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Monday, June 3, 2013

Thorpe-Freeman Monthly Blog Award: Culture and Optimism

First, let me welcome readers to this new feature of The Freeman online. The Thorpe Award announcement correctly lists the criteria for the winning entry as a blog that shows “persuasiveness, creativity, clarity, correct grammar, substance, and style.” As the chair of the selection committee, let me add that we are looking for comments and observations that enhance and extend the substance of the article being discussed. A successful entry will not merely summarize or comment on the obvious, but will add depth and insight to the author's work. The committee's selection process is unabashedly subjective, but is focused more on elevation than explication.

Many of this month's entries were worthy of that criterion. Particularly of note and honorable mention were two runner-up entries. Andrea Castillo, commenting on Andrew Heaton's wonderfully self-effacing article “Professionally Clever,” adds fascinating historical texture as she reminds us that Beethoven's “musical rise was fueled by the productive powers of capitalism.” And Dan McFerren sees in Zachary Caceres' article “Spontaneous Order: Awakening the Sacred” a reminder that appreciation of both the literal and the symbolic are not mutually exclusive, and that “to embrace only one is to deny half of our ability to see and understand the world around us.”

The winner this month is Brandon Christensen, for his insightful comments on Mike Reid's article “Culture in a Cage.”

Christensen, writing in a pleasingly fluid prose, provides context for Reid's article with an optimistically inferential reading of anthropologist Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History. “Unwittingly,” observes Christensen, Wolf has “echoed the past two centuries of work done by classical liberal theorists.” “Winning the war,” for Christensen, is as much about the subtext as the text.

Both Reid's original article and Christensen's blog addressed the importance of culture as the context within which Hayekian evolutionary processes take place, but Christensen focused on the optimism inherent in libertarian philosophy and cultural evolution.  The nature of culture; its impact on human well-being; its origins, transferability, and mutability; its distinction from the confining concepts of race and nationality; and the relative functionality of different cultures is a topic addressed by too few (Thomas Sowell being a happy exception).

Both Reid and Christensen remind us of the creative tension between tradition and adaptation. Reading both pieces, the image of Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) kept coming to mind, not because of the focal point between the old and the emerging orders that he represents, but rather because of the joy and optimism with which he engages in the process of determining the limits of his own ability to adapt. Buffeted in the currents of a cultural evolution that he can only dimly understand, Tevye, with wonder in his eyes, says “It's a new world, Golda. A new world,” as he carefully considers which of his precious traditions to keep and which to abandon. But he never loses faith.

A hearty “thank you” to Brandon Christensen for not losing faith, for seeing beneath the cultural waves the gradual changes in intellectual currents that are often less than observable on the surface, and for reminding us that ours is a philosophy of optimism. How after all could an appreciation of the nature and inevitability of spontaneous order be anything else?

Congratulations to Brandon, the first recipient of the monthly Thorpe Blog Award.


Karl Borden

Professor of Finance

University of Nebraska

Chair, Thorpe Award Committee


  • Karl Borden is professor of financial economics at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and a serial entrepreneur with 11 successful business start-ups to his credit.