Mimetic theory has received very little attention from economists. This essay by an ap-plied microeconomist may be the first article written on mimetic theory directed primarily at an audience of mainstream Anglo-American economists. It outlines the potential con-tributions of mimetic theory to economics, discussing Rene Girard’s core ideas in terms of economics terminology and concepts. The author also shares how, on a personal level, mimetic theory has given him a bridge between the economic way of thinking and Christian thought and practice. Two books at the intersection of economics and mimetic theory are discussed in some detail: the philosopher Paul Dumouchel’s The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays and the heterodox French economist André Orléan’s The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics. Tim Huegerich received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and now works as a forensic economist at Laurits R. Christensen Associates.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?—Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV)
Discovering the thought of René Girard during the final year of my econom-ics Ph.D. program was an unsettling joy. Here was a scientific portrait of human nature and origins compatible with theological anthropology: namely, that the human condition as we find ourselves is distorted by sin, but that this condition is contingent so that we are capable of being freed from sin, at least in principle. In other words, we humans are essentially good, created for perfect love and joy, but we find ourselves in a corrupted state, with strong tendencies toward preoc-cupation, self-deception, and so on.
Girard’s notion that all human desire is shaped according to the desires of others set off alarm bells as a kind of social constructivist relativism, but it coex-isted alongside an insistence on objective truth—both descriptively with regard to certain facts about human nature and normatively with regard to the injustice of persecutory mobs. And Girard’s account of the origins of religion neither lambasts it as a cynical plot nor dismisses it as a pitiable misunderstanding of the natural world.
Though recognizing the reality of the social, Girard’s thought is compatible with methodological individualism. Its insights into social forces are integrally connected to an understanding of how desires work on the individual level. The same framework is used to analyze the behavior of an individual like Don Quixote, a pair of lovers, a tribe, and modern society as a whole.
Another aspect of Girard’s thought amenable to economists is that it is not characterized by wishful thinking about human nature of a kind for which economists have little patience. Also, whereas Girard’s penchant for “overarch-ing theories” apparently turns off many non-economist social scientists, claiming general applicability for a few basic insights across all cultures and widely varying domains of human experience is the standard approach for economists.
Prominent commentator Tyler Cowan is one economist who sees the potential for Girard to enrich the field of economics. Calling René Girard “definitely” one of the most important thinkers from the second half of the twentieth century, he frames several of Girard’s contributions as solutions to shortcomings of economics as a discipline:1
- Understanding the import of ‘mimetic desire,’ namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process….A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics.
- Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.
- Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis. These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day. You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.
- First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.
In this paper, I first dig into the concept of mimetic desire, which provides a unifying framework for a range of pre-existing approaches scattered in seemingly unrelated fields of economics. I then discuss some specific topics, drawing from two books at the intersection of Girard’s thought and economics which appeared in English for the first time in 2014.2 The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics is the translation of a 2012 book by French economist André Orléan. The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays by philosopher Paul Dumouchel is a collection of articles on economy and violence spanning three decades, starting with the title essay first published in 1979. Girard had little to say about economics himself—despite his wide-ranging incursions into other fields—so the arduous task of blazing this particular trail has fallen to other scholars.3 Accordingly, although these books were at times frustrating to this economist, I aim to give them the generous reading they deserve. Last, by way of conclusion, I outline some broad avenues for further work by economists intrigued by Girard’s ideas.
A Specific Form of Endogenous Preferences
Girard’s foundational insight is that humans desire according to the desire of the other. In the language of economics, this is a claim about the formation of preferences. It is a directive to model preferences as endogenous (influenced by other factors within a particular economic model) rather than exogenous (treated as fixed, determined outside of the model at hand).4 Admittedly, it is a directive that needs further elaboration before it can be translated into the precision of math. A number of questions remain about what it means that people desire according to the desire of the other:5
- The desire of which other? What determines who a subject takes as a “model” from among the various people they encounter?
