28 December 2009

He Said It: Darwin

"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." --Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), "Introduction"

22 December 2009

Building Up and Tearing Down

This thoughtful blog post (hat tip to an excellent student), which recommends the teaching of "appreciative thinking" at least as much as "critical thinking," reminds me of this passage from Shaftesbury:
It is certain that in matters of learning and philosophy the practice of pulling down is far pleasanter and affords more entertainment than that of building and setting up. Many have succeeded to a miracle in the first who have miserably fallen in the latter of those attempts. We may find a thousand engineers who can sap, undermine and blow up with admirable dexterity for one who can build a fort or lay the platform for a citadel.
And Shaftesbury published that in 1711!

20 December 2009

Unequal Protection from the Costs of Medicaid?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal that was struck with Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to get the crucial 60 votes needed to proceed on its health care bill included giving Nebraska's citizens an exemption enjoyed by the citizens of no other states: "Mr. Nelson also won a commitment that the federal government would pick up his home state's share of the cost of expanding Medicaid."

By saying that those costs would be picked up by the federal government, the Journal means that they will be borne by the citizens of other states. The citizens of Nebraska will be exempt from paying for the tremendous expansion of Medicaid, while the citizens of other states will not only pay their own share but also Nebraska's portion as well.

I want the same exemption.

I don't believe for one second the suggestion that the new programs will cost only what the Senate and the CBO currently estimate. It would, first of all, be the first federal government program in history to cost only what its supporters say it would up front. And I find the idea that they will cut $500 billion from Medicare laughable. I promise you, it will never happen.

(This past July, President Obama promised, "That is why I have pledged that I will not sign health insurance reform that adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it." Do you believe him? I certainly don't. What's he willing to wager on that promise? If he's wrong, will he rescind the bill? Will he pay personally for the difference? If he's so confident that he can speak of even "one dime," why shouldn't he?)

So this will add hundreds of billions of dollars--trillions, even--to the mounting national debt that our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay. These future generations will have to work all their lives to pay for the benefits we demand now for ourselves. I think that is morally wrong. It is akin to forced labor. Paying for the benefits now, through current taxation, is one thing. I would still oppose it, but at least it's closer to having those who benefit from the program also be the ones who pay for it. But financing it through debt makes future people--who had no say in the program, who were not asked, who did not voluntarily join the agreement--nevertheless have to pay for it. How can that be justified?

So, I repeat: I want the same exemption from paying that Nebraska's citizens will enjoy. I will go farther. I want an exemption from paying for the entire thing, not just expanded Medicaid coverage, and I want a permanent exemption (like Nebraska's citizens) for my children and descendants for any and all debt created by the program. In return, I offer never to use or benefit from any government health insurance or health care program.

Mr. President, will you grant me this exemption?

One other question. Wouldn't Nebraska's special exemption violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?

08 December 2009

Why I Watch "Fox News" (And Why You Should Too)

Among the places I get my daily news is Fox News. Given my line of work (academic professor) and where I work (New York), I get a lot of grief for this. When asked, I give three main reasons why I watch it:

1. By viewership, Fox boasts the top 13 news and commentary programs in the country, garnering approximately 20 million viewers per day combined. That is many millions more than any other television news programs. Thus Fox is what Americans are watching, and I think it is important to know what Americans are watching. I also think that people who comment on the American political, economic, or cultural scene--as I sometimes do--have an obligation to pay attention to the central organs that reflect and influence that scene, whether one agrees with what those organs offer or not. Fox is clearly one of them.

(Incidentally, the New York Times used to be one of those central organs, and perhaps it still is; but with a daily readership now below 1 million, its best days are probably behind it.)

2. Fox often presents viewpoints that the other news sources do not. Fox has guests and commentators representing conservative, libertarian, free-market, constitutionalist, Christian, Republican, and other perspectives that often get short shrift, or no voice at all, in other media outlets. Yet Fox also gives the news and perspectives that other media outlets do give. So on Fox one gets the news and comment that one gets from other news sources, and in addition one also gets news and comment largely absent from the other sources.

