11 March 2016

He Said It: Darwin

From his 1871 The Descent of Man (pt. 1, chap. 5), Charles Darwin's explanation for why we seem to instinctively like the ideas of "giving back" and sacrifice for the common good: 
"There can be no doubt that [during 'primeval' times] a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."  

08 March 2016

The Prodigal Son Reconsidered

Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son has always bothered me. Here it is, in case you don't remember it (Luke 15:11-32):
Then [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, 'How many of my father's hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.'
So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.' And they began to celebrate. 
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.' He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property--he and his loose women--you kill the calf we had been fattening.'
The father said, 'My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.'"

This parable has always bothered me because I felt for the elder son. He had done everything right, and yet his father had never thrown a party for him. And now his younger brother comes along, after wasting everything in vice and licentiousness, and he gets a party? I would be angry too!

It does seem unfair, doesn't it? The reason I've always thought it was unfair is because I imagined myself as the elder brother. I am the one who's always done the right thing, obeyed the rules, and lived virtuously. I felt like William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man," the man who works hard and well, who takes responsibility for himself and his obligations--and is rewarded by being forgotten by the world, which pays attention instead to the person who's lived a dissolute life.

But then I realized: I am the prodigal son. Indeed, we are all prodigal sons. There is not one of us who has not sinned against heaven and his father, least of all me. It was my pride and hubris that led me to fancy myself as blameless and without fault. In fact, however, I too have failed, erred, and sinned. (Haven't we all?) So when I resent the father in the parable for welcoming his prodigal son with open arms, with mercy and forgiveness, and with a party celebrating his return, I was actually asking that I not be welcomed with mercy and forgiveness. 

What a mistake that was. The parable is not about the other person who sins and yet is forgiven, but about me who has sinned and seeks forgiveness. I am the prodigal son, and I hope and pray that, no matter how many mistakes I have made, I too can be forgiven and welcomed with open arms when I return.

There is one other aspect of this parable that had escaped me. Just as I hope that I as a prodigal son can be forgiven for my failings, often I am in the position of the father who has been sinned against. How do I treat people who have lived in ways I disapprove or have wronged me? Just as I hope to be forgiven, so too should I forgive others. 

One does not need to be a Christian to see the beauty and power of this parable. It is a model not only for how we should treat others' failings with mercy and forgiveness, but also for how we should hope for forgiveness from others, even when we are not entitled to it.

05 February 2016

He Said It: Hatch

Here is Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, in the Spring 2016 issue of Wake Forest Magazine:

"That was an age [the 1970s] in which students tried to generate controversy and the resisters were patrons of the University. The whole climate on campuses today is markedly different. You can see the developments examined in major articles such as 'The Coddling of the American Mind' in The Atlantic and Todd Gitlin's 'You Are Here to Be Disturbed' in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which laments 'a plague of hypersensitivity.'

"Today, students are much more sensitive. That's one major difference between now and the 1970s. In my view, a university is a place of ideas, and, as a student, you should be disturbed. You should confront differences. College should not conform to your expectations. We talk nationally about trigger warnings about anything that is uncomfortable. We need to return to the university as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

"We want to make this a place where people can disagree but do so with great respect. We have not had blatant attempts on either side to limit speech, but one can see the climate nationally where people have a harder time hearing, listening to and even imaginatively empathizing with those different from them. We need a panoply of speakers across the spectrum. We will have very progressive speakers and very conservative speakers. That's good and healthy. Campus should be that way.

"At Wake Forest, our values are unwavering: we stand for freedom of expression, serious intellectual engagement and building a community in which the art of conversation is paramount." 

Well said, Sir. 

14 January 2016

Eudaimonia and the Academy

I have been thinking about eudaimonia for some time.

I first became interested in the idea as an undergraduate student when I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and saw that Aristotle argued that human beings are not only purposive creatures but have a hierarchy of purpose: proximate ends lead to intermediate ends, which lead in turn to an ultimate end. Aristotle called the ultimate end—that is, the end for the sake of which we do everything else but that is itself pursued only for its own sake—eudaimonia. That word is hard to translate. It is often rendered as “happiness,” but perhaps “flourishing” is better. I think of it as the cognizance that one is living a life worth living, that one is using all one’s capacities in the course of a life that matters.

In graduate school I became interested in the political and economic institutions that enable people to lead eudaimonic lives. I was inspired by the example of Adam Smith, who, it seemed to me, was genuinely interested in both sets of questions—namely, what a life of virtue was, as well as what the institutions were that could enable and even encourage such lives.