- Which desire? That is, when a potential model is observed doing something, there may be multiple ways to interpret their motivation.
- How persistently? Is mimetic influence a short-lived effect, like someone who gets caught up in a wave of fervor in the stadium but “comes back to themselves” afterward, or is it long-lasting?
Yet previous attempts by economists to incorporate endogenous preferences have tended to be even more generic, sometimes specifying a completely general relationship between an agent’s social context and their preferences.6 In contrast, the form imposed on the endogeneity of preferences by the concept of mimetic desire does rule certain things out. For instance, human desire is not something that can be straightforwardly shaped by didactic instruction. If a student becomes aware of the desire underlying a teacher’s attempts to instill something, it may be that the underlying desire gets passed to them rather than the intended attitude. Moreover, rivalries on the horizontal level among students can take on a life of their own, potentially shaping desire more powerfully than the teacher’s direct influence. These things are not unknown to coaches or psychologists, but Girard’s insight boils down many seemingly unrelated phenomena.
Another distinctive feature of Girard’s approach is the notion that all desire is mimetic. When economists discuss social influences, it is typically in terms of norms (or “institutions”), primarily conceived of as constraints preventing individuals from doing what they really want. Even when preferences are taken to be endogenous, there is often a sense of underlying “natural,” unconstrained preferences that social influences cause deviations from.7 In contrast, Girard’s radical claim is that there is no such thing as “natural” preferences that are not socially mediated.8 And mimetic desire concerns what people actually want, their desire, as opposed to prescriptions or norms, their sense of what they should do.9
Economists do study numerous patterns of behavior—under headings such as “herding,” “technology adoption,” “peer effects,” and “cultural change”—that appear to a Girardian as clear cases of mimetic desire.10 But these tend to be seen as special cases, exceptions to the rule of exogenous, predetermined preferences—when they are not explained away as rational responses to new information. For most economists, their default way of thinking, their “intuition,” takes fixed preferences for granted. There is a systematic difficulty with seeing the conta-gious spread of desires, as well as the potential for deliberate manipulation of preferences. Mimetic theory provides a new mental model that could help make economists more savvy about human motivation.
Many economists were surprised when several international cartels suddenly came to light in the early 1990s.11 For decades, the dominant view had been that successful collusion would be rare due to the difficulty of detecting whether in-dividual firms, each single-mindedly committed to maximizing its own profits, were secretly cutting prices and undermining the collusive agreement.12 Could part of the problem with that view be that the people doing the conspiring come mimetically to share a common desire to keep prices high, rather than looking exclusively to the interests of their individual firms? This is just one example of the novel questions mimetic theory could open up.13
Implications for Market Efficiency Generally
Exogenous and “well-behaved” preferences are particularly critical for norma-tive economics. The assumption that people know what is best for them and act on that knowledge is core to the economic way of thinking. If whatever people choose is best for them, people should generally be given as much freedom as possible to choose. And when it is necessary for the government to be the one weighing pros and cons, it should rely on what choices reveal about the people’s preferences.
If, however, we suppose choices are normally driven by contagious desires with little relation to true welfare, so that we cannot use revealed preferences to measure consumer surplus or human welfare more generally, what alternative basis is there for policy choices?14Orléan’s book, with its subtitle “A New Foundation for Economics,” led me to hope he might propose a novel answer to this question.
Orléan does not, however, provide any clear alternative to standard normative economics. He does persuasively call into question the existing foundation, but without providing a replacement.15He seems to regard economists’ pretension to provide normative criteria as doomed, focusing his efforts instead on a new foundation for descriptive, or positive, economics.
