By Arnold Kling
Rightly or wrongly, autistics are often seen as staking out their independence from the group and from group norms. They’re seen as questioning the psychological power of the leaders and bullies and indicating that they do not, within their minds, bend to the worlds created by those cliques
This is from Tyler Cowen’s forthcoming Create Your Own Economy. Because it gave me a lot to think about, I am enthusiastic about the book. However, if people buy books in part to demonstrate their cultural disposition, you should be warned that having this book featured prominently on your shelf may send some strange signals.What the book description at Amazon does not convey is that the main theme of the book is autism. In Tyler’s treatment, autism is not a disease or defect. It is instead a cognitive style or personality type, something to be understood, not cured.
In fact, it might feel more comfortable to go through the book and, wherever the word autism appears, substitute Myers-Briggs INTP or Enneagram “five,” Investigator. For the latter, the description I found on the web reads in part
we see the genius and the madman, the innovator and intellectual, the mildly eccentric crackpot and the deeply disturbed delusional schizoid…Their potential problem results from the fact that they emphasize thinking over doing, becoming intensely involved with their thoughts…their mental world becomes all engrossing, virtually to the exclusion of everything else…The only thing they know with certainty is their own thoughts. Hence, the focus of their attention is outward, on the environment while identifying with the thoughts about the environment. The source of many of their problems is their need to find out how their perceptions of the world square with reality…they believe they are not capable of functioning as well as others and so make it their number one priority to acquire the skills and knowledge they feel is necessary for them to be able to operate adequately in life…feel that they must keep everything and everyone at a safe distance lest they be in danger of being overwhelmed by some outside force.
Personality psychology is somewhat “soft.” There are those who view these sorts of classifications as having no more rigor than astrological signs. I confess to a weakness for them.
In conventional thinking, the opposite of autistic is normal. If instead we were talking about, say, a Myers-Briggs INTP, the opposite would be an ESFJ, both of which are normal (although the INTP is less common).
My favorite chapter is the third one, on modern consumption of music, art, and other forms of culture. In countering the argument that the Internet undermines patience and wisdom, he writes (p. 54),
people can construct wisdom–and long-term dramatic interest in their own self-education–from accumulating, collecting, and ordering small bits of information. What we’re growing impatient with is bits that are fed to us that we do not really want.
He proposes a metaphor in which classical culture is a long-distance love affair and modern culture is like a marriage (p. 63).
Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship, with thrilling peaks, when most of us are growing into something more mature. We are treating culture like a self-assembly of small bits, and we are creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating daily brocade, much as we can make a marriage into a rich and satisfying life…the production of value–including beauty, suspense, and education–is becoming increasingly interior to our minds.
The chapters can be read in almost any order. If you are looking for introductory material, perhaps the best place to start is page 125-126, in the middle of a chapter called “the new economy of stories.”
if you wish, you can think of this book as a study in behavioral economics. Nonetheless, I am going beyond standard behavioral approaches in at least four ways…Most current neuroeconomics assumes that people are the same…In contrast, I start with the natural neurological differences between human beings…
Second, I focus on contemporary culture and the web..Third, the analysis is dynamic…I am asking how the evolution of culture and technology will make a difference for modern life and how it will alter the relative importance of our cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
Finally, I emphasize the notion of stories.
I cannot resist pointing out that Akerlof and Shiller in Animal Spirits also address the topic of stories. There is an overlap between Tyler’s point that stories can sometimes be too simple and Akerlof-Shiller’s point that the story that house prices always rise was, well, too simple.
The chapter on “autistic politics” is also interesting. The link between politics and personality type is one that has long interested political scientists, psychologists, and amateur political economists. Tyler’s thoughts include (p.196)
I have noticed that self-aware autistics…tend to attach weaker moral importance to the boundaries of the nation state than do most other people.
He associates autistic politics with the ability to follow abstract rules. On p. 206,
A country were people do not wait in line in orderly fashion, or where the drivers do not stay in their lanes, is usually a country with serious economic and political problems.
On p. 207-208,
Many Russians value freedom but their conception of freedom is not tied to a comparable understanding of the benefits of rules or how rules can operate as a useful abstraction mechanism…Instead most Russians…find their first attachment to their friends and to an ideal of friendship. Their attachments are highly emotional and directed toward very particular human connections, not toward the abstract or toward a principle of order.
Overall, the book bears no resemblance to anything that you would expect from economics or political economy. It is pretty difficult to summarize in any concise way. As they say in the blogging world, read the whole thing.