My thinking and reading about these topics led to an interest in the liberalism that grew out of the work of eighteenth-century thinkers like Adam Smith, as well as David Hume and others. I also became interested in the moral and political philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who had read and been influenced by both Smith and Hume, as well as nineteenth-century figures like Mill and Darwin. (Darwin too read and was influenced by Smith.) I thought long and hard about whether I could integrate my chief intellectual influences—Aristotle, Smith, and Kant—into a coherent framework that would answer, or at least plausibly address, my twin questions of the moral life and the institutions supporting it. The result was my 2006 book, Actual Ethics, which offered an examination and defense of a liberalism based on the ideas of Aristotle, Smith, and Kant (among others).

My interest in the nature and conditions of eudaimonia has continued since then. Indeed, it has deepened, especially with the rise of evolutionary accounts of morality, with advances in evolutionary psychology, with burgeoning empirical investigation into comparative political economy, with experimental economics, and with increased philosophical, psychological, biological, social scientific, and even medical investigation into what constitutes human happiness.

When I came to Wake Forest University in 2013, one of my hopes was that I could continue this investigation, in the context of an intellectual community constituted by a broad range of discipline, expertise, and perspective that was nevertheless united in its contention that understanding what eudaimonia is and how it can be enabled is one of the most important contributions we might make to the republic of human knowledge.

We are in the early stages of trying to create such a community at Wake Forest, and I hope the efforts will continue. We hope to have a broad range of voices, from across the political and economic spectrum, from many different perspectives on culture and morality, and informed by advances from many different disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, politics, economics, religion, the arts, history, literature, business, and classics.

I am deeply gratified that many of my colleagues from many different perspectives and disciplines have seen merit in the idea of studying eudaimonia, and I am excited to see what might be the results of our investigations. I hope not only that we can shed light on these questions that I believe are so important for understanding the human condition, but also that pursuing them can perhaps in itself constitute an element of eudaimonic life. 

26 November 2015

My Recommendations for Your Thanksgiving Dinner Conversations

A lot of people are giving advice about how to talk politics at the family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. (I won't link to them; they're easy to find.) I thought I would join the fun and add my own recommendations.

1. Let others speak. Being thankful for one's blessings is what should be paramount in one's mind at Thanksgiving. But one cannot be thankful if one is thinking primarily about dominating others. Let others shine; let others speak; let others take the spotlight. When they talk about the good things that have happened to them this past year, or talk about their accomplishments or their children's accomplishments, let them. And join in their happiness. Listen attentively. Smile, laugh with them, congratulate them, show love to them. Don't be envious, jealous, peevish, or cynical: that would make you--and everyone else--unhappy. On this one occasion, let go of your ego.

2. Remember that you don't know as much as you think. You may think that your opinions about politics, economics, or morality are true, even unquestionably right. But you are an imperfect being, and you might be wrong. Remind yourself of that. And remember that it's okay to learn from others, even if what you're learning is simply what others believe and what makes other people tick. 

3. Remember that your family has helped make you what you are. If you have a proverbial "crazy Republican uncle" or "crazy liberal niece," that's okay. In fact, it's awesome! It's part of the rich pageantry of human life and human diversity. Your family has helped to shape you: be mindful of that fact and let yourself enjoy them. You don't need to correct them, you don't need to argue with them, you don't even need to say what you think. And you should not be embarrassed or chagrined or upset for having members of your family who see the world differently from the way you do. That is a beautiful thing. Embrace it and take joy in it.

4. Say grace. Even if you're not a believer, take a moment before you eat to say "thank you" for your family. During the meal, ask everyone at the table to take a turn telling everyone what they're thankful for. Listen to what others say. Don't interrupt them, don't put anyone down or roll your eyes; they are people too, every bit as entitled to respect as you are. Saying grace and taking a moment to think--and speak--about what you're thankful for reminds you of your blessings and reminds everyone that you are a family. And that's what is truly important.

5. Enjoy this time with your family. It might be a long time before you're together again. This is your family, warts and all: accept them and love them. There is all the time in the world to criticize and judge others; take this time simply to enjoy being in each other's presence. Recall the great memories of your times together. Tell tales. Ask others to talk about what's on their minds. And whatever they say or talk about, take it at face value. Don't get offended or upset or angry. Forgive and forget. For at least this one day, let bygones be bygones. Just enjoy your time together.

So many people dread Thanksgiving, but enjoying Thanksgiving can be as simple as changing your attitude. If you are determined not to get upset, if you are determined to be charitable and loving and respectful to everyone, you may just find yourself enjoying your time, not only despite your "crazy" relatives but perhaps even despite yourself. Life is short. We can spend the rest of the year focusing on the many bad things going on in our lives and in the world. On this day, focus on the good. And be thankful for this day.