In light of mimetic desire, Orléan asks under what conditions the canonical model of Walrasian equilibrium nonetheless accurately describes the functioning of a market.16 Among other basic social preconditions that are generally underemphasized in economics, exogenous and well-behaved preferences are required to guarantee the stability and efficiency of markets.18
In the case of internal mediation, however, a different model is needed. Inter-nal mediation is when mimetic contagion occurs among peers, with the potential for feedback loops (not to mention conflict).19 Fortunately, economic theory already provides an array of ready analogies for internal mediation, if not direct models of it. First, Orléan highlights network goods, such as social networks, for which the utility a website such as Facebook holds for any given user depends on the number of other users.20 Markets for network goods tend toward monopoly, with the advantage of being the first producer to achieve scale in a new market inhibit-ing the entry of even higher quality competitors. As a result, such markets feature instability (because small differences in initial conditions can lead to huge differ-ences in outcomes) and inefficiency (because the best alternative often loses). From a Girardian perspective, such is potentially the case for all goods, not only those with the special properties of network goods, if internal mediation is operative.
Orléan also points to the theory of asymmetric information pioneered by George Akerlof, in which some market participants are assumed to be uncertain about the quality of a product—his classic example is used cars.21 In such a situa-tion, it is natural to try to infer information about the true quality from the actions of others, just as in the triangular model of mimetic desire. The results of models involving asymmetric information are too numerous to name here, but suffice it to say that markets are not necessarily stable or efficient in such cases. And from the perspective of mimetic theory, it is as if all goods are of unknown quality, to be inferred primarily from the actions of others—even when all measurable properties of the object are fully known!
Other standard models Orléan employs to explore the implications of mimetic desire are the theory of “rational bubbles” in asset prices and Schelling’s notion of focal points.22 A rational bubble is a situation in which stock market traders accept a price higher than what they believe to be the true worth of the company because they (correctly) expect others to do the same. As for Schelling’s game theory concept, a simple illustration of focal point strategies is what happens when two people find themselves walking directly toward each other on a busy sidewalk. Faced with the choice to veer left or right, there is nothing intrinsically better about either direction, but veering right serves as a focal point (in places in which cars drive on the right). What Orléan points out is that these theoretical frameworks already familiar to economists can be repurposed to think through the consequences of mimetic desire, in which such coordinated choices are not merely strategic but driven by contagious desires.
These enlightening analogies are all found in Orléan’s chapters 2, 3, and 7. In the remaining chapters, Orléan considers the topics of money and financial markets with more specificity. Because neither area is within my own expertise, please take my comments with a grain of salt. But my sense is that much of the discussion merely repackages pre-existing insights about money and financial markets, things which are explained more clearly and concisely in undergraduate textbooks.23
Scarcity and Violence
One way to understand the contribution of philosopher Paul Dumouchel’s book, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays, is as a careful explanation of what might be meant by “the ideology of the market” and “the globalization of indifference,” phrases popularized recently by Pope Francis. The pope’s com-ments have unfortunately tended to provoke unreflective reactions from both those enthused by them and those alarmed. The effect—it seems to me—has been to harden pre-existing views rather than promote a more careful examination. Dumouchel’s book provides a framework for a more constructive conversation, rewarding patient reading with a deeper understanding of the interconnected violent and protective roles the market society plays.
Central to Dumouchel’s thesis is that it is a mistake to regard scarcity as a fact of nature, whether as a result of limited resources or human nature. The finiteness of resources is real, of course, but our orientation toward it is socially determined, the outcome of a historical process. Scarcity is never merely a description of the quantity of goods available but rather a judgment that that quantity is not enough, which is a matter of human desire.24
The concept of scarcity is central to many definitions of economics as a discipline.25 Whatever its place in the conceptual framework and rhetoric of economics, however, Dumouchel is primarily concerned with the role scarcity plays in structuring our society more broadly. Somewhat startlingly, he provides an account of how the workings of mimetic desire have brought about scarcity (and our misrecognition of it), an account that parallels Girard’s account of the origins of ritual sacrifice. In Dumouchel’s words, “scarcity functions in the modern world in the way the sacred does in traditional societies.”26
Dumouchel contrasts the well-defined solidarity obligations of traditional hunter-gatherer societies to modern societies in which the default relationship between people—even among those in close, regular contact—is exteriority, neutrality.27 On the one hand, in traditional societies, no one starves unless all do,28 whereas in market societies unfortunate individuals are literally left out in the cold. On the other hand, the flip side of traditional solidarity obligations is a duty to avenge, so that initially isolated conflicts spiral outwards, unless restrained by sacred violence. The lack of such obligations in modern societies tends to keep intense conflict isolated among those directly involved. That is, in the modern condition of scarcity as Dumouchel defines it, avoiding taking sides in a fight and keeping one’s distance from the needy are part of the same package of indifference.
