VICaVlit..11644 *Zap ,’ SCIENCE AND CEREMONY The Institutional Economics of C. E. Ayres Edited by William Breit and William Patton Culbertson University of Texas Press, 1976. $14.95 By Ronnie Dugger The economics department at the University of Texas in Austin was a generator of progressive energies in Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, and throughout this period Clarence Ayres was the department’s dominant figure. A discursive teacher, in manner always somewhat abstracted, high-domed, hesitantly picking his way through words, many of which his students were hearing for the first time, Ayres was a Renaissance Man alive and working in Texas, as likely to draw illustrative examples during lectures from music or painting as from industrial technology. At a minimum, he bore into the lives of his students and readers the workvaluing and instrumentalist ideas of Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. At a maximum, he set forth on a search, and set some of his students forth on a search, for a scientific basis for morality, a technologically based humanism. Now a group of his peers \(drawn together and put to their tasks by economists William Breit of the University of Virginia and William Culbertson of Louisiana State Ayres’s work and impact in a small but tough-minded volume. Ayres’s more slavish devotees on the economic faculty at UT are not entirely pleased, for there is hard criticism here, but students such as me who suffered. as well as soared under his tutelage will find the balance reasonable. There were other strong figures in the department with Ayres: E. E. Hale, a brilliant teacher of comparative economic theory, perhaps in some sense a Marxist, although always noncommittal; Robert Montgomery, a specialist in public utility economics who taught that since utilities cannot be competitive, they should be publicly owned and limited to a 6 percent annual rate of return; labor economist Ruth Allen, whose monograph on a cowboy strike in the last century in Texas was legendary among students; and Clarence Wiley, a conservative agricultural economist. In the 1940s a right-wing regent presented UT president Homer Rainey a little white card with four names on it, those of Ayres, Hale, Montgomery and Wiley, and told Rainey, in the presence of the other regents, “We want you to fire these I was covering the Legislature one day when the House of Representatives, whipped into a froth characteristic of the McCarthy period, voted 126 to 1 that Ayres should be fired for corrupting the youth of Texas with socialist ideas. The regents voted secretly, 5 to 4, not to fire him and announced the decision as unanimous. Well, Ayres was the chieftain of his department \(even as Hale was the and Ayres’s central idea was what we in his classes called “The Dichotomy.” On the one side were ceremonies, institutions, status symbols, superstitions, and other essentially worthless phenomena of this kind. Their common characteristic was a tendency to inhibit the tool-using efficiency of man, which inhabited the other side of The Dichotomy, “technology.” There was no good and simple word for what Ayres meant, so time and time again he belabored the point: he did not mean just machines, he meant skills, tools, knowledge, and artistic achievementindeed, what Ayres meant by technology was, Everything That Works. Veblen’s “instinct of workmanship” hovered over much of Ayres’s thought and writing, just as did Dewey’s supreme test for anythingDoes it work? That, then, was The Dichotomy. Ayres’s point was, ceremony is bad and technology good. Nothing could work Professor Ayres into a rage in class quicker than some excrescence, which might just come into his mind or which some hapless student might inadvertently exude, of “cultural relativism.” Originally a philosopher, Ayres had come late to economics, and there he encountered the scholasticism of marginal economics, that extension of “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith whereby the establishment economists judgments and turn economics into a business of algebra and graphs, inputs, computations, and therefores. Marginal economics, the worked-out expression of the powerful idea of economic individualism, was to Ayres the prime example of the moral nihilism dominant in the social sciences. Professors in the social sciences penalize their students for slipping into “normative judgments,” that is, moral reflections or inquiries. Ayres thought the human race was in a hell of a state if we couldn’t even figure out what was right and what was wrong, and he believed he saw, in his Dichotomy, a scientific, technological, morality. Scientific morality? He had been raised as a Baptist. Although his awareness of the periodic witch hunts of academic history was sufficient to cause him to mute and disguise the belief, he saw religion as a ceremony, opposed to industrial production, a technology. He never conceded that his Dichotomy was just an applied form of humanism. Humanism he associated with rampant individualism: he seemed to be looking for an ethic that paid more mind to the collective, the community, values. Tirelessly, then, Ayres would discuss with his students whether this or that was a technology or a ceremony. But how do you get from an “is” statement to an “ought” statement? The ethical relativists say you can’t, ethics is just a position you take, not necessarily better than a contrary position someone else takes. Ayres insisted, as if by the main force of his personality, that technological processes are ethics. Alas, in class, this could degenerate into demonology. Instead of being in, say, a class in theology determining how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, the student was in a class in theology 18 OCTOBER 20, 1978
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