26 October 2015

He Said It: Ip

"The notion that a sense of safety can lead to disaster is quite intuitive. After all, that's the essence of complacency: let your guard down, take too much for granted, and nasty surprises await. Teenagers famously have too much faith in their own immortality and ability. That's why they hurt themselves so often, in cars, sports, and romance. 'Best safety lies in fear,' Laertes tells his sister, Ophelia, by way of protecting her from Hamlet's sinister overtures. 'Only the paranoid survive' is legendary Intel chief executive Andy Grove's advice to business leaders." 

--Greg Ip, Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 6

13 October 2015

He Said It: Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1881-1895)
[On luck egalitarianism:] "I do not think much of the accident or good luck theory of self-made men. It is worth but little attention and has no practical value. An apple carelessly flung into a crowd may hit one person, or it may hit another, or it may hit nobody. The probabilities are precisely the same in this accident theory of self-made men. It divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration. Yet the accident theory is among the most popular theories of individual success. It has the air of mystery which the multitude so well like, and withal, it does something to mar the complacency of the successful. [...]

"But the main objection to this very comfortable ["accident"] theory is that, like most other theories, it is made to explain too much. While it ascribes success to chance and friendly circumstances, it is apt to take no cognizance of the very different uses to which different men put their circumstances and their chances."


[On the key to success in life:] "From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Every one may avail himself of this marvellous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection."


--Frederick Douglass, "Self-Made Men: An Address Delivered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in March 1893" (in John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds., The Frederick Douglas Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 5: 1881-95 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992], pp. 552-3 and 556)

23 September 2015

He Said It: Ferguson

"The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties, not in enjoying the repose of a pacific station; penetration and wisdom are the fruits of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure; ardour and generosity are the qualities of a mind roused and animated in the conduct of scenes that engage the heart, not the gifts of reflection or knowledge." 

--Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), part IV, section IV

17 September 2015

He Said It: Smith

"The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice."

--Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), III.3.31

04 June 2015

He Said It: Nock

"The anarchist does not want economic freedom for the sake of shifting a dollar or two from one man's pocket to another's; or social freedom for the sake of rollicking in detestable license; or political freedom for the sake of a mere rash and restless experimentation in system-making. His desire for freedom has but the one practical object, i.e., that men may become as good and decent, as elevated and noble, as they might be and really wish to be. Reason, experience and observation lead him to the conviction that under absolute and unqualified freedom they can, and rather promptly will, educate themselves to this desirable end; but that so long as they are to the least degree dominated by legalism and authoritarianism, they never can."

--Albert Jay Nock, "On Doing the Right Thing" (1924)

28 May 2015

He Said It: Washington

"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution. For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."

--George Washington, Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, May 10, 1789

30 March 2015

He Said It: Churchill

"Accordingly I have always been surprised to see some of our Bishops and clergy making such heavy weather about reconciling the Bible story with modern scientific and historical knowledge. Why do they need to reconcile them? If you are the recipient of a message which cheers your heart and fortifies your soul, which promises you reunion with those you have loved in a world of larger opportunity and wider sympathies, why should you worry about the shape or the colour of the travel-stained envelope; whether it is duly stamped, whether the date on the postmark is right or wrong? These matters may be puzzling, but they are certainly not important. What is important is the message and the benefits to you of receiving it. Close reasoning can conduct one to the precise conclusion that miracles are impossible; that 'it is much more likely that human testimony should err, than that the laws of nature should be violated'; and at the same time one may rejoice to read how Christ turned the water into wine in Cana of Galilee or walked on the lake or rose from the dead. The human brain cannot comprehend infinity, but the discovery of mathematics enables it to be handled quite easily. The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still."

--Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874-1904 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930), 116-17

13 February 2015

A Personal Statement of Scholarly Purpose

[Note: If I were in charge of my own college or university, the following is what I would put on page one of its handbook. It reflects only my own convictions, not necessarily those of my current employer, those of any past or potentially future employer, or those of anyone else.]


The purpose of an institution of higher learning is to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and to beat new paths into unexplored regions of ignorance. Our mission is to use the knowledge we discover to serve humankind. We believe this purpose and this mission are honorable and worthy of our professional dedication.

We will therefore preserve and pass on to future generations in sacred trust what we believe we have discovered, but we will never presume to possess the final word on open, contested, or controversial ideas; we will ask others to learn and consider what we profess, but will not seek to limit what others may deem worthy of exploration, investigation, acceptance, or rejection; and we will face and engage differing ideas, but we will not denigrate or demean them, or the people who hold them, merely because they conflict with what we already believe.