Dumouchel does point toward the possibility of transcending both sacred violence and scarcity. While he traces the emergence of exteriority and scarcity “to the unique breakdown of the sacrificial system caused by Christian Revela-tion,” he notes that scarcity “is also linked to rejection of that Revelation. Scarcity is what we live in, which is neither the sacred nor the Kingdom of God.”29 But Dumouchel has very little to say himself about the “Kingdom of God,” insisting on maintaining “a rigorous distinction between what we know and what we can hope.”30 For me, this serves as a helpful reminder that what God ultimately has in mind for us is beyond any system we have known or can design ourselves.
The broader point of Dumouchel’s work may be best understood as illus-trating what Tyler Cowen described as one of Girard’s contributions: “First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.” On the level of policy, this might even on occasion mean defer-ring to the advice of other social scientists over the objections of economists.31 To take one concrete example, when it comes to policies such as compulsory national service, aimed at promoting mutual respect across racial and partisan divisions, economists might emphasize the inefficiencies created by such heavy-handed interference in the labor market. In the 1960s, however, the leaders of then-newly independent Botswana prioritized mandating geographical transfers of teachers and other civil servants between different tribal areas, and this policy is credited for helping forge its national identity—and helping make Botswana a standout success in terms of political stability, as well as economic growth.
There are a number of ways I can imagine economists incorporating Gi-rard’s thought into their research. First, economists are well suited to contribute to mimetic theory in terms of mathematically modeling and otherwise adding precision to the core concepts. What is the empirical content of the concept of mimetic desire, and how can it be tested or measured statistically?32 How can a mimetic shift in preferences/desire be distinguished from more deliberate choices to imitate others of a kind more familiar to economists, cases in which agents are simply taking the actions of others as information and acting on that information rationally based on predetermined preferences?
Mimetic theory could also serve as a heuristic for more traditional econom-ics research. Bearing Girard in mind might spark fresh perspectives and lead to innovative research that may or may not cite Girard explicitly. Particularly with regard to topics such as politics and violence, not to mention religion, mimetic theory may powerfully supplement the typical economist’s mental model of how the world works. For instance, consider the recent electoral success of national-ist politics in the U.S. and Europe. I wonder whether economics currently has a coherent theoretical framework to analyze whether this political shift is more to do with economic concerns or issues of cultural and ethnic identity.
In terms of normative or welfare analysis, Girard’s thought suggests new criteria, such as, “Does this policy tend to foster rivalistic mimesis or peaceful mimesis?” Just as a thought experiment, imagine using this criterion alongside, or even in place of, more standard policy goals like economic efficiency. For example, one of Girard’s insights is that eliminating distinctions among people—such as eliminating explicit hierarchy in a company in favor of a more horizontal structure—can actually exacerbate conflict by fostering internal mediation and rivalry, getting in the way of the positive mimesis that leads a team (with well-defined roles, perhaps) to gel around a common goal.33 But setting aside the specifics of what makes for harmonious teamwork, can you imagine a policy that fosters peaceful mimesis for its own sake, as opposed to any net impact on productivity?
