Streetwise Professor

September 26, 2020

Critical Theories: The Fatal Conceit Redux

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:37 pm

While reading through various things on Critical Race Theory (and Critical Theories generally) I had a flashback to my undergraduate days in the Social Science Core at the University of Chicago. (No, I’ve never done acid, but I think that reading Critical Theory has the same effect on the brain.)

The incident that came to mind was from the week when Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method was the assigned reading. The prof assigned an essay that asked the students to critique a statement to the effect that Durkheim’s methodology was flawed because it “reified” society. That is, it made society a thing, that acted independently and autonomously on individuals.

In retrospect, to the extent that I recall it, my essay was (understandably) sophomoric. Only as my education–and particularly my self-education–proceeded did I come to realize a fundamental divide between ways of thinking about society, one of which reified it, one of which did not.

In particular, a couple of years after my Soc Core course, I read Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Then, shortly after, I did a deep dive into Hayek. Both were intensely–and persuasively–critical of the idea of “society” as something real that acted on individuals. Sowell wrote of this use of the word (and concept) of society as metaphorical: it metaphorically anthropomorphized society. More trenchantly, he referred to the “animistic fallacy,” in which all outcomes were willed by some entity, be it a god, or “society.”

In contrast, Hayek–and Sowell–emphasized that social outcomes emerge from the complex interactions of individuals acting to achieve personal, not collective, aims. Society and social norms and collective outcomes generally are an outcome of a process, not an actor in the process, let alone the dictator thereof. Hayek emphasized a quote by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Ferguson: things that are “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” That is, humans acting according to their own lights in pursuit of their own objectives interact in ways that produce collective outcomes that no one intended. This is the idea of “spontaneous order” or “emergent order.”

The alternative view is that orders are the creation of society, or some group in society. That’s reification.

In a nutshell, the divide is between methodological individualism, and methodological collectivism. The methodological divide in many respects reflects a geographical one, between Continental Europe on the one hand, and the British Isles (notably Scotland) on the other. Rousseau’s “popular will,” for example, is a collectivist idea that is the taproot of much continental theorizing that followed. (Durkheim being French, as an example.) In contrast, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (not just Ferguson but Hutchinson and Hume and Smith and others) were theorists of spontaneous orders which emerged unintended from the interactions of individuals.

Critical Theories are inherently collectivist, and reify society–or, more often cabals of the powerful within society–that act independently, as a deus ex machina, to determine/dictate social outcomes.

This is best illustrated by the rather monotonous use of the trope that “X [race, gender, etc.] is a social construct.” This implicitly posits an architect or builder (“society”) that actively and intentionally constructs something. In most modern critical theories, this architect/builder is “the powerful” which through some alchemy or mesmerism determines the beliefs of the non-powerful, thereby cementing their power. The theory is explicitly animistic: it says that social outcomes are the product of deliberate human choices and decisions. Someone willed, say, racism into existence, in order to advance that someone’s interests.

To a devotee of Sowell or Hayek, this is a metaphor, an example of the animistic fallacy. But to critical theorists, it is neither metaphor or fallacy: it is reality.

Not surprisingly, the intellectual roots of critical theories are Continental, not British, let alone Scottish. The family tree is tangled, but its roots are on the Continent, and Rousseau and Marx are prominent ancestors. Ferguson and Smith are decidedly not: indeed, they are mortal enemies.

Thinking about this brings to mind an aphorism, which I think I first read from Sowell, but for which I cannot find the exact source. In any event, it’s not original to me, but I think it is on point. My paraphrase: “Economists study how people choose: sociologists believe people have no choices.” Instead, society chooses for them. I would expand this to say that (some) economists explore the implications of individual choices for collective outcomes.

A Monty Python skit (the Dead Bishop on the Landing bit) also comes to mind:

Voice of the Lord: The one in the braces, he done it!

Klaus: It’s a fair cop, but society’s to blame.

Detective: Agreed. We’ll be charging them too.

My strong view is that Critical Theories are fundamentally flawed because they are bad social science. The reification of society–the deeply rooted animistic fallacy–that these theories embody is profoundly wrong, methodologically and empirically. This original sin is amplified by the superstructure of pseudoscience, namely the non-refutable nature of Critical Theory’s claims (something I’ve written about before), that rests upon these faulty methodological foundations.

