July 30, 2020

Mercatus Scholars’ Most Influential Books: Eileen Norcross

Eileen Norcross

Senior Research Fellow

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we’ve asked some of our scholars to share the books that have been most influential or formative in the development of their analytical approach and worldview.

From existential engineering to the Salem witch trials to Argentine magical realism, our scholars have drawn inspiration from diverse and dramatic wellsprings of intellectual thought.

Read on for more about why and how the books we will discuss have influenced our scholars’ approaches to policy and philosophy, and what lessons other readers may draw from these works.

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 Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance and Understanding the Process of Economic Change (two works by Douglass North)

Nobel Laureate Douglass North’s identification of institutions – the constraints and restraints (rules, laws, culture) that structure human exchange – as central to economic growth provide social scientists with a powerful framework to examine why some economies thrive and others fail – even those with shared borders, cultures, and natural endowments. He stresses that human beings act intentionally to create rules that reduce uncertainty and make their environments predictable. These “rules of the game” emerge over time based on beliefs, values, culture, and learning. Institutions that support economic productivity include clearly defined property rights, contracts, and a stable currency. That doesn’t mean economic growth is reducible to a simple recipe, “add institutions and stir.” Rather, understanding why some economies thrive and others fail and how economic change occurs means unpacking how ideas, beliefs, and culture give rise to informal practices, formal laws and constitutions – which are themselves always subject to change - shaped in ongoing feedback loops by the currents of human action.

The Unintended Reformation (by Brad S. Gregory)

If you want to understand the Franco-Persian wars – an unintended metaphysical debate dressed up in 21st century American political rhetoric - you need to go deep. Gregory’s revisionist history of the social, cultural and intellectual impact of the Protestant Reformation confronts a familiar historical narrative while rejecting nostalgia for medieval Christendom. His provocative thesis, “Would the Reformers recognize the world they helped to create?” His fair reading: No. According to Gregory, the Reformation’s unintended results are a fractured academy, subjectivized morality, and unchained consumerism. These are bold claims, but he avoids oversimplifications and hagiography. His story begins centuries before the printing press.

Gregory traces the unravelling of Christendom’s institutionalized worldview of man as ordered to an eternal end to medieval scholastic debates over how to speak of God: apophatically, analogically (Aquinas), or univocally (Duns Scotus). The Scotian view – that one may speak of God in categorically similar terms to His creation - took hold in universities in the 14th century and began a long process of “domesticating God’s transcendence” influencing new theologies, social, and political orders. By the 17th century, religious confessions and truth claims multiplied. Universities, unable to resolve such disputes, shed theology for Enlightenment philosophy, nature’s God, and his clockwork universe. A lasting intellectual casualty of this fracturing: religion and science are mistakenly perceived as incompatible and in opposition.

Religious disagreements gave way to the building up of secular societies focused on practical discovery and material advancement. By the 19th century, a supercessionist view of history emerged which relegated religious debates to a superstitious past and material progress became the yardstick for individual and societal advancement. Gregory holds, that this truce to marginalize belief in the academy and avoid the Life Questions came with a price. The environment is degraded, our lives are atomized, our politics polarized, and a telos for man is long since lost. The modern kingdom of “whatever” strains under intellectual amnesia. To the questions of what is the purpose of life and how should one live? Gregory’s advice is stop shrugging. Instead, the academy should “open up the Weberian iron cage of secular discourse,” allowing scholars with religious perspectives to shed light on current problems. Provocative, rigorous, and unsettling, Gregory’s lasting contribution is to show that the ideological controversies of our present are inescapably linked to the metaphysical debates the past.

Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (by Jane Jacobs)

Jacobs is best known for the Death and Life and Great American Cities - her defense of cities as organic, bottom up, phenomenon created by the people who live and work in them against the forces of midcentury high-modernist urban planners. In this lesser known work, Jacobs applies her creativity and insight to understanding the distinguishing moral attributes of two spaces where people interact in society – in market and governance settings. She defines these spaces as two different ethical systems, or “syndromes,” the Commercial and the Guardian. A delightful read, Jacobs structures the book as a modern-day platonic dialogue among lettered friends who meet regularly to debate the societal implications of these two syndromes. The Commercial is a system characterized by voluntary activity, trust, innovation, efficiency, collaboration, and initiative. The Guardian syndrome’s attributes include exerting prowess, hierarchy, loyalty, exclusion, and honor. Each is necessary to human society and can be observed throughout human history. Trouble arises when these two syndromes collide, creating “monstrous moral hybrids” in which government attempts to control commerce, or commercial interests exert governmental powers or enjoy governmental privileges: a concept that does not have to search very far for examples.

Fiscal Sociology and the Theory of Public Finance (by Richard Wagner)

Wagner’s synthesis of Austrian economics, public finance theory, and public choice presents a reconceptualization of the space in which fiscal decisions are made. Traditional theorizing rests on a simplification in which we think of the state acting upon the market, or the market upon the state. Wagner proposes a polycentric view in which market and state make up an entangled political economy in which decision are continually made. A central insight of this approach is that there is no real difference in the pursuits of political and market entrepreneurial activity. Individuals aim to be successful in their roles. Tax laws, revenue proposals, and budgets are the result of political entrepreneurship which emerges based on a response to the needs of citizens within the processes and based on the signals contained within democratic governance. While market entrepreneurship arises in response to the signals of consumers in the marketplace. Wagner’s framework invites the scholar of public finance and administration, to reconsider their mental models and recognize that democratic political orders are, like markets, dynamic systems made up of individuals interacting, creating, and responding to incentives.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (by James C. Scott)

The Hayekian insight with the knowledge necessary to plan an economy, run a society, or build a city is not contained in a central authority but is dispersed among individuals who make up that society receives its full due in Scott’s wide-ranging and compelling analysis of the depressing failures of high-modernist planning. What do Tanzanian collective farming practices, Prussian forestry methods, the brutalist cityscape of Brasilia, and Soviet five-year plans have in common? The pretense of imposing oversimplified managerial and bureaucratic schemes on complex and organic systems. There is a very human tendency to want to simplify complex systems and imagine they can be managed by grid and formula. The perennial temptation to manage every facet of human orders as measurable, controllable bits of data has a cost beyond its inherent futility and impossibility. Ecologies are destroyed, knowledge and culture are lost, and human flourishing and creativity diminished. Scott’s case studies are fascinating. A tapestry of high-modernist miscalculations that crystalize the meaning and beauty of spontaneous order.