An exciting piece of news; I have recently been contracted as a graduate research fellow for the Mercatus Center. I’ll be going to New Orleans from April 1st through 8th to work directly with Emily Chamlee-Wright on gathering field research. The project is investigating questions surrounding pre-Katrina civic organization, organizational resilience during Katrina, and post-Katrina reconstruction (see Pete Boettke’s introductions to the project 1 and 2).
In preparation for my trip I’ve been trying to read everything I can get my hands on related to the hurricane events and our research questions. The more I dig into these topics the more excited I am about being a part of this research project. I’m beginning to see multiple areas where this research will undoubtedly interlock with my existing body of research questions. Let me explain first how I see Ms Chamlee-Wright’s thesis fitting with my own research, then I will elaborate on how I envision the potential of the New Orleans project to add value to these tasks.
I just finished Ms Chamlee-Wright’s “Culture and Enterprise” with Don Lavoie. Chamlee-Wright and Lavoie’s thesis is straightforward: “As essential as they are, free trade and private property rights are no guarantee of economic progress. They may be necessary conditions, but are not sufficient to guarantee prosperity.” At first glance this seems to aggravate my more radical proclivities, but after thinking more seriously I recognize it as not only compatible with radicalism, but also a crucial restatement of an overlooked implication of constitutional political economy.
Deeming markets as necessary but not sufficient conditions to economic growth and prosperity does not refute or oppose polycentric governance theories, spontaneous order, or even anarcho-capitalism. The general thread of all three of these similar schools is that human beings possess the capacity to self organize without the necessity of a centrally planned authority. There is a critical difference between understanding societal order from historical origins, such as the emergence of civilization on the one hand, while seeing the conditions of societal order transitioning from conditions of control to those of freedom on the other.
A large portion of the spontaneous order literature focuses on showing how self governance emerged in early civilizations. Yet another portion is immersed within a current political context of comparing state institutions against their market counterparts. In both camps the case for markets to solve the problems of interpersonal ignorance and scarcity seems a compelling one, but left to be asked is what the best way to protect and preserve the functionality of the market is? Knowing how self governance emerged has served its task of refuting public goods claims that states are necessary to preserve society, and functioning market theory has given us strong claims as to what areas of social policy are in need of serious reform or even repeal, but Chamlee-Wright and Lavoie point out that success at repealing the state does not guarantee functioning markets nor economic prosperity.
Human beings are not like Microsoft Word documents. Changing the political environment which individuals exist within is not a matter of highlighting the appropriate text, hitting the delete key and starting afresh with a blank screen. Individuals adapt to their environments, they develop skills and knowledge with which to rely upon. Changing the economic environment surrounding individuals does not erase nor replace these skill sets. It would be as if the words on the screen remained but were muted in color and tone. The more often you tried to erase and replace the text the more complicated the screen would appear and the less easy it would be to read. To foresee how people will respond given new institutional environments requires an understanding of how the process of internalization between the learning individuals and their influential environment takes place. Chamlee-Wright and Lavoie define this process and phenomenon as a cultural one and call forth an intensive approach to understanding it.
This reminds me of graffiti as a social problem which has garnered some of my recent attention (my current working paper with Block, and my soon to be written paper on Giuliani in the 1990s). In the working paper a large portion of the text takes a natural law approach to toying with the idea of graffiti as a legitimate act of rebellion, this structure was predominately Walter’s contribution. The aspect of graffiti as a cultural phenomenon that most recently fascinates me is as a role of self expression. Graffiti is predominantly an urban, youthful, and impoverished phenomenon. Individuals who ride on public busses, attend public schools, walk public streets, and even live in public housing, lash out to take claim over the usage rights of these un-utilized goods. Top down prohibitive policies such as Giuliani’s 1990s strategy don’t recognize these cultural undertones and therefore stand to redirect incentives rather than eliminate them.
That’s enough about fitting the cultural project into my existing thoughts and writings. How do I see the New Orleans project progressing given Chamlee-Wright and Lavoie’s thesis? Though unmentioned in the text, the thesis implies some critical points on how to view institutions. Institutional change is not necessarily as easy as redirecting incentives. Taking culture into account recognizes the layers of cultural influence that lie beneath the mere surface of demonstrated action. Culture tells us the forcefulness with which incentives are demonstrated. Such layering produces a sort of resiliency, which we can think of in terms of a piece of proverbial wisdom. “You can take the boy out of the country, but not the other way around.” The question which remains is up front; what was the underlying culture of New Orleans before Katrina hit? How can reconstruction efforts evoke mechanisms of entrepreneurial alertness within the cultural identity of the New Orleans people? These are fascinating questions indeed, but a serious concern still plagues me. New Orleans after Katrina is not equivalent to a developing country transitioning between rulers. New Orleans still has the same governance, but a lacking of its physical capital and infrastructure. If entrepreneurial motives are suppressed it could mean the permanent delay of reconstruction.
I’ll continually try to update my thoughts and ideas about the project as they progress, until then thanks for reading.