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

09 April 2013

He Said It: Buchanan


"The scholarly field of economics as practiced and promulgated in this century has done its share of damage. Rather than allow the study of economics to offer genuine intellectual adventure and excitement, we have converted it into a complex mathematical and empirical science. This trend was only partially offset during the decades of the Cold War, when the continuing challenge of fighting communism offered motivation to liberals such as Hayek and a relatively small number of his peers. But since then, the discipline has become piddling puzzle solving. How can we make economics come alive again, especially for those who will never be professionally trained economists?"


--James M. Buchanan (1919-2013), "Saving the Soul of Classical Liberalism" (from the Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2000)

20 February 2013

He Said It: Percy

"In a word, thanks to the Jews, one can emerge from the enchanted mists of the mythical past, the Roman and Arthurian and Confederate past, lovely as it is. For, whatever else the Jews are, they are not mythical. Myths are stories which did not happen. But the Jews were there then and are here now.

"Semitic? Semiotic? Jews and the science of signs? Yes, because in this age of the lost self, lost in the desert of theory and consumption, nothing of significance remains but signs. And only two signs are of significance in a world where all theoretical cats are gray. One is oneself and the other is the Jews. But for the self that finds itself lost in the desert of theory and consumption, there is nothing to do but set out as a pilgrim in the desert in search of a sign. In this desert, that of theory and consumption, there remains only one sign, the Jews. By 'the Jews' I mean not only Israel, the exclusive power of God, but the worldwide ecclesia instituted by one of them, God-become-man, a Jew."

--Walker Percy, "Why Are You Catholic?" (1990)

12 February 2013

He Said It: Pope (The English Poet, Not the Supreme Pontiff)

"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err; 
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!"

--Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Essay on Man, Epistle II (1734)

05 February 2013

They Said It: Schwab and Ostrom

"Finally, it is worth noting that institutions--even well-designed ones--will not lead to beneficial outcomes by themselves. Institutions are inseparable from the people who make use of them, and, as noted above, all rules are subject to manipulation by political actors. Thus, at some point, we must cease to rely upon institutional corrections and place our faith in a citizenry well educated in virtue. Ultimately, we must be the guardians."

--David Schwab and Elinor Ostrom, "The Vital Role of Norms and Rules in Maintaining Open Public and Private Economies," in Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, Paul J. Zak, ed. (Princeton, 2008), 233; italics in the original.

29 January 2013

He Said It: Buchanan

"The European classical liberal, who is well represented by [F. A.] Hayek, can and perhaps should stress the evolutionary sources of many of the institutions that stand as bulwarks of individual freedom. The American cannot, and should not, neglect the fact that his own heritage of freedom, although owing much to its European antecedents, was deliberately 'constructed' in large part by James Madison and his compatriots. Theirs were no invisible hands."

--James M. Buchanan (1919-2013), "Law and the Invisible Hand" (1976), contained in The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, vol. 17, Moral Science and Moral Order (Liberty Fund, 2001), 109.

28 January 2013

He Said It: Keynes

"The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: Economic Efficiency, Social Justice, and Individual Liberty. The first needs criticism, precaution, and technical knowledge; the second, an unselfish and enthusiastic spirit which loves the ordinary man; the third, tolerance, breadth, appreciation of the excellencies of variety, and independence, which prefers, above everything, to give unhindered opportunity to the exceptional and to the aspiring. The second ingredient is the best possession of the great party of the Proletariat [i.e., Labour]. But the first and third require the qualities of the [Liberal] party which, by its traditions and ancient sympathies, has been the home of Economic Individualism and Social Liberty." 

--John Maynard Keynes, "Liberalism and Labour" (1926)

22 January 2013

He Said It: Collingwood

"Yet these utopian dreams, these rebellions against the sordid aims of the economic life, against the worship of gain and the acquiescence in a competitive system, are not wholly to be condemned. They are both foolish and vicious if they proceed from a desire to enjoy wealth without winning it in the open market. If people who cannot get as high a price as they want for their goods or labor complain that only a ruthless competitive system prevents them from getting more, they are merely throwing a cloak of hypocritical moralizing over their own disappointed greed. The competitive system of which they complain is just the fact that they, and people like them, want all they can get. But the economic life is not everything; and it is right to protest against the assumption that buying cheap and selling dear make up the whole duty of man. Indeed, a renunciation of purely economic aims is the essence, negatively defined, of the moral life." 

