Second Nature

Michael Pollan gets me. Highly edumacated middle class white guy whose in to food and gardening. Last year I read Omnivore’s Dilemma and became convinced that Pollan occupies essentially the same position as me (challenging my preconceptions): the humble anarchist. Pollan has a sense of emergence, and skepticism of the beneficiaries of government policy. He might not take public positions as an anarchist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see Ol’ Spooner’s ghost whispering in his ear.

This Christmakwanzakkah I read an older book of his. Second Nature is his record of the same experiences I’m currently going through as a gardener. This is from way back in 1991, and in it gives some evidence that he might be an epistemological anarchist:

As it happens, the etymology of the word true takes us back to the old English word for “tree”: a truth, to the Anglo-Saxons, was nothing more than a deeply rooted idea.

p. 159

Here he is appreciating emergent order in markets:

More than a work of art, I like to think of the garden as if it were a capitalist economy, inherently unstable, prone to cycles of boom and bust. Even the most prosperous times contain the seeds of future disaster. A flush year in the perennial border usually means lean times ahead; now spent, the perennial need dividing and won’t peak again for two years. Unless pruned in spring, my asters, phlox, and delphinium willput out way too many shoots, a form of herbaceous inflation that will cheapen all their blooms come summer. Wealth is constantly being created and destroyed in the garden, but the accounts never blanace for very long–a shortage of nutrients develops in this sector, a surplus in that one, the value of water fluctates wildly. Who could hope to orchestrate, much less master, so boisterous an assembly of the self-interested? The gardener’s lot is to try to get what he wants from his plants while they go heedlessly about getting what they want. …

The garden is an unhappy place for the perfectionist. Too much stands beyond our control here, and the only thing we can absolutely count on is eventual catastrophe. Success in the garden is the moment in time, that week in June when the perennials unanimously bloom and the border jells, or those clarion days in September when the reds riot in the tomato patch–just before the black frost hits. It’s easy to get discouraged, unless, like the green thumb, you are happier to garden in time than in space; unless, that is, your heart is in the verb. For the garden is never done–the weeds you pull today will return tomorrow, a new generation of aphids will step forward to avenge the ones you’ve slain, and everything you plant–everything–sooner or later will die. Among the many, many things the green thumb knows is the consolation of the compost pile, where nature, ever obliging, redeems this season’s deaths and disasters in the fresh promise of next spring.

p. 131-2

Pollan is showing as a great an ability to appreciate the market as a process as any Austrian economist.

Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods

Public goods in economics have been a contentious theoretical issue since Paul Samuelson introduced the concept in 1954. The main sources of contention are what real world things are public goods, and who should provide them. In this post I propose a new way of looking at goods that will shed light on why public goods have posed such a problem. In particular, I propose that there is an important distinction between physical goods and immaterial goods; that public goods can only be immaterial goods; and that this unique feature of public goods does not preclude the market to provide the “socially optimal level.


Economists define a public good as something that is “non-rival” (meaning that one person’s consumption does not affect another person’s), and “non-excludable” (meaning that one person cannot stop another person from consuming the good.) Public goods are often contrasted with private goods, which are rival and excludable.

The implications are that public goods cannot be provided by a free market, because no one would have to pay for such a good, and so there would be so incentive to produce it. Therefore, the argument goes, the government ought to provide public goods.


An example of a private good is an apple. Imagine a world with just you, me, and an apple. If I take a bite out of the apple, there is now less apple for you to consume. That means it’s rival. If I put the apple in a locker to which only I know the combination, then again you are prevented from consuming the apple. This makes it excludable.  Continue reading