3. Finally, I find that Fox has less of the condescension toward Americans that one gets on other news sources. Watching MSNBC or CNN, for example, one gets a lot of frustration and consternation--and condescension--at the beliefs, folkways, mores, and conventions of Americans.

Exhibit A for this is the treatment these outlets have given to the Tea Party protests that swept across America over the summer months this year. These were amazing phenomena, in numbers of participants, in numbers of events, in lack of violence, in--most striking to me--the degree to which leaders and participants actually made substantive arguments about first principles of government (liberty, rights, natural law, competing theories of constitutional interpretation, economics, etc.).

Yet non-Fox coverage of these events tended to be grudging, and, when it was covered, the reporters and commentators were dismissive, superior, smug, rolling their eyes at the benighted "fringe" (despite numbering in the millions) "extremists." They rarely listened to what they had to say, they rarely presented, let alone evaluated, their arguments, and they rarely took the time to ask themselves whether this spectacular grassroots phenomenon might warrant taking seriously. (The Garofalo/Olberman segment--in which protestors are called "tea-bagging rednecks," "racists," "capitalist tools," and "teabag suckers," and in which it is asserted that protesters don't know anything about taxes, don't know when the Boston Tea Party was, don't know what they're protesting or why, etc.--is perhaps the most egregious example of this smug condecension, but there was a lot more of it to be found in smaller, sometimes thinly veiled, doses in other coverage.)

Now of course one gets some dismissiveness on Fox as well. Some Fox commentators and guests are not charitable toward their opponents either, so some of this goes both ways. But there is a lot less of it, which, for me at least, makes it more tolerable to watch.

One final thought. I believe in and subscribe to John Stuart Mill's principle that the truth can be discovered, if at all, only through a crucible of contentious debate. In conversations and discussions, in my teaching, even in my writings (including both published work and blog postings), I have sometimes deliberately adopted and defended views I did not hold, precisely because I thought the consensus (with which I agreed) was too complacent and not sufficiently engaged with alternative views. I think this is part of my job as an academic. And although it has occasionally cost me dearly--when, for example, people mistake my intellectual agitation for a sincere profession of belief in things they dislike--nevertheless I believe the pursuit of truth, which is after all the business I am in, requires it.

Insofar as Fox News adds different perspectives to the national conversations, then, I applaud them for it, whether I agree with those perspectives or not.

[UPDATE 12/9/09: Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, which owns Fox News, wrote an op-ed in the WSJ today under the title, "Journalism and Freedom."]

02 December 2009

He Said It: Milton Friedman

"The college professor whose colleague wins a sweepstake will envy him but is unlikely to bear him any malice or to feel unjustly treated. Let the colleague receive a trivial raise that makes his salary higher than the professor's own, and the professor is far more likely to feel aggrieved. After all, the goddess of chance, as of justice, is blind. The salary raise was a deliberate judgment of relative merit." --Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, p. 166

My Brief Review of Raphael

I wrote a brief review of D. D. Raphael's slim volume, The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy (pictured below). The review appeared in the April 2008 volume of the Journal of the History of Philosophy. If you are interested, a PDF of my review is available here.


27 November 2009

Capitalism and Morality

Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps, the McVickar Professor of Political Economy at Columbia University, has written a fascinating short essay on the connection between justice and capitalism. He shifts the usual focus of such discussions from just or unjust distribution signatures to the aspect of human nature often overlooked: the tireless search for innovation.

I highly recommend it.

[Hat tip: Kruse Kronicle.]

23 November 2009

Responding to a Review

I discovered that one Kevin Currie-Knight posted a review of my book Actual Ethics on its amazon.com page. I thank Mr. Currie-Knight for his review. He gave it four out of five stars, which I appreciate; and he says some nice things about the book, which I also appreciate. But his reasons for not giving it a higher review were puzzling to me and I thought warranted some brief responses.

(I am not sure what the protocols for responding to reviews are, so I decided to post them here, rather than somewhere on the Amazon site.)