--R. G. Collingwood, "Economics as a Philosophical Science," International Journal of Ethics 36, 2 (January 1926): 162-185

21 January 2013

He Said It: John Gray

"The same myth--a hollowed-out version of a religious belief in providence--underpins the abiding appeal of Communism. One of the features that distinguished Bolshevism from Tsarism was the insistence of Lenin and his followers on the need for a complete overhaul of society. Old-fashioned despots may modernize in piecemeal fashion if doing so seems necessary to maintain their power, but they do not aim at remaking society on a new model, still less at fashioning a new type of humanity. Communist regimes engaged in mass killing in order to achieve these transformations, and paradoxically it is this essentially totalitarian ambition that has appealed to liberals. Here as elsewhere, the commonplace distinction between utopianism and meliorism is less than fundamental. In its predominant forms, liberalism has been in recent times a version of the religion of humanity, and with rare exceptions--[Bertrand] Russell is one of the few that come to mind--liberals have seen the Communist experiment as a hyperbolic expression of their own project of improvement; if the experiment failed, its casualties were incurred for the sake of a progressive cause. To think otherwise--to admit the possibility that the millions who were judged to be less than fully human suffered and died for nothing--would be to question the idea that history is a story of continuing human advance, which for liberals today is an article of faith. That is why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many of them continue to deny Communism’s clear affinities with Fascism. Blindness to the true nature of Communism is an inability to accept that radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress." 

--John Gray, "Communism, Fascism and liberals now," Times Literary Supplement, 2 January 2013

15 January 2013

Unique Opportunity: The Tikvah Fellowship

The Jerusalem Post recently ran a lengthy feature article on the Tikvah Fellowship, a New York-based program for which I have served as a lecturer. The Fellowship is a year-long educational program designed, in its own words, "for exceptional individuals interested in the political, religious, and intellectual future of the Jewish people." The Post called the fellowship the "boot camp of Jewish learning," and, as someone who has worked with the program, I can tell you it is that and a whole lot more.

A project of the Tikvah Fund, the Tikvah Fellowship provides its "Fellows" with a paid (!) opportunity to:

(1) Study the great ideas of classical and Jewish thought in areas such as economics, love and family life, and war and morality;
(2) Advance a project related to Jewish life and/or Israeli society;
(3) Learn with an international class of fellow participants; and
(4) Meet and work with leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of Jewish thought and history, Israeli and American politics, religious leadership, journalism, economics, education, and community life.

The roster of faculty members is quite impressive; this year it includes people like William Kristol, Victor Davis Hanson, James Capretta, Ryan Hanley, Russ Roberts, Yuval Levin, Ruth Wisse, and Michael Walzer. Courses offered in the past have included "Religion and State in Modern Democracy," "War, Morality, and Statesmanship," "Political Foundings," and "Wealth and Modern Democracy." The course I taught last year was called "Economics and the Human Good." 

But this program is much more than merely another year spent taking courses. It is really the creation of an intellectual community. The program Fellows are themselves an extraordinary group of people. They are all impressively accomplished, but from an array of perspectives, experiences, disciplines, and places. (Several students of mine from Yeshiva University have been current and past Fellows.) They share office space in midtown Manhattan, take meals together, start reading groups, hatch ideas for scholarly projects, create partnerships for charities or businesses, and on and on. Because it takes place in New York and is supported by the Tikvah Fund, it has considerable resources at its disposal--and the Fellows exploit those resources. I remain in contact with many of the Fellows who have taken my classes or attended my lectures, and they have gone on to do impressive things indeed. 

I know of no other educational program doing anything quite like what the Tikvah Fellowship does. I wish it had been in existence when I was a student! 

