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January 16, 2005

I Can No Longer Conceal My Love For John Ralston Saul!

I'm a huge admirer of the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul. To the degree that it's somewhat unwholesome.

Thus, I've held myself back here, so as not to embarrass my friends and loved ones. But now the dam has broken, and you are about to be flooded by my pent-up Saul-admiration. Take yourself and your livestock to higher ground.

The cause of this disaster is Jim Shanahan's reference in comments here to the University of Chicago's economics department. The Chicago economics department is famously conservative, and hugely influential. The professors there are also, in my opinion, big dumbasses.

John Ralston Saul shares my view, although he puts it more elegantly. His book A Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense defines them this way:

Chicago School of Economics
A great center of contemporary Scholasticism. The economists working there and produced by it are as important to the stagnation of useful thought as the Schoolmen of the University of Paris were at the height of the Middle Ages.

Like that of the Paris scholastics, their mastery of highly complex rhetorical details obscures a great void at the center of their argument. They also share a tactical genius for exporting their conceptual definitions to less important centers around the world. The result is a pleasing symphony of international echoes imitating their cadences and so confirming their correctness, even when their policies bring economic disaster. The percussion section of Chicago's orchestra is the Nobel committee for economics. Each golden medal is like another congratulatory parchment presented at the end of an elaborate theological debate.

But what of content? There isn't much. What of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman? These minor Thomists preach little more than inevitability and so counsel passivity.

What they call libertarian economics is a remarkable revenge of the scholastics on the men of the Enlightenment, who had theoretically destroyed them. Peel away the tangle of intellectual leaves from the Chicago School and what remains is a great clockmaker god who has set the world ticking. But the conclusion of the Enlightenment was that god's indifference left humans free to organize the world as they wished. Chicago has so deformed this idea as to invert it. The great clock has been turned into an absolute, all-encompassing system. Better than an ideology, the world is its own absolute economic truth. We must remain passive before its majesty.

This is a denial of Western experience. It is nonsense which simply comforts the power slipping increasingly into the corporatist structures.

Strategic thinking can save a great deal of time wasted over tactics. A large number of America's economic problems, and those of the West, could be solved by shutting down the Chicago School of Economics.

This would not prevent the academics employed there from preaching their essentially anti-social and amoral doctrines. They would be gathered up with delight by the hundreds of imitation Chicago Schools. The purpose of closure would be simply to disentangle a tendentious ideology from its unassailable position within contemporary power structures. The same sort of liberating shock treatment was applied to European civilization in 1723 when the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was disbanded. The effect was to set free the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Whew! I'm all sweaty and out of breath!

If this gets your motor runnin' like mine, I suggest you read Saul's books The Unconscious Civilization, A Doubter's Companion, and Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, in that order. They're actually all the same book, but with varying levels of detail. The Unconscious Civilization is easiest to understand, then A Doubter's Companion, then Voltaire's Bastards.


Posted at January 16, 2005 10:40 AM | TrackBack

What makes Uncle Milton despicable is that he understudied a certain Prof Fisher (can't remember his first name) during the thirties whom understood how the Great Depression was engineered and published on it. Thus Milt knew (is the dear old boy still alive?) exactly how banking works and how to bring real prosperity to everyone (unlike most economists)
Whew!! That feels a lot better!

Posted by: Jim Shanahan at January 16, 2005 04:42 PM


I believe the Professor Fisher to whom you refer was Irving Fisher.

If I'm right, however, don't get the idea I know more than I do. My first sentence pretty much exhausts my knowledge of Irving Fisher.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 16, 2005 04:49 PM

In case you weren't aware, JRS is also the husband of our official Head of State up here in the Great White North. It's really a treat to see him speak live - probably cooler if you're Canadian (that's what most of his latest writing has been about.)

Posted by: John at January 16, 2005 05:12 PM

In case you weren't aware, JRS is also the husband of our official Head of State up here in the Great White North.

Yes -- just another reason I may soon appear on your doorstep, begging for asylum.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 16, 2005 05:46 PM

Isn't everything cooler if you're a Canadian?

Seriously though, only read The Unconscious Civilisation so far - a great bok. The comparison of the medieval Scholatics with the ideologues of today is especially liberating!

Posted by: floopmeister at January 16, 2005 06:09 PM

Husband of the official head of state? I thought that was Prince Phillip?

Posted by: Robin Green at January 16, 2005 08:05 PM

Actually he's the husband of the Queen's representative, the Governor General.

Posted by: Bionic at January 17, 2005 10:44 AM