate is found in microcosm in madison's federalist x. but unfortunately, i must run. well done again mark.
Hi Fedx,

Thank you kindly.

"i think separating economics from finance, per TDL's suggestion, or at least seeing that the two are indeed distinct (yet perhaps still overlapping)"

A most useful reminder. Economics is often at its most interesting when applied " out of the box", so to speak.
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