Andersen: Stretching the mind – ouch! |

Andersen: Stretching the mind – ouch!

A seminar at the Aspen Institute can be dangerous to preconceived notions.

“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,” Oliver Wendell Holmes warned, his words emblazoned on a Herbert Bayer poster in an institute seminar room.

Overstretching can hurt anything, but I’ve never feared it because it’s always someone else’s mind that needs stretching — never my own.

Rue the day I found my arthritic mind stretched over an idea called the “evolution of economic rationality.” It took a Great Books seminar to force-feed me a perspective that stretched my mind into the dimension of the traditional capitalist whose phrenology is shaped like a compressed dollar sign.

It’s all the fault of Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist and political scientist whose logic is revelatory to a liberal pinko like me.

Schumpeter was a featured author in a Great Books seminar I attended this winter, a legacy Aspen Institute program dating back to the 1950s. It’s Schumpeter’s fault that my liberal bias became tainted by bothersome logic and reason.

Schumpeter (1883 to 1950) states that the evolution of human logic was catapulted forward by economics, which man came to rely upon as a means for accounting in trade through a monetary unit.

“The cost-profit calculus,” Schumpeter wrote, “propels the logic of enterprise. … All logic is derived from the pattern of economic decision.”

Schumpeter posits that during the rise of capitalism, starting about 500 years ago, humans applied mathematics to accounting as a utilitarian necessity. Born was “the spirit of rationalist individualism,” which meant the growth of new social classes based on individual economic achievement, which supplanted feudalism.

The human mind was spurred into logical progress by the need to calculate figures and assess values toward the acquisition of individual wealth. Strong wills and intellects — the “supernormal” — were attracted by this route to upward mobility and became “the propelling force of the rationalization of human behavior.”

Democracy was born through the “economic organization” of capitalism to promote “institutional change for the benefit of the masses” and later to “lift poverty from the shoulders of mankind.”

Capitalism emphasized “efficiency and service” to make the most of material goods and their distribution in the marketplace as a way of benefiting all.

While capitalism has never held sway for me as a principled means of sorting out the distribution of wealth, there’s no argument that it creates wealth. Conveniently, I have skirted beneficial, historical views of capitalism and have simply ruled it out as fundamentally flawed by the innate greed of human nature. To some extent, Schumpeter agrees:

“One may care less for the efficiency of the capitalist process in producing economic and cultural values than for the kind of human beings that it turns out and then leaves to their own devices, free to make a mess of their lives. … It does not follow that men are ‘happier’ or even ‘better off’ in the industrial society of today than they were in a medieval manor or village.”

Ultimately, Schumpeter is optimistic that the functions of societies are elevated by the utilitarian origins and practical applications of capitalism, if only those societies endure long enough.

“Most civilizations,” he wrote, “have disappeared before they had time to fill to the full the measure of their promise.”

This also could be said of communist and socialist civilizations, the failures of which are marked by ardent capitalists as proof of their fatal weaknesses. Logically, it’s still too early in human history to assign success or failure to any of the economic, cultural or sociological systems that have been experimented with through the ages.

It’s also logical, then, that I should postpone my budding capitalistic allegiances, cautiously examine my socialistic beliefs and keep stretching my mind to new dimensions while I wait a few thousand years for a clear sign as to which competing ideology is best.

This follows in the best spirit of the Aspen Institute seminars, which don’t presuppose specific answers or agreements but rather honor the process of discussing them with inquiring minds. This includes Schumpeter, who can stretch the mind of even the most inelastic liberal egalitarian I know: yours truly.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at

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