We understand that we can achieve neither our purpose nor our mission if we peremptorily rule some avenues of inquiry out, prevent some ideas from receiving a full hearing, or rest content in the pretense that we already know what we need or will need to know.

This means we will continually and robustly exercise the freedom to investigate and examine new ideas, to review our prejudices and settled beliefs critically and regularly, and to confront, in good faith, lines of thought with which we are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. We will judge ideas, assertions, claims, proposals, hypotheses, and conjectures on their merits. If we believe they are false, we will seek to refute them with arguments and evidence; if we cannot refute them, we will accept them, but only tentatively and with a vigilant eye toward future arguments or evidence that may overturn them.

This is the essence of a liberal arts education, without which we are no longer an institution of higher learning. We are the inheritors of a noble millennia-long tradition seeking unfettered inquiry, and we honor that heritage by protecting, preserving, and continuing it. If we cease, limit, or restrict our explorations, we betray not only our purpose and mission but also our solemn duty as scholars. In voluntarily deciding to join the life of the gown, we humbly but resolutely accept, affirm, and attest our charge with the seriousness its importance warrants, and we pledge to uphold and defend its integrity against all those who would corrupt it.

29 December 2014

He Said It: Binning

"Hills, Seas, Mountains, Rivers, Sun & Moon, & Clouds, Men & Beasts, Angels and Devils, all of them are acted, moved, and inclined according to his pleasure, all of them are about his work indeed, as the result of all in the end shal make it appear, & are servants at his command, by going where he bids go, and coming where he bids come, led by an invisible hand, though in the mean time they knew it not, but thinks they are about their own businesse . . . . Godly men who knows his Will and loves it, are led by it willingly, for they yeeld themselves up to his disposall: but wicked men who have contrary Wills of their own, they can gain no more by resisting, but to be drawn along with it."

--Hugh Binning (1627-53), The common principiles [sic] of Christian religion (Glasgow, 1666), 173. Quoted in Peter Harrison, "Adam Smith and the History of the Invisible Hand," Journal of the History of Ideas 72, 1 (January 2011): 43 (reprinted here exactly as it appears in Harrison's text; bold supplied)

22 December 2014

He Said It: Machiavelli

"Thus, since a prince is compelled of necessity to know well how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion, because the lion does not defend itself from snares and the fox does not defend itself from wolves. So one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten the wolves. Those who stay simply with the lion do not understand this. A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith[*], nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated. And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them." 

--Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., Harvey C. Mansfield, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 69

*The phrase "observe faith" and its cognates is rendered as "keep one's word" by other translators. 

15 December 2014

He Said It: Smith

"I mean not, however, by any thing which I have here said, to throw any odious imputation upon the general character of the servants of the East India company, and much less upon that of any particular persons. It is the system of government, the situation in which they are placed, that I mean to censure; not the character of those who have acted in it. They acted as their situation naturally directed, and they would have clamoured the loudest against them would, probably, not have acted better themselves." 

--Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), IV.vii.c.107

[H/T: Mike Munger]

01 December 2014

He Said It: Baier

"Moral talk is often rather repugnant. Leveling moral accusations, expressing moral indignation, passing moral judgment, allotting the blame, administering moral reproof, justifying oneself, and, above all, moralizing--who can enjoy such talk? And who can like or trust those addicted to it? The most outspoken critics of their neighbors' morals are usually men (or women) who wish to ensure that nobody should enjoy the good things in life which they themselves have missed and men who confuse the right and the good with their own advancement. When challenged, they can substantiate their charges only by fine phrases. [...]

"Suppose it is granted that [moral] sacrifices are necessary. Who is to say which individual or group ought to make them? Everyone is busily demanding that others should shoulder a burden, deny themselves this indulgence, or suffer that hardship, but let someone ask why a certain person should make a given sacrifice and usually he will be offered only bogus reasons. [...]

"But, really, how crude, how beside the point, how unconvincing all this is--particularly, when we compare it with the precision and the certainty of the natural sciences. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that by comparison with natural science, morality is a primitive, outmoded, inexact sort of enterprise. Its continuing popularity seems to be based largely on people's disappointment at being less well equipped than their neighbors, on envy of others who have succeeded where they have failed, on the instinct of revenge, and on superstitious hopes and fears that the Lazaruses of this world will be in the bosom of Abraham, while the men successful on earth will be tormented in hell." 

--Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics (New York: Random House, 1967), 3-5. 

