A Break from Live-Blogging the Middle Ages

A while back, Brian Doherty, after first attacking me without bothering to actually cite me, then took the time to respond to my comeback. I thought Doherty’s response was so obviously a concession that I didn’t even bother answering it. So I was shocked to have a reader tell me recently that Doherty had “embarrassed” me and that I had been “unable” to respond to him. Well, then let’s settle this matter once-and-for-all.

Doherty wrote: “However, it strikes me, and I think would strike most readers, that (even though it would be very difficult to pick out a killer quote or two that proves this point with crushing finality) that Chp. 4 of GREAT TRANSFORMATION contains a lot that certainly implies an elevation of primitive living and economic systems over modern market economies…”

Now, it is certainly true that Polanyi does not endorse laissez faire. And it is certainly true that he notes some things to admire in earlier economic systems. But, noting that, say, in feudalism people did not suffer from anxiety about losing their jobs is not to “worship” feudalism, it is simply to note something true about it. Secondly, feudalism is not a “primitive” economic condition. “Primitive,” as it is commonly understood, and as Rothbard was clearly using it, applies to hunter-gatherer societies.

So what does Polanyi say about primitive man? Let us actually quote the four times he mentions this topic in his book:

1) “In point of fact, Adam Smith’s suggestions about the economic psychology of early man were as false as Rousseau’s were on the political psychology of the savage.”

2) “The differences existing between civilized and ‘uncivlized’ people have been vastly exaggerated, especially in the economic sphere… Indeed, the progress of civilization was, in [Europe], mainly political, intellectual, and spiritual…”

Did you get that? European civilization has made “political, intellectual, and spiritual” progress! Does that sound like “worship of the primitive”?

3) “Take the case of a tribal society. The individual's economic interest is rarely paramount, for the community keeps all its members from starving unless it is itself borne down by catastrophe, in which case interests are again threatened collectively, not individually. The maintenance of social ties, on the other hand, is crucial. First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honor, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfillment serves also the individual's give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness to the point of making him unable, in many cases (but by no means in all), even to comprehend the implications of his own actions in terms of such an interest. This attitude is reinforced by the frequency of communal activities such as partaking of food from the common catch or sharing in the results of some far-flung and dangerous tribal expedition. The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay. Personal character has little to do with the matter. Man can be as good or evil, as social or asocial, jealous or generous, in respect to one set of values as in respect to another. Not to allow anybody reason for jealousy is, indeed, an accepted principle of ceremonial distribution, just as publicly bestowed praise is the due of the industrious, skillful, or otherwise successful gardener (unless he be too successful, in which case he may deservedly be allowed to wither away under the delusion of being the victim of black magic). The human passions, good or bad, are merely directed towards noneconomic ends. Ceremonial display serves to spur emulation to the utmost and the custom of communal labor tends to screw up both quantitative and qualitative standards to the highest pitch. The performance of all acts of exchange as free gifts that are expected to be reciprocated though not necessarily by the same individuals - a procedure minutely articulated and perfectly safeguarded by elaborate methods of publicity, by magic rites, and by the establishment of ‘dualities’ in which groups are linked in mutual obligations - should in itself explain the absence of the notion of gain or even of wealth other than that consisting of objects traditionally enhancing social prestige.”

Well, here is a long passage about tribal conditions: straightforward description. Does anyone see a hint of anything in there that looks like worship?

4) “The individualistic savage collecting food and hunting on his own or for his family has never existed.”

So look at all four places in his book where Polanyi discusses “primitive man.” Again, I ask: Does anyone see a hint of anything in there that looks like worship? No wonder Doherty couldn’t locate a “killer quote” that makes his point: any quote from the book would debunk his point! Obviously, there isn’t. It may have “struck” Doherty that Polanyi “elevates” (note that even Doherty backs way off of “worship”) primitive conditions over modern ones, but the only reason I can imagine that “struck” him was that he is a Rothbardian and can’t admit that Rothbard just made this crap up!

Let’s look at a few more choice passages from Rothbard’s “review.”

Rothbard: “First, it is absolutely illegitimate to do, as Polanyi does, and infer the history of pre-Western civilization from analysis of existing primitive tribes. Let us never forget that the existing primitive tribes are precisely the ones that didn’t progress—that remained in their primitive state. To infer from observing them that this is the way our ancestors behaved is nonsense—and apt to be the reverse of the truth, for our ancestors presumably behaved in ways which quickly advanced them beyond the primitive stage thousands of years ago.”


1) Polanyi doesn’t do that alone: he also looks to all of the historical research available to him; and

2) Note the historical nonsense: modern humans all lived as hunter-gatherers for 100,000 years or so. It was only in the last 10,000 years that anyone at all lived differently. But Rothbard thinks “our” (European or North Asian, obviously) ancestors “quickly advanced” beyond this primitive state.

Rothbard: “Second, it is implicitly and even explicitly assumed that the way primitive tribes act is more ‘natural,’ is somehow more appropriate to man than the ‘artifices’ of civilization. This is at the root of Rousseauism.”

