The minipost by David de Ugarte makes me think, it’s clear that in the last part of my last post could be taken as a sort of manifesto which doubtlessly deserves a lot of critical commentary. On the other hand, last Tuesday, I attended a dissemination conference on the origin of life followed by an animated dialogue with the presenter and among the attendees. You’ll see how both things are related.
As is natural among afficionados of scientific matters, the dialogue with the presenter soon turned to LUCA and the “true” origin of life, a question that gets into the “why” of the issue, and not so much the “how” of such an unlikely event. The dialogue ended with the affirmation by the scientists that science isn’t there for “why,” but for “hows,” thus avoiding theological problems common among those who are unfamiliar with the limits of science and don’t realize that nothing would be achieved if it wasn’t for these self-imposed limits.
However, in the relaxed social conversation aterwards, one of the attendees posed a question to me whose scope can only be properly understood once this distinction has been accepted. He asked me to give him my opinion on the “why” of the crisis [in Spain] and not the “how,” as this was more or less known. I meditated briefly on my answer and mused: “If I were a scientist, I’d tell you that the crisis is occurring simply because the economy has intrinsic cycles.” This first part of the answer would be equivalent to saying the the universe was born from the explosion of a small and superdense lump of material in the so-called big bang. As I’m just a poor economist, I dared to add a second, shaky part to my answer: “I would say that the “why” of the cycles stems from the precariousness of institutions.” And with a courteous apology and a bullfighter’s gesture, I took my leave of my interrogator, who was not happy with the answers of a mere expert.
But I kept thinking, and I’m still going around and around in my head about that answer, which may not have been as silly as it seems, and might work to begin a new narrative. Not because institutions haven’t been studied and their importance pointed out, but rather because without realizing it, I’d used the word “precariousness.” I’d already talked about this in Isegoría/1998, pp. 89-114. and looking it over inspires me to write this follow-up post.
Our old narrative in any field is based on the stability of institutions, on the trust that that stability creates, and the resulting possibility of supporting ourselves with them for whatever. We go to the judge to resolve our grievances, a notary attests to our property, to our free will in signing contracts, and even to our being who we say we are, and not someone else. We comply with the laws issued by our parliaments or our customs, like them or not; we respect the decrees of a government that limits our liberty, we’re scandalized if a judge sets a “trap,” we demand that the central bank not offer interest rates different from those it has to respect and try to impose, we frown at a hasty unification of presumably independent regulatory agencies, etc. In summary, we live in a world organized by a latticework of institutions which, in fact, make up the heuristic that makes it possible to make decisions without the need to have previously solved all the logical problems they bring along with them.
But why would they have to be precarious if they’re useful to us, and even necessary? Well, because there’s an agent among us who is under no obligation whatsoever to fulfill its commitments, but whose presence makes possible the irrevocability of the commitments made by the rest of the agents among us. That special agent is the Power known among “us” for the last several centuries as the State. A Government is an entity delegated by power, and the State can free itself from it, as Napolitano freed himself from Berlusconi a few months ago. But then nothing is safe outside of the State, and every institution is precarious. Q.E.D.?
Well, no, nothing has been demonstrated yet. It’s possible there are social conventions that we could call institutions and that sustain themselves because every subject in a certain area wants them to continue because he or she thinks that each and every one of the other subjects also wants them to continue. But these conventions might not be able to sustain themselves if some subjects rebel against them, or the area in which they ruled is invaded by other subjects that don’t share the ruling convention in that territory. Since this possibility is always there, it’s very difficult to retain the validity of an institution in the absence of a State that maintains it with its strength.
It’s not difficult to understand that in these conditions, the economic times are full of institutional changes that destabilize daily productive work, and which, as a consequence, are the origin of fluctuations in the creation of wealth. It seems to me that my polite answer was indeed correct.
Accordingly, our new narrative must necessarily concern itself not so much with the “why,” but rather with the “how” of the birth and death of institutions. And in that analysis, we will inevitably come up against attempts to instrumentalize the Government and finally the State so as to be able to sustain those institutions that favor us, even at everyone else’s expense. The winners will make off with enough profits to pay someone to create legitimizing ideas about those profits. Are those profits what the manifesto’s authors are pursuing? I can’t believe it, but the text is there for people to make up their minds.
The new narrative we’re after can’t stop with reaffirming the importance of institutions, but has to go beyond that, even in the research field. It’s urgent to understand why the study of cooperative games has practically been abandoned, and research has been concentrated on examining noncooperative or strategy games. But this will be analyzed in a later chapter.