For me, the primary impact of mimetic theory has been personal. When I first discovered Girard during my final year of graduate school, my faith had been flagging. The pressures and angst of the job market process were part of it, and mimetic theory gave me a new understanding of my feelings as I failed on the academic job market, yet remained on track to complete my Ph.D. and secure a good private sector job. From the perspective of my family back home, I was excelling. But I was feeling despair and shame, my desire apparently shaped ac-cording to that of my graduate school peers and teachers. Ultimately, moreover, the Girardian theology of James Alison helped me find peace in contemplating the way in which Jesus occupied the space of shame, powerfully freeing us from fear of death and failure.34
On another level, my increasingly economics-centric worldview had under-mined my previous understanding of what faith was all about. If fostering entre-preneurship and innovation, reforming counter-productive government policies, or even effectively addressing poverty or environmental harm were the things that mattered, what did prayer or going to church have to do with it? What dif-ference could something that happened 2000 years ago in a preindustrial society possibly make? The thought of René Girard turned these questions on their heads, setting me on a path toward integrating my economist way of thinking with my reinvigorated sense of Christian anthropology. And I have found myself inspired to renew my devotion to prayer, Bible study, and gathering as church.
- The other two items Cowen lists are Girard’s “understanding of Christianity as fundamen-tally and radically different from earlier religions” and his contributions toward deepening our understanding of great literature (“perhaps his most underrated contributions”). Cowen notes that he is putting these contributions “into ‘stupid simple’ language, rather than trying to communicate [Girard’s] nuances” (https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolu-tion/2018/03/contributions-rene-girard.html).
- Paul Dumouchel, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014) and André Orléan, The Empire of Value, trans. M. B. DeBevois (Boston: MIT Press, 2014). I aim to harvest the contributions of these books most relevant to econo-mists, as opposed to providing full reviews, because neither book is targeted at economists. Dumouchel quips, “Of course I am not presumptuous enough to believe that I can convince an economist…” (101). Although Orléan is an academic economist, he identifies with the “economics of convention,” a French school of thought closer to economic sociology than to mainstream economics. (Remarkably, a third book applying Girardian thought to economic questions, Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith by philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, also appeared in 2014 from Michigan State University Press. It is next on my reading list.)
- Dumouchel notes, however, that Girard’s “works are full of insights into and short remarks on the sacrificial origin of different economic phenomena or the way in which mimetic relations and commercial transactions are often intertwined and act upon each other” (Ambivalence, 97). Wolfgang Palaver’s René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, trans. Gabriel Borrud (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 313, n. 4, includes a list of other works applying Girard’s thought to economics topics, including Jim Grote and John McGeeney, Clever as Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997); Mark R. Anspach, “Desired Possessions: Karl Polanyi, René Girard, and the Critique of the Market Economy,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 11 (2004): 181-188; and Wolfgang Palaver and Petra Steinmair-Pösel, eds., Passions in Economy, Politics, and the Media: In Discussion with Christian Theology (Vienna: LIT, 2005).
- As Orléan highlights, the language of “preferences” or “utility” belies the generality with which economists tend to use these terms. These terms connote sober, cool-headed calcu-lations, as opposed to the passionate action and life-or-death choices economists also use them to describe.
- Scholars in neuroscience and other fields are taking on this challenge of more precisely defining how mimetic desire works, but there is as yet no consensus on these questions, to my knowledge. See, for example: A. Najar, E. Bonnet, B. Bahrami, and S. Palminteri, “Imita-tion as a Model-free Process in Human Reinforcement Learning,” bioRxiv (2019), https://doi.org/10.1101/797407.
- A theory that allows for any conceivable relationship between the actions and characteristics of an individual’s neighbors and her own actions can be cited to as an ad hoc explanation of any behavior—and is therefore in danger of explaining nothing. See, for instance, the first chapter of G. S. Becker, Accounting for Tastes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). On pages 4 and 5, he simply specifies utility as a non-parametric function of “[p]ersonal capital, P,” which “includes the relevant past consumption and other personal experiences that affect current and future utilities” and “[s]ocial capital, S,” which “incor-porates the influence of past actions by peers and others in an individual’s social network and control system.” For a review of other approaches to endogenous preferences, see S. Bowles, “Endogenous Preferences: The Cultural Consequences of Markets and Other Eco-nomic Institutions,” Journal of Economic Literature 36.1 (1998): 75-111.