The 2013-14 Fellowship Program is accepting applications through January 31. That's only a couple weeks away, so if you or someone you know might be interested in submitting an application, you will have to act quickly. See www.tikvahfellowship.org for further details on courses, work projects, compensation, eligibility, and instructions on how to apply.

05 December 2012

He Said It: Adam Smith (Yes, Adam Smith)

"By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. [...] Under necessaries therefore, I comprehend, not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people." 

--Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), V.ii.k.3

05 November 2012

Update on Hurricane Sandy Status

Dear Students, Colleagues, and Friends,

Hurricane Sandy was a major shock to many of the proceedings at my home institution, Yeshiva University, and, in my case in particular, it has put a significant delay in many of the projects I am working on. The lack of power, heat, and gas for many days makes modern urban life surprisingly difficult. Please have patience with me and with the rest of the YU community as we struggle to catch up.

More specifically:

1. The Philosophy Department at YU is currently running a search. I am chair of the search committee,  but it has been difficult to respond in a timely way over the last week to all the e-mails, inquiries, requests for information, etc. I am doing my best, but please do not be offended if I do not respond to your e-mail immediately. The search is continuing, though deadlines, evaluations of dossiers, and so on have been delayed.

2. My students are in various stages of having papers due, preparing for examinations, and waiting to receive graded papers. I have now (on Monday, November 5) finally returned to the office, and so I am now working to get caught back up and get on top of these matters. I may not be able to make appointments with every student who wishes to meet with me personally. I will do my best.

3. Finally, to my colleagues in Yeshiva College and elsewhere with whom I am working on projects or who are interested to have me work with them on projects: for the next few weeks I may not be as able to join you as I would like or as I would otherwise have been. My apologies.

Thank you to all of you who have contacted me to express your best wishes and even make offers of help during the hurricane's aftermath. Life will soon be back, I hope, to its normal level of absurd business.

With best wishes,

James Otteson

19 September 2012

He Said It: David Rose

I just discovered this lecture [h/t: Max Hocutt] given by economist David Rose last April to the Show-Me Institute in Missouri. The lecture is based on his excellent new book, The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior (Oxford, 2012). (My review of the book in The Independent Review has just been published online here; I went so far as to describe it as "potentially pathbreaking.") Rose's lecture is about one hour long; if you can spare the time, it's well worth a look:

18 September 2012

Otteson and the President

President Václav Klaus and I, 7 September 2012
[courtesy Jerri Shields]
No, not that president. I was in Prague two weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to meet the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus. Having lived through a communist regime, and played an integral role in its transition to a republic, President Klaus is an impressive person who has lived an extraordinary life. It was an honor and a privilege for me to meet him.


In a future post, I may discuss the provocative paper he gave. In the meantime, here is a picture with both of us.

12 September 2012

He Said It: Russell

"When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind." 

--Bertrand Russell, "Heraclitus," chap. 4 of his 1945 History of Western Philosophy

30 August 2012

He Said It: Hazony

Yoram Hazony spoke at Yeshiva University yesterday, addressing themes from his new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. 

Cambridge University Press, which published the book, put together a brief animated (!) video trailer for the book. Have a look: 

(I hope Cambridge puts together something as cool as that when it brings my new book out early next year!)

22 August 2012

He Said It: Adam Smith

"It is not the actual greatness of national wealth, but its continual increase, which occasions a rise in the wages of labour. It is not, accordingly, in the richest countries, but in the most thriving, or in those which are growing rich the fastest, that the wages of labour are highest. [...] But though North America is not yet so rich as England, it is much more thriving, and advancing with much greater rapidity to the further acquisition of riches." 

--Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), I.viii.22-23

19 July 2012

He Said It: Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet,
a.k.a. Voltaire, 1694-1778
"The [1734] essay 'Sur le Commerce,' of [Jean-François] Melon, is the work of a man of sense, a good citizen, and an excellent philosopher. [...] There are, however, a number of errors in that excellent book; so great progress as he has made in the road to truth was no easy matter: it is a service done to the public to point out the mistakes that happen in a useful book. It is indeed in such only [that] we should look for them. It is showing respect to a great work to contradict it; a bad one does not deserve that honor."


