Monday, September 08, 2008

The Rules of Abstraction

Notwithstanding my new gig, I haven't completely left the academic world behind. "The Rules of Abstraction," an article on a topic I first blogged about at the Volokh Conspiracy, has been published by the Review of Austrian Economics. (Online version; I'm not sure when the hard copy will be released.) Here's the abstract:
Friedrich Hayek’s work on spontaneous order suggests that the emergence of a spontaneous order requires the existence of abstract rules of conduct. But how much abstraction is required? Abstraction exists on a gradient, from the highest specificity (pertaining to particular persons and narrowly defined circumstances) to the highest generality (pertaining to all persons in all circumstances). If rules create order by coordinating expectations, either end of the spectrum is undesirable; the most specific and the most abstract rules fail to provide decision makers with useful guidance. This article argues that rules that foster coordination must be characterized by an intermediate degree of abstraction. This conclusion will be explained and applied to law, language, and etiquette in order to draw out the similar character of rules across various contexts. The article concludes by discussing four properties that rules of intermediate abstraction must also possess to foster spontaneous order.
I think it's safe to say this is the most abstract paper I've ever written. It's so abstract it's meta-abstract. Here is an earlier version, for those who can't access the final version.

1 comment:

Aaron Davies said...

Reading your Volokh post, it occurs to me that one (potentially) interesting example of varying levels of abstraction is cultural differences in politeness rules. Americans often seem to find other cultures' rules much less abstract, often to their confusion--consider the number of levels of politeness embedded in Japanese grammar, for example.