While mulling over various names for this column, I remembered the Japanese term wabi-sabi, which I once used in a blogpost to describe the dynamic nature of cities. It is an aesthetic said to underlie the traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, ceramics, bonsai, and the performing arts.
What does it mean? Here are a couple of brief explanations:
Wabi sabi art … seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux….
Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.
Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.
Now, I realize some may say this describes exactly how they felt after their last bathroom renovation. Or they might point out that my field, economics, is not concerned with beauty as such. Fair enough. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt it actually captures how I think about economics, social theory, and policy.
Wabi-sabi in Vancouver
Watching the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics the other night, the announcers kept comparing it to the one for the 2008 summer Games in Beijing – that mesmerizing, massively breathtaking, and scary-perfect production (which you can catch part of here). Now, that’s an excellent example of what wabi-sabi isn’t. It isn’t about perfect choreography, mass regimentation, and strict unison.
The Vancouver show, by comparison, was much looser – less parade march and a bit more dance, and certainly not perfect, especially in the glitch with the Olympic torch. But it was entertaining, and it touched a different artistic nerve, one closer to wabi-sabi. Yet it isn’t really a good example of wabi-sabi either.
That’s because the wabi-sabi aesthetic sees true beauty in the organic and accidental, in the unpredictable influences of time and change, and discounts most forms of clean, rationalist design and Cartesian symmetry. Zen Buddhism, from whence this ideal is said to derive, teaches that enlightenment emerges out of sudden awareness rather than deliberate study. It doesn’t reject mastery of a subject, of course, but rather the idea that mastery consists merely of intellectual understanding.
Imperfections of Knowledge
So what does this have to do with sound economics?
As I see it, sound economics is skeptical of the hyper-rationalism adopted by advocates of collectivist central planning (which must have been fierce indeed in that Beijing performance). In general, its approach to policy appreciates the imperfections of knowledge and the inherent dangers in the habits of thought of policy makers and planners who see the world as more subject to human reason than it really is.
Sound economics emphasizes how the open-endedness of real time introduces imperfections into the social world but also offers opportunities for entrepreneurial discovery and the spontaneous, unpredictable ordering of individual plans. Accordingly, it sees greater limits in mathematical modeling than do most mainstream economists, while placing greater weight on verbal analysis and the method of Verstehen. In criticizing many standard theories (such as “perfect competition”) for placing a heavy burden on the concept of equilibrium, sound economics, in my view, fully embraces the idea that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.”
With the possible exception of Randian Objectivism, most aesthetic concepts carry overtones of anti-intellectualism. This may be especially true of wabi-sabi, which also asks us to accept the mutability of the world. So it may be risky to attach this exotic-sounding name to a column that tries to analyze social events using immutable economic principles.
But for now anyway the name seems to fit, though not completely and not perfectly. And, of course, it won’t last forever — nothing does.