07 November 2014

Breaking News: The End of Socialism

My new book, The End of Socialism, has just been published by Cambridge University Press. From the book jacket: 

"Is socialism morally superior to other systems of political economy, even if it faces practical difficulties? In The End of Socialism, James R. Otteson explores socialism as a system of political economy--that is, from the perspectives of both moral philosophy and economic theory. He examines the exact nature of the practical difficulties socialism faces, which turn out to be greater than one might initially suppose, and then asks whether the moral ideals it champions--equality, fairness, and community--are important enough to warrant attempts to overcome these difficulties nonetheless, especially in light of the alleged moral failings of capitalism. The result is an examination of the 'end of socialism,' both in the sense of the moral goals it proposes and in the results of its unfolding logic."

Just in time for your holiday gift-giving! 

He Said It: Hume

"[N]othing is so improving to the temper as the study of the beauties, either of poetry, eloquence, music, or painting. They give a certain elegance of sentiment to which the rest of mankind are strangers. The emotions which they excite are soft and tender. They draw off the mind from the hurry of business and interest; cherish reflection; dispose to tranquillity; and produce an agreeable melancholy, which, of all dispositions of the mind, is the best suited to love and friendship."

--David Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion" (1741)

31 October 2014

They Said It: Smith and Yandle

"As the philosopher David Hume said most famously in his magnum opus, A Treatise of Human Nature, 'Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.' Translated into our narrative (and southern vernacular), he might well have said, 'Any Bootlegger worth his salt better make a Baptist appeal if he hopes to bring home the bacon.'" 

--Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle, Bootleggers and Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics (Cato Institute, 2014), 56

19 August 2014

G. A. Cohen vs. Adam Smith on Motivation

"Communal reciprocity is the antimarket principle according to which I serve you not because of what I can get in return by doing so but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me. [...] 

Doctors, nurses, teachers and others do not, or do not comprehensively, gauge what they do in their jobs according to the amount of money they're likely to get as a result, in the way that capitalists and workers in noncaring occupations do. [...] And the reason for the difference is not that carers are made of morally superior clay, but, in good part, the more cognitive reason that their conception of what is to be produced is guided by a conception of human need: market signals are not necessary to decide what diseases to cure or what subjects to teach, nor are they efficient means of deciding that."

--G. A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism? pp. 39 and 59-60

"In every profession, the exertion of the greater part of those who exercise it, is always in proportion to the necessity they are under of making that exertion. This necessity is greatest with those to whom the emoluments of their profession are the only source from which they expect their fortune, or even their ordinary revenue and subsistence. In order to acquire this fortune, or even to ge this subsistence, they must, in the course of a year, execute a certain quantity of work of a known value; and, where the competition is free, the rivalship of competitors, who are all endeavouring to justle one another out of employment, obliges every man to endeavour to execute his work with a certain degree of exactness. The greatness of the objects which are to be acquired by success in some particular professions may, no doubt, sometimes animate the exertion of a few men of extraordinary spirit and ambition. Great objects, however, are evidently not necessary in order to occasion the greatest exertions. Rivalship and emulation render excellency, even in mean professions, an object of ambition, and frequently occasion the very greatest exertions. Great objects, on the contrary, alone and unsupported by the necessity of application, have seldom been sufficient to occasion any considerable exertion." 

--Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, V.i.f.4

28 April 2014

He Said It: Krugman

"The last 15 years have been a golden age of innovation in international economics. I must somewhat depressingly conclude, however, that this innovative stuff is not a priority for today's undergraduates. In the last decade of the 20th century, the essential things to teach students are still the insights of Hume and Ricardo. That is, we need to teach them that trade deficits are self-correcting and that the benefits of trade do not depend on a country having an absolute advantage over its rivals. If we can teach undergrads to wince when they hear someone talk about 'competitiveness,' we will have done our nation a great service." 

--Paul Krugman, "What Do Undergrads Need to Know About Trade?" The American Economic Review 83, 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Hundred and Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (May, 1993), p. 26

15 January 2014

He Said It: Stiglitz

"At their best, markets have played a central role in the stunning increases in productivity and standards of living in the past two hundred years--increases that far exceeded those of the previous two millennia.

"But government has also played a major role in these advances, a fact that free-market advocates typically fail to acknowledge. On the other hand, markets can also concentrate wealth, pass environmental costs on to society, and abuse workers and consumers. For all these reasons, it is plain that markets must be tamed and tempered to make sure they work to the benefit of most citizens. And that has to be done repeatedly, to ensure that they continue to do so."

--Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, "The Price of Inequality" (June 11, 2012)

14 January 2014

They Said It: The Minority of the Pennsylvania Convention

"We dissent, secondly, because the powers vested in Congress by this [proposed United States] constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government, which from the nature of things will be an iron banded despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government." 

--from the Address of the Minority of the Pennsylvania Convention, December 12, 1787 (italics in the original)

08 January 2014

He Said It: Mallock

"Socialism may be worthless as a scheme, but it is not meaningless as a symptom. Rousseau's theory of the origin of society, of the social contract, and of a cure for all the social evils by a return to a state of nature, had, as we all know now, no more relation to fact than the dreams of an illiterate drunkard; but they were not without value as a vague and symbolical expression of certain evils from which the France of his day was suffering." 

--William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923), A Critical Examination of Socialism (1907), chap. 16

12 November 2013

He Said It: Coolidge

"It is something far more important than a sordid desire for gain. It could not succeed on that basis. It is dominated by a more worthy impulse; it rests on a higher law. True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other. While it is not an end in itself, it is the important means for the attainment of a supreme end. It rests squarely on the law of service. It has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race."

--President Calvin Coolidge, "Government and Business," Address before the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, New York City, November 19, 1925

19 August 2013

Breaking News: Otteson Headed to Wake Forest

Dear Friends, Students, and Colleagues:

I have accepted a new position and will be leaving Yeshiva University. As of September 1, 2013, I will be the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University.

This is a tremendous opportunity for me. The Center is beginning its sixth year of existence, having been funded by continuing support from the BB&T Foundation. The Center's mission is to encourage the study of capitalism in all its facets, and, more generally, to explore the institutions that enable human flourishing. We want to know how a society of free and responsible persons can live together peacefully, and we want to examine the political, economic, moral, and cultural institutions that encourage prosperity and humanity. 

Wake Forest's motto is "Pro Humanitate," which is usually translated as "for humanity." But the Latin word humanitas is much broader, and deeper, than what the English word "humanity" usually means today. It indicates not only human beings, but humane life. It denotes a distinctly human virtue whereby people treat each other with the respect, dignity, and compassion that humanity requires. In this way, "Pro Humanitate" means something like: "in the service of promoting a fully humane life for all." That captures perfectly the mission of the Center for the Study of Capitalism. 

I emphasize that the Center's name is "Center for the Study of Capitalism," not the "Center for Capitalism." That is a small but momentous distinction. We are interested in figuring out what these prosperity-enabling institutions are, and promoting them, whatever they are. Our investigations will thus be nonideological and nonpartisan. Capitalism has been a source of tremendous, even unprecedented, prosperity; like all human institutions, however, it is not perfect. We will want to examine it disinterestedly, understanding and exposing both the good and the bad, and then promoting the former and discouraging the latter. In other words, the Center's work will be not only rigorous but serious. There is too much at stake to take any other stance.

For those of you who know me or my work, you will recognize that these are my own central scholarly and intellectual concerns. So this position is a great fit. 

We also hope to create a true intellectual community comprised of people from various disciplines and perspectives who are united in their commitment to the spirit of the Center's enterprise. If you are a person who shares our sense of purpose, and might like to associate with us somehow, donate to us, or just keep abreast of our activities, please reach out to me and let me know.

As excited as I am to begin this new chapter of my career, I must also admit to some sadness to be leaving Yeshiva University. Before all else, I will miss my students. As I have had occasion to say to many people in many forums, the students at Yeshiva are outstanding--unlike any others I have encountered elsewhere. Their seriousness of purpose, their intelligence and diligence, and their genuine interest in ideas, all combined with a typically light, even humorous disposition, have made them a delight to work with. Every day I have learned something new from them, and every class I taught they kept me on my toes. 

To my students: It has been my honor and my privilege to work with you, and to make whatever meager contribution I could to your development. You have demanded the very best from me, and I have willingly given it; but you have given me your best in return, which has made everything more than worthwhile. A professor could ask for no more from his students. I thank you for what you have given me.

James R. Otteson

11 July 2013

He Said It: Zemyatin

"It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment." 

--Yevgeny Zemyatin, "On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters" (1923), quoted in the "Introduction" to Zemyatin's 1920/21 novel We (New York: Modern Library, 2006), p. xi.

24 June 2013

He Said It: McChesney

"Even if politicians eventually allow themselves to be bought off, their minatory presence reduces the expected value of entrepreneurial ability and specific-capital investments. The possibility that government may reduce returns to their capital unless paid off reduces firms' incentives to invest in the first place. It also induces inefficient shifts to investment in more mobile or salvageable (that is, less firm specific) forms of capital as insurance against expropriation. In either event, the allocative losses from politicans' ability to extract the returns from private capital are measured by investments that are never made in the industry threatened."