Currie-Knight misspells my name throughout his review. I wouldn't hold that against him, but it does suggest perhaps that he does not pay attention to details. Perhaps that explains some of Currie-Knight's curious criticisms.

Here is his first objection, pasted exactly as it appears on the amazon.com page (thus without the numerous sic's from me):
I am a bit skeptical of Otterson's central idea that the only just ethic is one which treats all people as ends rather than means. Not that we should not do this, but the very capitalism Otterson defends does not always do this. Employers see employers as means, employees see employers as means, producers see consumers as means (to more revenue) and consumers see producers as means (of getting products and services). The entire process of bargaining (getting the most from the other for as little expenditure as possible) involves seeing the other as a means to get what you want for as little cost as necessary. I could be wrong, but that Otterson did not even entertain this objection floored me.

This would indeed be a serious omission, not least because it seems obviously false that people are allowed morally to treat others only as ends and never also as means. Even Kant himself is careful to make the proper distinction--not just between treating others as ends or as means simpliciter, but also between treating others as ends or also as means.

Thankfully, I did not omit addressing the objection Currie-Knight accuses me of omitting. On p. 6, I write:
Of course persons may be treated as means--when one pays someone else to mow one's lawn, for example--but persons may never be treated merely as means. Respecting the lawnmower's personhood would entail, for example, making him an offer and allowing him either to accept or not as he judges fit; allowing him to choose is a recognition that he has his own 'ends' or goals or purposes--he is a person, in other words, not a thing. (italics in the original)
Apparently Currie-Knight missed that discussion. On to his second objection:
Neither did Otterson consider the idea that "Respecting the individual" (a) may entail more than the negative liberty of leaving her free to make decisions for herself, but (b) may not be a value that overrides all other consdierations in every case. The obvious argument in favor of public education is that we may accept small incursions into taxpayers' liberty over their money in order to enhance each individual's ability to exercise judgment by educating them at public expense. Otterson's argument, at all times, seems to reduce to pointing out that doing this violates individual sovereignty and disrespects the individual (to which the utilitarian replies that they've already admitted that it does, but that the benefits outweigh the costs. (In fact, a plausible argument could be made that as education enhances one's ability to live independently, the state is respecting individuality by helping children cultivate it.) Otterson doesn't show oterwise and, as such, talks past his opponents.)

This is really two objections. The first, that I did not consider the idea that respect for an individual might entail a requirement to do more than simply respect the person's freedom, seems especially puzzling, since the topic comes up repeatedly. Much of the book's chapters 3 and 4 specifically address our obligations to the needy, for example. Having already argued on behalf of "classical liberal" limits on state power, I argue in these chapters that those limits similarly entail limits on what the state should do to address the needy.

But I specifically--and, I thought, emphatically--argue that state obligations do not exhaust our personal moral obligations. I argue that we have personal obligations to help the needy, and that those personal obligations do and rightfully should go well beyond the state's minimal obligations.


Here, for example, is what I claim on pp. 113-114:
Now, opposing the use of political means for this kind of relief does not mean, however, opposing all kinds of relief for those who need it. On the contrary--and this cannot be emphasized enough--it means only that such cases as require the help of others are all matters of social means and social power. So the objection [I raised] is only to the use of political means, not to the provision of help generally. My argument is that when help is required, social means, and social means only, should be employed. People who need help, families that need shelter, infants who need formula, children who need operations, students who need scholarships, adults who need a second chance, laid-off workers who need new job training--in these cases and any others like them, if help is required, then take action! Do not wait for someone else to do it. Do not shift your personal moral responsibilities onto distant agencies or unknown third parties and believe that you have thereby fulfilled your duty. If in any particular situation moral responsibility attaches to the doing of something, then that responsibility can be assumed only by individuals--which means by you and me. So let us roll up our sleeves and get to work. (italics in the original)

I go on to argue that my conception of moral responsibility towards others is in fact far more demanding than my opponents', precisely because it places the responsibility on each of us personally. Now that is a controversial position to take, and one might dispute it on several grounds; several of those objections I raise and address in the text. But I did indeed discuss it, quite extensively.