--Voltaire, "On Commerce and Liberty" (1738), in Commerce, Culture, and Liberty, Henry C. Clark, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003): 277-8.

29 June 2012

Summer Reading

Some brief thoughts on a few books I am reading this summer, over at Pileus. They are connected to my current research project, which is a book on philosophical arguments supporting or defending socialism. Please send along  any suggestions about other titles I should read. 

28 June 2012

Disclaimer on "Said It" Posts

I received an anonymous question that prompts this disclaimer:

I do not necessarily endorse any of the sentiments expressed in the "He/She/They Said It" posts on this website. Neither should any such posts be taken as my endorsement of other things any of them said. I post passages I come across that I find interesting--which can mean strange, bizarre, or disturbing, just as much as it can mean profound, instructive, or insightful. So-defined, 'interesting' passages can sometimes be found in surprising places, including in the work of authors who elsewhere wrote quite distasteful things. 

Unless otherwise expressly stated, then, please do not assume that any passage quoted here--or any link to any book, article, clip, passage, etc.--represents my own position. Similarly, those views of my own that I express here are only my own and do not necessarily represent those of any organization or person with whom I may be associated. 

Please feel free to contact me for elaborations or with specific questions. Thank you.

26 June 2012

They Said It: Skidelsky and Skidelsky

"The point to keep in mind is that we know, prior to anything scientists or statisticians can tell us, that the unending pursuit of wealth is madness." 

"Economists have to start innocent of all distracting ideas. They have to have minds sufficiently empty to construct or accept those axiomatic models of human behavior that are their bread and butter. Late adolescence is the ideal time to start such a training."

--Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (New York: Other Press, 2012), pp. 7-8 and 61, respectively

17 May 2012

He Said It: Calhoun

"The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and preserve order, cannot execute themselves. They must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings. And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That, by which this is prevented, by whatever name called, is what is meant by CONSTITUTION, in its most comprehensive sense, when applied to GOVERNMENT." 

--John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government (published posthumously in 1851); quoted in Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, Ross M. Lence, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 9.

11 May 2012

In Defense of Evolution

There are many reasons critics have objected to President Obama's "evolved" position on same-sex marriage: it reflects only crass political calculation, it's an attempt to deflect criticism of more important things like the economy, it threatens traditional marriage, it is hypocritical because he has publicly advocated contradictory positions. And so on--the criticisms are easy to find.

One set, however, focuses on the the act of changing one's mind--of "evolving"--itself, and alleges that this is a weakness, or an intellectual vice. But is it? A former professor of mine once told me that if a person does not change his mind every ten years, he is not thinking hard enough. There is an important truth there: With each passing year we accumulate more experience and (one hopes) we learn more; should we not, then, expect that we should change our mind about many things?

This has certainly been my experience. My views about many issues--including moral, political, and economic--have changed over my adult lifetime. I cringe when I recall some of the things I professed to believe as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student, and even earlier in my career as a professor. As I run through the list in my mind of the authors, books, charismatic professors, and persuasive colleagues and friends who have at various times brought me to see the world through their eyes, I am proud and pleased at some of them--and disappointed and embarrassed at others.

This holds true on both small and on fundamental issues. I have changed my position on everything from abortion to health care policy to organ sales to hunting to the moral implications of evolutionary descent. On many other issues my thinking is still developing: the justification of property, the ultimate sources of moral normativity, the limits of markets, the effects of some kinds of economic regulation, whether Hume or Locke is the greater thinker, what the causes of human prosperity are, Macbeth or King Lear. And so on. 

I do not believe that is a vice or weakness; well, at least it is not a vice. I take it to be rather an acknowledgement of the limitations of my intellect and the skepticism that that implies. There is just so much more to learn, so many more things to consider, so much that is unknown. Everything is more complicated than one initially thought. Everything. So believing one has come to final, definitive positions strikes me as usually rash and hasty. 

One thing I think I have learned over the years is that we are far more likely to overestimate our knowledge than to underestimate it, far more likely to have too much confidence in our beliefs than not enough, far more likely to form judgments with insufficient consideration than to wait too long to judge. Thus I think the virtue is rather to be skeptical and humble, rather to withhold judgment, rather to give others the benefit of the doubt, rather to hold one's opinions tentatively--subject to correction, amendment, even rejection, upon further consideration--instead of the reverse.