--Fred S. McChesney, "Rent Extraction and Rent Creation in the Economic Theory of Regulation," The Journal of Legal Studies 16, 1 (January 1987): 101-118. 

[Editorial comment: Frédéric Bastiat, call your office!]

14 June 2013

A Philosopher's Objections to NSA Surveillance

I appeared on the Wall Street Journal's "OpinionLive" yesterday. Its excellent host Mary Kissel, who is a member of the editorial board of the WSJ, interviewed me about my objections to recent revelations about the NSA surveillance of American Citizens:

[One note of self-criticism: At the 2:23 mark, I misspoke: I refer to the "Virginia Articles of Confederation," when I meant to say the "Virginia Declaration of Rights."]

31 May 2013

Now Available in Paperback!

My book Adam Smith, which was first published by Continuum in 2011 as part of John Meadowcroft's "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers" series, is finally coming out in paperback. It is slated to appear on August 1st, and will be brought out by Bloomsbury Publishing, which bought the rights. (Here's a linkif you would like to pre-order it.)

The book gives an overview of Smith's life and works, and it offers an assessment of what Smith got wrong and what he got right. (Spoiler: It turns out there is a lot more of the latter than the former.) The book includes a bibliography, and it closes with a discussion of whether Smith is in fact "conservative" or "libertarian"--or something else entirely. 

It is intended for the educated lay person, and our hope is that professors will use it as a complementary text in courses that discuss Smith. I hope you will have a look.

P.S. What do you think of the cover? 

17 May 2013

He Said It: Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson
"Take, for example, the problem of designing a national health-care system. Washington is packed to the gills with people who believe that they have the ability to design an intelligent national health-care system, but there is not one who does—no Democrat, no Republican, no independent. The information burden is just too vast. Imagine a radically simplified health-care system, one in which any medical problem could be treated by taking one of fifty pills, but you can have only one pill a month, so you have to prioritize. That presents each individual with 58,150,627,116,341,760,000 options (that's '58 quintillion')--the number of ways to rank 12 choices out of 50 options--and political managers would have to do so for every American. Since there are 300 million Americans, we have to do a calculation for each one, meaning that we have to consider 1.74 x 1028 options, one of those numbers so large we don't have a common name for it. And since we'll assume that people's needs will change over time (an eighteen-year-old doesn't have the same health-care needs as an eighty-one-year-old), we'll want to review everybody's plan once a year. As they say in the political speeches, we're going to consider all of our options and take all of the information into account.

"Except we pretty obviously aren't.

"[...E]ven at the rate of one scenario per second we're in big trouble, since the number of seconds that have passed since the beginning of the universe (dated from the Big Bang, some 14 billion years ago) is a lot less than the number of possibilities we have to consider, only 4.42 x 1017 seconds in total. Put in perspective, the number of options to be examined in our ridiculously simplified system is 30 billion times the number of seconds that have passed since the beginning of time."

08 May 2013

He Said It: Mackey

"[B]usiness is not inherently flawed and sinful or in need of redemption. Business is fundamentally about people working together cooperatively to create value for other people. It is the greatest creator of value in the world. This is what makes business ethical and what makes it beautiful. It is fundamentally good. It becomes even better when it is more fully conscious of its inherent higher purposes and extraordinary potential for value creation."

--John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business(Harvard Business Press, 2013), p. 263.

07 May 2013

The 2012-'13 Academic Year in Review: Talks and Lectures

The end of the academic term means that it is time for professors to supply their employers with an accounting of what they did during the previous year. 2012-13 being no different, I thought I might supply here a list of my highlights. 

In this post, the talks and lectures I gave, in chronological order:

1. "Do Markets and Morality Mix? An Introduction to Moral Philosophy," the University of Rochester, September 2012.

2. "Wealth and Modern Democracy," a series of five lectures delivered at the Tikvah Post-BA Fellowship Program, New York City, October 2012.

3. "Adam Smith on Justice and Social Justice," Dartmouth College, October 2012.

4. "The 'Adam Smith Problem': Can Economics and Morality Mix?" Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, November 2012. 

5. "A Conversation on the Morality of Capitalism" (with Ron Sider) Eastern University, January 2013.

6. "The Morality of Capitalism" (panel discussant), the Manhattan Institute, New York, February 2013.

7. "Adam Smith and Social Justice," Loyola University of Baltimore, February 2013.

8. "Justice, Social Justice, and Adam Smith" and "Rethinking Capitalism and Equality," the McConnell Center, University of Louisville, March 2013. (Here is a link to the video of this talk.)

