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The Philosophical Sources of France’s Temperamental Incompatibility with the Market

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I recently came across an interesting presentation on the Canal Académie by Jean-Pierre Dupuy entitled La France et le marché : les sources philosophiques d’une incompatibilité d’humeur.  The site is normally only accessible by subscription, but as of this writing the presentation and podcast is openly available.  The text of the presentation is available as well.

Dupuy’s reflection is occasioned by the current economic crisis and how it calls into question the self-regulation of markets.  He notes that “Marxist criticism recognized that the market has its own spontaneity that, though produced by human action, presents itself as an foreign power: this is the definition of alienation.”  He continues that this contemporary critique recalls what Friedrich Hayek called constructivist rationalism: “the inability to conceive that social order could result from a cause other than deliberate and conscious design.”  Hayek, on the other hand, following the mathematician John von Neumann (his theory of self-reproducing automata) and the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (his theory of self-transcendence,) chose the term “self-transcendence” to describe a social system that can project itself outside itself, opening a space in which it can regulate itself.  Dupuy points out that French intellectual ingenuity (le génie français) has had great difficulty thinking about the self-transcendence of spontaneous social systems, and particularly in the market; his presentation gives reasons why.

In a second section Dupuy considers different views of the source of social order as evidenced in criticisms of the French Revolution.  The opponents of the French Revolution – the conservatives of their day – criticized the revolutionaries for wanting to play the role of Creator-Gods (“demiurges”) in that the revolutionaries had the presumptuous temerity to think they could invent a social order, following Rousseau’s Social Contract.  For the conservatives, humans cannot establish a social order; according to Bonald, cited by Dupuy, the power to establish a social order is “preexistent to society, since power constitutes society; a society with no power or law whatsoever cannot constitute itself.”

Nineteenth century classic liberals also criticized the revolutionaries for wanting to play Creator-Gods.  Liberals agreed with the conservatives that the the social order was independent of and prior to human will, though for an opposite reason than the conservatives.  Where for conservatives the social order originated in a power and sovereignty that was above and superior to that of humanity, for liberals the social order emerged dynamically and spontaneously, independently of the awareness and the will of its own actors.  Liberals thus held a common criticism of revolutionaries and conservatives: where the latter two saw the social order as originating from a conscious and active will – revolutionaries as interior to society, conservatives as exterior to society – liberals saw society as originating independently of any conscious will, emerging rather from the countless actions of the people that compose the society.

In a third section Dupuy focuses specifically on the differences between French Enlightenment and Scottish Enlightenment thought regarding the question of evil.  For Rousseau, considering humanity as individuals in an original “state of nature” (as did Hobbes, Hume, and Locke,) each one considered only his or her own values and judgments, resulting in a “self-love” (l’amour de soi.)  When individuals began to come in contact with each other, evil emerged when they began to compare themselves among themselves, resulting in a “love of oneself” (l’amour-propre,) with all the vices, such as envy, emerging from that relationship.  In Dupuy’s terms, for Rousseau the solution is “purely political and consists in a sort of lobotomy: the transformation of the individual into a citizen.”

For Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, self-love is very different.  The pivotal concept for Smith was “sympathy,” not as we might understand the term today, but as benevolence, kindness, or goodwill.  In Dupuy’s terms, sympathy is “an operator on the feelings and judgments it commands, ever tending to bring them closer together.”  For Smith, self-love is not an unmediated self-reference, but passes through the eyes of a spectator: to sympathize with myself I must be able to sympathize with the spectator who sympathizes with me.  If the spectator is internalized – the “man within” – as a  moral conscience, this results in self-command in that one seeks to please this internal “impartial spectator.”

What though if the spectator is external, another person, with all the usual passions and prejudices?  Dupuy gives a highly compacted account of Smith’s description of how the economy works, and for reasons of space, and at the risk of excluding important material, I will condense his précis even further.  As Dupuy recommends, the pivotal chapter of the Theory is “On Self-Deceit;” reading that is the best way to understand Smith’s argument.

An important basic fact is that the desires and motivations of market actors are concealed from each other, in contrast with the internal “impartial spectator.”  If today we pursue material wealth well beyond the satisfaction of material needs, it is because we desire the approbation of others, even if tinged with envy; of that approbation we never have enough.  The entire economic system is driven by the desire for wealth as valuable – a value we have assigned – and the recognition and status it brings.  It matters not that the wealth itself may not merit being envied, and here enters the theme of self-deceit.  The “self-” of self-deceit is the gaze of the other; one does not lie to oneself except through the gaze of another.  That is, one accepts the other’s coveting what one possesses as making one’s possessions valuable, whether merited or not; in accepting the valuation of the other one may engage a profound self-deceit.  Where one’s conscience – the internal impartial spectator – is silent or uncertain regarding the valuation of something, public valuation determines its valuation.  Though the whole economic system is driven by envy and self-deception, the common good, or the material well-being of society, emerges as an unintended consequence of the motivations of those involved; here then is Smith’s well-known “invisible hand,” which I add can be understood as a self-transcendence of the market.

Summarizing, as Dupuy sees the argument, French political philosophy has a fundamental incompatibility with markets for (at least) these two reasons.  French political thought, deeply shaped by Rousseau and both revolutionary and conservative dirigiste ideas of political power, can scarcely absorb the idea of a society – much less of a market – that can emerge independently of human will and action.  For Rousseau, society itself is the source of evil, the solution to which is the political establishment of laws that regulate human interaction.  Furthermore, Rousseau’s transformation of individual “self-love” into a vice-ridden, social “love of oneself” is antithetical to Smith’s view of sympathy as a binding social force, or of self-love as simply looking after one’s own interests.  With this intellectual background there is thus little or no room in French political thought to entertain the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and the markets that have emerged from Smith’s writings as the dominant economic paradigm of the last two centuries.

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