Beyond physics and the economic molecule

Daniel and Yuval’s posts at SocFinance continue to be very important to me, with Daniel’s latest striking a particular chord. I agree quite a bit with the sensibility of his post. Over and again, there are questions about the ‘organic’-ness of markets, can they be designed if they are found in nature. This was rehearsed recently in its last iteration at Organizations and Markets, and referenced by Braydenbut occurs quite regularly. I think the idea of the ‘natural’ (and here is part of the epistemic baggage I’d like to drop) and its relation to ‘discovering’ versus ‘creating’ that I’d like to get away from.

For myself, the Cronon (Nature’s Metropolis) is so interesting and useful not just for his discussion about grades and wheat, but for his overall contention that ‘nature’ is not natural but the result of strident human assertive activity. So now we have the Vermont Land Trust and assorted similar entities, whose purpose is to “conserve land for the people of Vermont.” But how did that farm become the correct nature to preserve? Cronon points out that there was vast pre-farm land in the Midwest (where I grew up and went on fieldtrips as a kid to attest to the history of our ‘place’) that didn’t resemble farm at all – it was prairie.

This is why conversations about whether or not markets can be designed, and actually the metaphor of molecules for economic actors, becomes so challenging to me. It’s like replacing prairie with farmland. Truth is, there are no social greenfields – and the reason we’re stuck with physics, and molecules, and natural, is because economists use it to great effect in order to justify all sorts of privilege.

As to Daniel’s challenging and thoughtful question of if not molecules and physics, then what? Let me start by responding with some questioning parameters of my own. Do we need something non-nature-like? Or just non-physics-like? Prosthetics, from disability studies, has its own sense, but I’m not sure that’s quite it. But it should be something that decisively knocks people off the axis of thinking about the core rational agent with stuff built on, but outside of her. I don’t mind nature as such for metaphor (Mary Douglas reminds us they are likely to be the most powerful metaphors), but I agree this is what we should be thinking about.

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