- For example, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, “Economics and Identity,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115.3 (August 2000): 715-753, conceive “identity” or “self-image” as a separate input to the utility function (additive, specifically, in their examples). Agents have an inherent “taste” for an activity, for example, but identity concerns may add to or decrease utility from undertaking that action (as in Section III.A. of their paper).
- He does acknowledge universal instincts such as for food but insists that these are always mediated mimetically. For example, there is clearly nothing “natural” about my preference for Coca-Cola over roasted crickets.
- Looking only at behavior, this distinction may be difficult to draw. And Becker, Account-ing for Tastes, for instance, includes both concepts in the same mathematical formalism. But the distinction is clear subjectively, in my own experience, at least. It also has normative implications for policy, as discussed in the following section.
- or instance, see I. Monzón and M. Rapp, “Observational Learning with Position Uncer-tainty,” Journal of Economic Theory 154 (2014): 375-402; Gershon Feder, Richard Just, and David Zilberman, “Adoption of Agricultural Innovations in Developing Countries: A Survey,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 33.2 (1985): 255-298; and M. A. Burke, “Social Multipliers,” in New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, ed. Macmillan Publishers (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
- 1A Department of Justice economist at the time, Robert Litan put it this way: “I was shocked that there was as much cartel activity as what was going on. I thought it was almost im-possible. I thought that people don’t do this anymore. Most economists—and I brought this prejudice with me—we didn’t think it existed. And it was massive. It was all over the place” (cited as “Interview with Robert Litan, March 8, 2018” in Binyamin Appelbaum, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society (New York: Little, Brown, 2019), 172.
- Most notably, G. J. Stigler, “A Theory of Oligopoly,” Journal of Political Economy 72.1 (1964): 44-61.
- Similar examples can be rapidly multiplied. Is there a greater potential for climate change mitigation through individual behavior change than economists typically suppose because such behavior changes are highly contagious? Is deliberate fomenting of division by hostile foreign agents via social media, bolstered by newly powerful machine learning algorithms, an overriding concern for liberal democracies, as Yuval Harari argues? Does economics education make people more ruthless in business decisions because they are taught that is how good business leaders behave?
- 4For approaches to what “true welfare” might mean, see B. D. Bernheim, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Unified Approach to Behavioral Welfare Economics,” Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis 7.1 (2016): 12-68. This recent proposal has a mimetic flavor: P. Courty and M. Engineer, “A Pure Hedonic Theory of Utility and Status: Unhappy but Efficient Invidious Comparisons,” Journal of Public Economic Theory 21.4 (2019): 601-621.
- The biggest letdown of the book for me is on page 124. For over a hundred pages, Orléan painstakingly critiques previous conceptions of economic value without revealing his own proposal, referring to it only obliquely. At last, he states plainly that “the value of a good is measured by the quantity of money that this good makes it possible to acquire, that is, by its price.”
- A Walrasian equilibrium is when prices are set to equalize supply and demand for all goods simultaneously. Each agent is able to buy or sell exactly how much they want of each good at the set prices. And there is neither excess supply left over of any good nor shortages that would necessitate mechanisms such as queuing, lotteries, or quotas. Rationing is accom-plished purely by the prices. Economists conventionally consider Walrasian equilibrium the default state of markets, toward which prices tend naturally unless inhibited by policy or some “market imperfection.”
- This will tend to be so in the case which Girard terms “external mediation”: that is, if the models that shape mimetic desire in the market are outside that market and unaffected by market participants. For instance, Orléan points out that this is the case in Thorstein Ve-blen’s theory of emulation, in which “each class…emulates the class next above it in the social scale.”17Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899/1994), 103-104, as cited at Orléan, Empire, 92.