These fundamental flaws would be of little moment if the smelly orthodoxies of Critical Theory were purely a matter of academic debate. But they are not. Following one of their intellectual ancestors, Marx, Critical Theorists believe “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Critical Theorists want to change the world, in the worst way. Their march through the institutions has been aimed at transforming our lives fundamentally.

This is acutely dangerous because the fundamentally flawed belief that social outcomes are–and hence can be–engineered implies that social coercion by a powerful elite is ubiquitous. The corollary (which is actually an example of another fallacy, namely Hume’s is-ought fallacy) is that they should be the powerful elite that coerces in order to overturn injustices imposed by the powerful to achieve utopian outcomes.

To reprise another Python bit: “Come see the violence inherent in the system”:

Dennis (Michael Palin) is succinctly expressing the essence of Critical Theory. The powerful (personified by Graham Chapman’s King Arthur) rule “the system” (society) through violence. The Critical Theory gnostics believe that they are uniquely endowed with the ability to diagnose this systemic coercion (systemic racism, anyone?), and that they are justified in using violence or subversion or other forms of coercion to overthrow it.

This has been tried many times. It has always–always-ended in misery and death. Often mass death.

Critical Theories are therefore a more modern example of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit.” The problem is that “fatal” is often literal, not merely metaphorical. Since Critical Theorists are not content merely to theorize, but theorize to justify and take action, they must be fought, to the last ditch.

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  1. The more pessimistic reading of this is that those that push CRT or those that pushed Marxism several decades ago are / were well aware of it’s flaws. But they realized a convincing narrative could be doing of it, that is sufficient to gain a large following of the uncritical. So they are in this with the intention of winning the fight. Ironically they made their choice.

    Comment by S S — September 26, 2020 @ 2:46 pm

  2. In research I’ve done for a manuscript (now under submission), I found there is an academic push to get both Critical Race Theory and intersectionality written into law.

    A better prescription for rule of whim could not be imagined.

    Comment by Pat Frank — September 26, 2020 @ 4:51 pm

  3. I get it, there’s no such thing as society that collectively acts as if it has a mind of its own. Is there such a thing as the radical left that is conducting a march through the institutions in order to use violence and subversion to overthrow the established order?

    Comment by aaa — September 27, 2020 @ 12:03 am

  4. @aaa

    “Is there such a thing as the radical left”

    No there is not. But there are always a few fanatics who will stop at nothing and plenty of scumbags who will opportunistically use whatever the popular idiocy du jour for good old rent seeking.

    The bolshevik gangs from a century ago did not go on a pillaging spree because they had a compelling vision of a better society, nor did they do it because they hoped to get that bullet in the back of the skull during the next purge. They just all pursued their private goals right until that bullet mysteriously “emerged”.

    The modern bolsheviks are hardly a much brighter bunch. The point is to shed the light on how the emergent order emerges so that non-bolsheviks pursuing their private goals can prevent the bolsheviks from destroying themselves and everyone within reach. Common-sense observations like that the 2nd Amendment is the ultimate protection for the 1st will go a long way.

    Comment by Ivan — September 27, 2020 @ 6:22 am

  5. We’re not going to split hairs over definitions, are we? That is the essence of the over-exalted Socratic method, also known as Humpty-Dumptyism. “A word means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

    If there is no popular will, what would you call it? The mass of public opinion? Consensus? Grass-roots sentiment?

    Victoria, Australia, is not viciously locked down against the will of the populace. Dandruff Dan enjoys enormous popular support. When Coca-Cola wants to launch a new flavor, who do they ask? They test the popular will, and in this example the public has not yet had the chance to be manipulated and brainwashed into thinking that Rotten Tomato flavor is what you have to drink if you want to be cool.

    As Tim Worstall has recently pointed out, grand schemes will fail when they fail to take into account that we are human, and a social species. Accept that there is often a tide in the affairs of men. Often we do behave as we think society expects us to.

    I hate to shoot your eloquence down, but it’s best done early before you wander off into philosophical parts unknown.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — September 27, 2020 @ 7:14 am

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