So when someone says that as a result of further, considered reflection he has changed his mind, even on something important--perhaps especially on something important--I take that as a sign of an active, inquisitive intellect, not weakness or cowardice or pandering. Even if his new position is one with which I disagree, my first thought is that I need to hear his reasons, because perhaps I will need to change my mind too. 

08 May 2012

Appearance on "Real News"

I appeared yesterday on the internet-only nightly news program called "Real News." The topic of our panel discussion was Hollande's recent election in France, and its financial and political implications. Here is a clip from the middle five minutes or so of our discussion:


01 May 2012

"An Audacious Promise"

The Manhattan Institute of New York has just published a brief essay of mine as part of its "MI Issues 2012" series. My essay's title: "An Audacious Promise: The Moral Case for Capitalism." Comments, objections,  and suggestions are welcome. 

The "Issues 2012" series comprises several penetrating essays--on everything from health care to energy policy to education to taxes--that give expert, fact-based commentary designed to help voters make informed decisions in the 2012 elections. I am privileged to be in the company of MI's accomplished authors. 


UPDATE 1: I am recording a podcast of my essay for the Manhattan Institute. I will post a link when it is ready.


UPDATE 1.1: And here is the link to the podcast that the Manhattan Institute created. I am interviewed by Howard Husock, Vice President at MI. The podcast lasts about 11 minutes.


UPDATE 2: My essay has generated some media interest. I am being interviewed today (5/1/12) on the Lars Larson radio program at approximately 7:20pm Eastern


UPDATE 3: Mary Kissel, a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, tweeted: "My May Day reading: 'The Moral Case for Capitalism.'"


UPDATE 4: The American Enterprise Blog put my piece on its "must reads" for May 1, as did the Wall Street Journal's "Secondary Sources."


UPDATE 5 (5/4/12): I'll be on Glenn Beck's internet-based television show this afternoon, during the 3:30pm - 4:30pm slot, talking about the morality of capitalism. I've also just scheduled an interview on the Randy Tobler radio show for about 8am Eastern on Saturday, 5/5/12. UPDATE 12:28pm: The GBTV producer has informed me that they're nixing the "economics" segment on which I was to appear; we'll reschedule. 


UPDATE 6: My original MI piece has now broken the 400+ FB "like" and 100+ Tweet marks. Woo-hoo!

25 April 2012

Today's Pop Quiz: Name that Work

Below is the opening sentence from an important work, one that I am coincidentally teaching in one of my classes beginning this week. Without googling it or otherwise looking it up--you're on your honor!--can you guess from what work, or from what author, it comes? (Note: My students are not eligible to play!)
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
Feel free either to post your guesses in the comments, or to send them to me via e-mail. Answer to come by the end of the week.

23 April 2012

She Said It: Woolf

"For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking of the body of the people, so that experience of the mass is behind the single voice."

"It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey--whoever it may be--never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use. The weight, the pace, the stride of a man's mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully. The ape is too distant to be sedulous." 

--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

05 April 2012

Students for Liberty Update

Last month, Students for Liberty hosted a webinar for some fifteen competitively-selected graduate students. They read my working paper, "Markets and Order: The Contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment." Here is my original notice of the event.

Now one of those students, a law student at Oxford called Steve Pemberton, has published a "Reflections" on my paper and on our discussion. You can find it here.

My thanks to Mr. Pemberton, as well as to SFL.

28 March 2012

He Said It: Macaulay

Another quote from the great Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay, from an 1845 speech:
"It is not one single cause that makes nations either prosperous or miserable. No friend of free trade is such an idiot as to say that free trade is the only valuable thing in the world; that religion, government, police, education, the administration of justice, public expenditure, foreign relations, have nothing whatever to do with the well-being of nations."
[Quoted in Douglas A. Irwin, Free Trade Under Fire, 3rd. ed. (Princeton, 2009), 69. I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Irwin give a talk yesterday.]