How to Talk to a Poet. Now with More Hayek!

There’s been a lot of talk on the libertarian intertubes lately, about the best ways to talk about libertarian/classical liberal/free market ideas to those who aren’t pre-disposed to like them. Last week, the editors of the Freeman argued that the “open libertarian” is a key to this kind of communication:

Because the open libertarian is adaptable. He is sensitive to others’ starting points. He understands others have different ways of seeing the world and tailors his messages of persuasion—one to the next—to diverse audiences. He is worldlier, wiser, and more tolerant. But he is also more powerful. He’s dangerous because people listen to him.

What the Freeman editors call being “sensitive to others’ starting points” and tailoring one’s messages, I like to think of as learning how to talk to a poet. I have some experience with this, as I am both a libertarian and a poet, and I talk to myself all the time.

The libertarian half gets all excited over pieces like Hayek’s “Competition as a Discovery Procedure” where he says “the results of a discovery procedure are necessarily unpredictable,” and then the poet half jumps up and down and says, “That’s just like what Frank O’Hara says in his poem ‘Why I am Not a Painter’!”

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Hayek and O’Hara are both writing about the discovery process and the way that knowledge and order emerge from it in unpredictable and beautiful ways. They are both trying to figure out how it is that we can begin by aiming at one very particular thing–a poem about orange–and wind up with something completely different–like a book that doesn’t mention orange at all.  They are using their own approaches to make the same point that Graham Wallas made when he said, “The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’ ”

Every poet (and, I suspect, every musician/painter/actor/novelist/sculptor/etc.) has been here. We sit down to write what we are sure will be a sonnet about how cold our hands are, and it turns, before we have even noticed, into a love poem.

The soul of the poet and the soul of the Hayekian, the libertarian, the classical liberal, the free marketer, are not really so far apart. The beauties of spontaneous order are the key connection. Because really, how much difference is there between knowing that the creative process works–because of its disorder and not in spite it– and knowing that the market does the same thing?

  • dmaddock1

    “Because really, how much difference is there between knowing that the
    creative process works–because of its disorder and not in spite it– and
    knowing that the market does the same thing?”

    YES! Replace “creative process” with “evolution” and you’ve described my position in an discussion with a Marxist anthropology professor I had in college.

  • Daniel Kuehn

    I have some thoughts here as a non-libertarian that talks to a lot of libertarians but does not think like a libertarian:

    I think you are very right to avoid the “soft heads” suggestion that a lot of people are making as the explanation for why there are non-libertarians out there. My concern, is that this will simply make people more enlightened about markets and spontaneous order. That is obviously a great thing, but it’s a far cry from making them libertarians.

    I think the trick is to narrow in on what makes libertarians different from other people in the classical liberal tradition. I don’t personally think that difference is an appreciation for markets.

  • Praxeologist

    ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’

    That’s been true to my experience, which is exactly why I keep a blog.

    On another note, I wonder if Rod Long would have Wittgenstein say something about that…

  • Noting, for the record, that Graham Wallas was a socialist.