9. "Adam Smith, Justice, and Social Justice," the University of Arizona, March 2013.

10. "Adam Smith on Justice and Social Justice," University of North Carolina-Greensboro, April 2013.

As you can see, my talks reflect themes I am most interested in, especially at the moment: Adam Smith, the morality of capitalism, and some arguments I am exploring in the book I am working on, The End of Socialism.

In separate posts, I will give some highlights of other activities, like courses I taught, things I wrote, and conferences I attended. I will also post my plans for the summer (hint: finish writing my book and the article I have promised, but am late with, for Princeton University Press and Ryan Hanley). 

25 April 2013

He Said It: Coase

"The question remains: how is it that these great men [viz., J.S. Mill, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, and Paul Samuelson] have, in their economic writings, been led to make statements about lighthouses which are misleading as to the facts, and which, to the extent that they imply a policy conclusion, are very likely to be wrong? The explanation is that these references by economists to lighthouses are not the result of their having made a study of lighthouses or having read a detailed study by some other economist. Despite the extensive use of the lighthouse example in the literature, no economist, to my knowledge, has ever made a comprehensive study of lighthouse finance and administration. The lighthouse is simply plucked out of the air to serve as an illustration. The purpose of the lighthouse example is to provide 'corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative' [William S. Gilbert, 'The Mikado']. 

"This seems to me the wrong approach."

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Lighthouse in Economics," Journal of Law and Economics 17, 2 (October 1974), pp. 374-5.

24 April 2013

He Said It: Coase

"The government is, in a sense, a super-firm (but of a very special kind) since it is able to influence the use of the factors of production by administrative decision. But the ordinary firm is subject to checks in its operations by the competition of other firms, which might administer the same activities at lower cost and also because there is always the alternative of market transactions as against organisation within the firm if the administrative costs become too great. The government is able, if it wishes, to avoid the market altogether, which a firm can never do. The firm has to make market agreements with the owners of the factors of production that it uses. Just as the government can conscript or seize property, so it can decree that factors of production should only be used in such-and-such a way. Such authoritarian methods save a lot of trouble (for those doing the organising). Furthermore, the government has at its disposal the police and the other law enforcement officials to make sure that its regulations are carried out.

"It is clear that the government has powers which might enable it to get some things done at a lower cost than could a private organisation (or at any rate one without special governmental powers). But the governmental administrative machine is not itself costless. It can, in fact, on occasion be extremely costly. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that the restrictive and zoning regulations, made by a fallible administration subject to political pressure and operating without any competitive check, will necessarily always be those which increase the efficiency with which the economic system operates. Furthermore, such general regulations which must apply to a wide variety of cases will be enforced in some cases in which they are clearly inappropriate. From these considerations it follows that direct governmental regulation will not necessarily give better results than leaving the problem to be solved by the market or the firm. But equally there is no reason why, on occasion, such governmental administrative regulation should not lead to an improvement in economic efficiency. This would seem particularly likely when, as is normally the case with the smoke nuisance, a large number of people are involved and in which therefore the costs of handling the problem through the market or the firm may be high.

"There is, of course, a further alternative, which is to do nothing about the problem at all. And given that the costs involved in solving the problem of regulations issued by the governmental administrative machine will often be heavy (particularly if the costs are interpreted to include all the consequences which follow from the Government engaging in this kind of activity), it will no doubt be commonly the case that the gain which would come from regulating the actions which give rise to the harmful effects will be less than the costs involved in Government Regulation."

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Problem of Social Cost," Journal of Law and Economics 3 (October 1960), pp. 17-18.

23 April 2013

He Said It: Kierkegaard

"If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in the dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair? If such were the situation, if there were no sacred bond that knit humankind together, if one generation emerged after another like forest foliage, if one generation succeeded another like the singing of the birds in the forest, if a generation passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as wind through the desert, an unthinking and unproductive performance, if an eternal oblivion, perpetually hungry, lurked for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrench that away from it--how empty and devoid of consolation life would be! But precisely for that reason it is not so, and just as God created man and woman, so He created the hero and the poet or orator." 

--Johannes de Silentio (a.k.a. Søren Kierkegaard), "Eulogy on Abraham," from Fear and Trembling (1843)

He Said It: Coase

"It is perhaps the main achievement of economic science that it has shown that there is no reason to suppose that specialisation must lead to chaos." 

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Nature of the Firm," Economica 4, 16 (November 1937), p. 398

15 April 2013

He Said It: David Hume

"It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of those biasses to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."

--David Hume (1711-76), Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), section 1