- Orléan points out that “Veblen has nothing to say about the sources of the behavior of the dominant class,” the class at the top of his theorized hierarchy. It is only analysis of internal mediation that can answer this question—and thus indirectly determine the standards for all classes below as well (Empire, 97).
- Ibid., 54-58.
- Ibid., 60-68.
- See Ibid.,184-187 (culminating in n. 27) and 215-220, respectivel
- Where Orléan makes novel claims about money and financial markets, they appear to me mistaken, the result of pushing a reasonable point to extremes. For example, not content with the conclusion that there is some arbitrariness in which commodity gets chosen to function as money, Orléan insists that “the nature of the good does not matter in the least” (Empire, 148), ignoring the standard litany of qualities such as divisibility, durability, and homogeneity which seem essential for money goods. Similarly, not content with the typical caveats about the quantity theory of money and the fundamental value of financial assets as “long run” values from which “short run” prices may greatly deviate, Orléan argues that these conceptions of long run value have no relevance whatsoever, suggesting that prices are completely untethered from any such fundamentals (233-234, for instance).
- This is not to deny that certain minimal subsistence levels of food and water are biologi-cally determined. But scarcity generally refers to something else.
- One influential example is Lionel Robbins’ definition: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1935), 16.
- Dumouchel, Ambivalence, 101.
- Exteriority here refers to standing on the outside of a dispute, with the regard of an observer. Paradoxically, Dumouchel argues, it is the unchecked intensity of our individual mimetic obsessions that continually pulls us away from solidarity with others, enabling us to see theirsilly mimetic obsessions for what they are—and keep our distance. See Ambivalence, 38-47.
- Ibid., 19, citing the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins.
- Ibid., 106.
- Ibid., 162.
- For his part, Orléan describes one of his aims as bringing about “that economics…be al-lowed finally to take its rightful place as an equal among the other social sciences, not as a superior discipline that somehow stands above them” (Empire, 3).
- 2An experiment examining social influence on music choices provides one illustration of what this might look like: C. Krumme, M. Cebrian, G. Pickard, and S. Pentland, “Quantify-ing Social Influence in an Online Cultural Market,” PloS One 7.5 (2012): e33785. A related economics paper estimates a structural model: P. W. Newberry, “An Empirical Study of Observational Learning,” The RAND Journal of Economics 47.2 (2016): 394-432.
- This is a theme of Grote and McGeeney, Clever as Serpents. And Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and Facebook’s first outside investor, who was a student of Girard’s as an un-dergraduate at Stanford, has cited this insight as influencing his work as a business leader (“Peter Thiel on Rene Girard,” ImitatioVideo, Jan. 4, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esk7W9Jowtc).
- See, for instance, the transcript of his 2006 talk “Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the Underside” (http://jamesalison.co.uk/texts/blindsided-by-god/). A tiny excerpt: “Jesus’ occupation of the place of shame, of loss, of death and of annihilation wasn’t, in the first place, to offer us an example of how to behave heroically. Rather it was the Creator-of-all-things’ way of opening up for us the possibility of entering into the full meaning, weight, and flow of Creation. That is to say, and this is what is curious: that spaciousness owes its grandeur not to its being an extra cushion of resources so that we can carry out and achieve something heroic here. Rather it is luring and carrying us towards something much richer and more fun, which isn’t here yet, and in whose light the fights and definitions and approvals of here are only pieces of small-mindedness from which it is greatly to our advantage that we become unbound so as more richly to be able to enjoy what is coming upon us….Something rather like a deep unconcern about myself is born, and a desire to be reconciled with the other because I know that both he and I will be much more, and will be able to enjoy ourselves much more if we are reconciled. That is to say, triumph for me passes through his being made whole and not his diminishment.”