Well, we have already seen that Polanyi rejects Rousseau’s view of “the savage.” But in any case, Polanyi never says anything like this. Doherty admitted he could find nothing to quote that backed up this gross caricature of Polanyi’s views, and Rothbard sure can’t either: the greatest length of quotation Rothbard offers from Polanyi is… two words in length! This guarantees he can pluck two words out of context and make them say whatever he wants them to say.

Rothbard: “In his book, Polanyi is continually assuring us that his beloved primitive natives do nothing at all for personal ‘gain’; only for magic, for what he calls ‘reciprocity,’ etc.”

Polanyi calls it “reciprocity,” but Rothbard is instead going to call it “magic.” So Rothbard throws in “magic” just to make Polanyi’s plain, commonsense idea of “reciprocity” sound stupid.

“Polanyi, like all socialists, is at pains to teach us that the coming of the new ‘society’ without market is inevitable.”

Of course, Polanyi never, ever advocates a society without markets, nor does he contend his vision for society is “inevitable.” In fact, he notes that markets have been a part of human society for quite a while: “the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age…” (p. 45). And what is the “socialism” he looks forward to: “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society.”

So, in Polanyi’s “socialism,” markets will be seen as useful but subordinate. This is so obviously not an endorsement of “society without market” that I can only conclude that Rothbard was… lying.

Then Rothbard says Polanyi is a “determinist” and quotes this to make his point:
“Thus, for him, every restriction on the market in the recent century or so came as a ‘recognition’ of social need, and not as a deliberate choice governed by certain ideas and interests.”

So, if I say I turned my car wheel because I ‘recognized’ that I was about to hit a wall, this means I am saying my ideas and interests were not involved in this action?

Rothbard: “is indicated by [Polanyi's] repeated warnings that ‘social reality’ necessarily must involve force and violence.”

Notice, again, Rothbard offers exactly zero quotes backing up his claim that this is “repeatedly” said. OK, Rothbardians, I dare you: you can look here, find every use of “force” and “violence” and try to locate one place where Polanyi says what Rothbard claims he "repeatedly" says. There isn’t one! (I looked.) Listen, when you claim someone repeatedly says something, offer no evidence that it is so, and no search of the work in question can turn up anything like what you claimed was said… you were lying!

And check this one from Rothbard out:

“Civilization is precisely the record by which man has used his reason, to discover the natural laws on which his environment rests, and to use these laws to alter his environment so as to suit and advance his needs and desires.”

Ah, crass materialism at a level not even Marx would have dreamed of! Lao-Tse, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Moses, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas: None of their ideas were part of the creation of “civilization,” since none of them discovered natural laws that could be used to “advance [man's] needs and desires.”


  1. Anyone interested in what in Polanyi led me to interpret Rothbard's comments (with an understanding of those comments context and purpose, which was to judge intellectuals' hewing to the purposes and goals the of the Volker Fund) as more arguable interpretation than incompetent lie should read at least pages 48-55 of GREAT TRANSFORMATION in their entirety and come to their own conclusion.

  2. Rothbard probably has in mind passages like these (your link is broken, BTW):

    "Freedom's utter frustration in fascism is, indeed, the inevitable result of the liberal philosophy, which claims that power and compulsion are evil, that freedom demands their absence from a human community. No such thing is possible; in a complex society this becomes apparent." (pp. 265–66)

    "By fascists and socialists alike the reality of society is accepted with the finality with which the knowledge of death has molded human consciousness. Power and compulsion are a part of that reality; an ideal that would ban them from society must be invalid. The issue on which they divide is whether in the light of this knowledge the idea of freedom can be upheld or not." (p. 267)

    I would not call Rothbard a "liar" merely because he has recast "power and compulsion" as "force and violence."

  3. Can someone link me to the original exchange? Gene has slyly linked to nothing.

  4. Brian, remember that Rothbard's charge is that Polanyi "worships" the primitive, not merely that he says a nice thing now and then about primitive culture. (I would never claim, for instance, that "Doherty worships Callahan" because you once said something nice about Economics for Real People!) I claim you have already backed way off of Rothbard's claim by saying he "elevated" "primitive living and economic systems," by which you seem to mean anything but a full-blown market economy. That's no longer Rothbard's claim.

    And, again, you just can't find *anything* to quote that shows Polanyi "worshipping" the primitive. Not could Rothbard! And that's because it's not there.

  5. PSH, thanks for the cites. Hoewever, "force and violence" are NOT synonyms for "power and compulsion." The law, for instance, always involves vcompulsion, but only involves violence when someone breaks it and then resists arrest. That quite a difference!

    And why do you think Rothbard changed the wording instead of using Polanyi's own words? And change them to more scary sounding words? In a review intended to make Polanyi look as bad as possible?

  6. Bob, link fixed. Brian, thanks for posting it in a comment, but I just fixed it in the post.

  7. Which I had to do because, although it is the very first hit on Google for "Callahan Doherty Rothbard," Bob is not familiar with Google.

  8. In other words, Brian, if Rothbard had said what YOU said, I would have reacted by saying, "Hmm, I don't think that's quite right, but I can see why you say that."

    But he made a much more outrageous claim.


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