A Retreat from Reason (with an Aside from Rothbard)
People who were living at the time of the Enlightenment did not know that, although the enlightened ones sensed that something was happening. Of course, their precursors did not know they lived in the “Renaissance” or the “Dark Ages.” (On the Scottish Enlightenment, see adamsmithworks.org.)
Similarly, we have problems characterizing the times we are living in, and even more what will follow—and which labels future historians will use. But there are troubling indications that we are experiencing a retreat from reason.
An article in the November 24th issue of The Economist (“The Man Who Would Be King: The Person Who is Doing Most to Undermine the Reserve Bank of India”) provides another indication. Appointed last August to the board of India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Mr. Swaminathan Gurumurthy is one of its most influential members. A chartered accountant, he is thought to be close to the prime minister, Narenda Modi, and to have assisted him in the disastrous withdrawal of 85% of banknotes in 2016.
Gurumurthy does not seem to believe that economics, as it developed over the past two centuries and a half, is a useful science. The Economist writes:
Mr Gurumurthy believes, as he put it in a speech last year, that the “the subject of economics is collapsing” and should be replaced by an Indian economics based on Swadeshi (self-reliance). Foreign capital should be kept out; the government should manage finance directly and small businesses should be prioritised over big ones. Western-educated economists who disagree need a “correction” of the mind.
There is certainly progress to be made in economics, but it seems unlikely that starting de novo on the basis of nationalistic, populist, and socialist intuitions will accomplish much except a retreat from reason. Why should self-reliance be a collective self-reliance, based on often arbitrary political boundaries, and serving the very politicians who advocate it?
Like The Economist, I could not help recall Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King as well as the fabulous movie made after the novel, directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery in the role of Dravot and Michael Kane playing Peachy. Before leaving on their adventure, the two heroes wanted a map of their destination “even if it’s all blank where Kafiristan is.” They planned to “make Kafiristan a country where every man should eat in peace and drink in quiet, and specially obey us.”
As an aside, Murray Rothbard wrote an enthusiastic review of the movie. He saw in the demise of the heroes a victory of the tribal autarky that benefited the ruling class. Despite their ruling ambitions, Dravot and Peachy represented enlightenment of a sort. Rothbard explains:
Connery had constructed this bridge, which had made the monastery-capital city accessible to the masses, had cheapened the cost of transportation, and was in the process of developing a newly prosperous class of bourgeoisie who would eventually threaten the feudal caste-rule of the priests. Hence the vengeful joy with which the priests cut down the hated bridge.
Kafiristan and India are not alone. Irrationalism seems to be gripping many of today’s countries and has washed on our Enlightenment shores too. Reading any speech by the current president of the United States should persuade one of that. The phenomenon covers the whole political spectrum, as the politically correct intelligentsia regularly demonstrates. As I reported before, engineering professor Donna Riley criticizes intellectual rigor, of which “one of [the] purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero) sexuality.” Another group of academics, Mark Carey et al., criticizes “stereotypical and masculinist practices of glaciology” linked to “imperial and hegemonic capitalist agendas.” In the same vein, just a few weeks ago, a Wall Street Journal story (“Fake News Comes to Academia,” October 5, 2018) revealed that (following the example of the famous hoax by Alan Sokal two decades ago) many intentionally nonsensical articles were recently submitted to, and published by, postmodernist-style “academic” journals.