Violence and Symmetry

In my History of Economic Thought lecture, we have already begun to transition from the classical to the neoclassical thinkers — from thinkers grappling with a wide range of seemingly independent variables to thinkers who recognize that all of their variables are differentially related to one another. The breakthrough was in large measure due to the elimination of market barriers. So long as local custom, law, habit, and regulation impeded and impaired market forces,  the smooth trend lines familiar to us from economic modeling could not appear because they did not exist.

Now, finally, in the 1860s, economic thinkers such as Leon Walras, William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and even Karl Marx begin to take note of the comprehensive, integrated nature of the maturing capitalist social formation. And we begin to see the familiar x and y linear graphs that will forever be a feature of economic science. So that this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 5.51.43 PM
WS Jevons Theory 1862

becomes

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WS Jevons Theory 1862

where over time (the x axis) the utility won from any good moves from p to r along the y axis.

What is sometimes difficult to explain to students is why, during one of the most violent periods of modern history, the trend lines smooth out. And, yet, a moment’s reflection reveals the answer. Economic integration, if successful, destroys the purely local, customary laws, regulations, and habits that invariably impede and impair market efficiency. Empire-building, if successful, destroys the communities that lay in its path. The very success of these projects is displayed graphically in the smooth trend lines that begin to appear in the 1860s.

I am thinking of these trend lines today because the so-called champions of “individual liberty” are among the most fierce advocates of eliminating particularity and so further smoothing these trend lines. So, for example, regulating coal for the sake of community health and climate change remediation counts as a particularity that, when unregulated, destroys lives and sustainable planetary ecosystems. The elimination of regulations governing carbon content, for this reason, helps smooth the trend line displaying the marginal benefits of coal extraction, processing, sales, and use. Of course, the particularities removed in this case are the bodies of individuals and communities directly involved in coal extraction, as well as the planet on which they live. These particularities are “smoothed.”

Which raises the interesting question of what precisely we mean here by “liberty.” But, no sooner have we asked this question than its answer stares us in the face. We are talking here not about the liberty of Sally Drug Store Clerk or Ricky Accountant. We are talking about the liberty of capital itself as it enters and destroys our communities — is free to enter and destroy our communities. This destruction smooths the trend line. Ain’t that right David Koch, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Mitch McConnell? Ain’t that right Donny Boy?

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