Modest, Slow, Molecular, Definitive

24 November 2009 at 1:12 am 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

In an oft-cited passage from The Mechanisms of Governance (1996), Williamson describes the research program of transaction cost economics this way:

Transaction cost economics (1) eschews intuitive notions of complexity and asks what the dimensions are on which transactions differ that present differential hazards. It further (2) asks what the attributes are on which governance structures differ that have hazard mitigation consequences. And it (3) asks what main purposes are served by economic organization. Because, moreover, contracting takes place over time, transaction cost economics (4) inquires into the intertemporal transformations that contracts and organization undergo. Also, in order to establish better why governance structures differ in discrete structural ways, it (5) asks why one form of organization (e.g., hierarchy) is unable to replicate the mechanisms found to be efficacious in another (e.g., the market). The object is to implement this microanalytic program, this interdisciplinary joinder of law, economics, and organization, in a “modest, slow, molecular, definitive” way.

A footnote explains the origins of the phrase “modest, slow, molecular, definitive,” tracing them to a (secondhand) quotation from Charles Péguy. Here’s the footnote:

The full quotation (source unknown) reads:

“The longer I live, citizen. . .” — this is the way the great passage in Peguy begins, words I once loved to say (I had them almost memorized) — “The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion, extraordinary, sudden and serious, in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I ive the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship — and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

Well, we are nothing if not pedantic here at O&M, and in that spirit, I share (with permission) a note from my colleague and former guest blogger Randy Westgren, written to Williamson in January 2007, explaining that the anonymous source has botched the Péguy quotation. Here’s Randy:

After a long search, I found the quote from Péguy that you cite in footnote nine of the Prologue of The Mechanisms of Governance and noted again in footnote eleven of the first chapter. I was not able to find the secondary quote that is printed in the footnote, but I did find the original passage from Péguy. I have been searching for this since The Mechanisms was published, because I could not fathom how Charles Péguy could have denounced sudden, wondrous conversion and sudden, extraordinary social revolution when he was (1) a famously devout Catholic;  a mystic whose poetry includes an exceptional hommage to Joan of Arc, and (2) a famously ardent socialist who believed strongly in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In fact, after giving up on the Catholicism of his youth while at the École Normale Supérieure, he returned to his faith in the middle of the first decade of the century, when he was in his early 30s. He was slain in the first battle of the Marne in 1914 at the age of 41.

Thus, it was hard to understand a quote that twice alludes to advancing age and a personal and social apostasy that was written by a man who died in full flower as a religious mystic and as a champion for human rights and the left.

The quote in your text contains two red herrings. The first is, “this is the way the great passage in Peguy begins.” In fact, the quoted passage begins with the second clause of the fourth sentence of the twentieth paragraph of an essay presented as a dialogue. The second confusion is that the quote appears to be a single argument against sudden personal illuminations and sudden social revolutions. In fact, the passage is two distinct arguments in counterpoint. One party to the dialogue denies the value of sudden personal revelation and the other denies the value of sudden social revolution.

The young socialist atheist revolutionary (Péguy) consults a “citizen doctor: socialist, revolutionary, moralist, internationalist” as he has come down with the grippe while preparing for the Socialist Congress.

— … “And genius demands patience to work, doctor, and the longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied by or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden, wondrous, extraordinary conversions, the effectiveness of sudden passions, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

– “ The longer I live, responded the doctor gravely, the less I believe in the effectiveness of a sudden, extraordinary social revolution, wondrously improvised, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive, work for society.

(My translations.) (Péguy is also noted for involuted literary style, so amateur translation isn’t easy.)

The conversation continues around the doctor’s thesis that one cannot believe in the “big questions” when unable to believe in the personal-level issue of faith. This essay was, in fact, written when Péguy was 26 and before his return to the church. He had just launched a publishing venture in support of socialist causes in January 1900, called Cahiers de la quinzaine, (Fortnightly Journals). This was to be his pulpit as a polemicist until his death, as well as a place where like-minded individuals published before they became famous.

The citation should read:

Péguy, Charles. “Encore de la grippe”, Cahiers de la quinzaine, volume I, number 6, March 20, 1900.

My source was reprinted in

Péguy, Charles. Oeuvres en Prose Complètes, Volume 1, Robert Burac (ed), Editions Gallimard, 1987, pp. 416-444.

I am sure that’s way more than you wanted to know.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Myths and Realities, New Institutional Economics. Tags: .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Translation and Charles Péguy « ANTHEM  |  24 November 2009 at 11:22 am

    […] link transaction-cost economics with actor-network theory through the figure of Charles Péguy. The Organizations and Markets blog has just highlighted that the following Péguy quote is evoked at a crucial moment in Oliver […]

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