Yearning for Beauty in the Truth of Economic Thinking
We as a human race have a natural desire for beauty, and we as academics have a tendency to get lost in the weeds and forget this. Mises Institute president Jeff Deist has articulated this better than perhaps anyone before him in a speech (“We Need Truth and Beauty”) where he stated:
We know Austrian economics is fundamentally true; in fact, truth is its most important and fundamental responsibility. Yet we cannot afford to ignore the corollary to truth, namely, beauty. Without beauty, divorced of any higher human longings, economics devolves from a beautiful theoretical edifice into a bastard cousin of accounting and finance, a business discipline. Or even worse, it becomes nothing more than an intellectual veneer for so-called public policy, which is really just a sanitized euphemism for politics.
This is the state of economics today. We are at best this bastard cousin of business disciplines and at worst—and more commonly—a worthless backup for politics, which certainly has no beauty these days. Henry Hazlitt even spoke on this lack of beauty in economics in his novel Time Will Run Back. Hazlitt writes of a world where communism has overtaken life as we know it, and the leaders of this nation—through Socratic dialogue—must reinvent capitalism, almost as if by accident, in order to rescue the world from the dangers of this system they are now under. But in order to explain how it was that communism came to be victorious, Hazlitt writes through his communist character Bolshekov:
We began with apparently every possible disadvantage. The enemy started with better arms, more technical advancement, more production, more resources. And yet we beat them in the end because we had the one tremendous weapon that they lacked. We had Faith! Faith in our own Cause! Faith that never wavered or faltered! We knew that we were right! Right in everything! We knew that they were wrong! Wrong in everything! The enemy never had any real faith in capitalism. They started out with little and began rapidly to lose what they had. Those who had once embraced the gospel of communism were willing to die for it; but nobody was willing to die for capitalism. That would have been considered a sort of joke. Finally, the best thing our enemies could think of saying for capitalism was that it wasn’t communism! Even they didn’t seem to think that capitalism had any positive virtues of its own. And so they simply denounced communism.
We as economists today face a similar problem. We offer that capitalism is the best we have had, and we make excuses for things that sound like shortcomings. When we hear someone thinks it falls short, we commit a “no true Scotsman” fallacy just as quickly as the communists to say that it was not real capitalism. Instead, our defense of economics should be much more like Frédéric Bastiat’s claim regarding economic harmonies: “Surely they would give up in their dull and stupid utopias if they did know the beautiful harmonies of the dynamic social mechanism instituted by God.”
Bastiat clearly understands the lesson expressed by Deist stating that beauty is the corollary to truth. Something cannot just be true in old books but must be truly beautiful and appreciated. But Austrians like Bastiat, Hazlitt, and Deist are not the only ones who have seen the importance of beauty. The yearning for beauty has gone back through the entire course of history, so much so that great men and great leaders have always strived for beauty as they lead their empires. In Andrew Roberts’s book Napoleon: A Life, he explains:
At its height, Napoleon’s imperial household covered thirty-nine places, almost amounting to a state within a state, even though he never visited several of them. Taking Louis XIV as his model, he reintroduced public Masses, meals and levées, musical galas and many of the other trappings of the Sun King. He was certain that such outward displays of splendour inspired feelings of awe in the populace—“We must speak to the eyes,” he said.
That inspired awe in the populace motivates them for a cause that facts alone cannot. We cannot have truth alone because truth cannot exist without beauty. This is why Deist is overwhelmingly correct in his call. We need truth and beauty. Brilliant intellectuals like Hazlitt and Bastiat have shown us the truth to this, and great men like Deist and Napoleon have shown us the beauty of this truth.
Napoleon once stated, “I have dethroned no one. I found the crown lying in the gutter. I picked it up and the people put it on my head.” In a similar vein, beauty is currently lying in the gutter. As Deist has stated, “Progressives abandoned beauty a long time ago.” With it lying in the gutter, it is long past time for us to pick it up and push forward for both truth and beauty.