Perhaps Currie-Knight missed that section of the book as well.

His third objection, noted above, is that I fail to consider utilitarian benefits to certain kinds of intrusions on personhood, in particular with respect to publicly subsidized and regulated education. Perhaps respecting the 'personhood' I defend is a reasonable default position, but, Currie-Knight suggests, that does not mean that there might not be specific occasions on which slight curtailment of absolute respect for 'personhood' is not overbalanced by the good that results. And education is a prime example.

This is another excellent objection to raise, one that any thoughtful defender of my view should take seriously; failure to address it would be a grave omission. Thankfully, however, I do address it, and I do so at quite some length.

Here is the opening paragraph, for example, from chapter 4, "The Demands of Poverty":
I argued in chapters 2 and 3 that only the limited, "classical liberal" state is consistent with respecting people's personhood. In that way I claimed to have made a "principled" case: because respecting personhood is the bedrock moral principle, disrespecting it is wrong regardless of other considerations. At the end of chapter 3, however, I suggested that the argument left one central question as yet unaddressed: What about the poor? I argued that respect for personhood meant allowing only social, not political, power to be employed to help others. But perhaps restricting the state so that it secures and enforces [this negative conception of] 'justice' will benefit those who already have (substantial?) private property. Again, where does it leave the poor? What exactly is our obligation to give to those who have less than we? If the poor suffer unduly under the classical liberal state, perhaps "general welfare" out to supersede or trump the "principled" case made earlier. (p. 129)
This seems to approximate exactly the objection Currie-Knight suggests. But note that that is the first paragraph of this chapter. I go on to devote the rest of the chapter, as well as the subsequent chapter, to addressing precisely this issue. That is quite a lot of the book for Currie-Knight to have missed.

Regarding education, I note that I devote about two-thirds of chapter 6, pp. 208-238, to discussing a range of arguments in favor of and against government involvement in education aside from the "principled" one I had defended earlier. I specifically take up the utilitarian argument by looking in some detail into the empirical results of various educational policies (pp. 229-37).

Again, one might contend that my response to the utilitarian argument is inadequate; perhaps one would argue that I overlook some of the benefits of state-regulated schooling, that I unfairly disparage the results, or perhaps that I overstate the alleged advantages of market provision of education. But to claim that I did not consider the issue is simply false.

As I state in the Preface to Actual Ethics, the book is meant to be a primer--not the final word on any of its topics, but the first (or the first few). Currie-Knight recognizes this and credits me for it; I thank him for that. The book was also written to be provocative, lively, and (I hoped) more entertaining than your typical work of political philosophy. I hoped that it would, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, constitute a fillip to discussion and perhaps reexamination in the marketplace of ideas.

As the above suggests, I think Currie-Knight's objections miss their mark, and by a lot. But his review is its own fillip in the marketplace of ideas, and it has provoked me, at least, to revisit some of the arguments in my book. For that, I thank him, however unhappy I am with the substance of the objections he raised.

Religion and Capitalism

In a recent Boston Globe article, Michael Fitzgerald reports on a study done by two Harvard researchers into some of the factors affecting economic success. One strongly influential factor the researchers found was religion--specifically, religious belief that includes a robust belief in hell.

Apparently, simple belief in God has little positive or negative correlation with economic growth; belief in heaven correlates positively, and belief in hell correlates with even bigger economic growth. The effect is apparently strongest among developing countries.

Researchers are not quite sure why this is. One speculation is that fear of punishment is a more primal motivation in human beings, and thus a fear of eternal damnation has a strong power to motivate people. So if one believes that one will be punished in the hereafter if one breaks the rules of morality, one tends to break them less often. The connection to economic growth might then consist in the fact that people who break such rules less often tend to cooperate more, work harder, cheat less, and so on--all factors in encouraging economic growth.

I find this plausible, though of course the issue is quite complicated: there are many factors influencing economic growth. Even if a link between religion and capitalism is conceded, however, it would still leave wide open the question of what to do about it. How large-scale shifts in belief or in culture take place is still largely unknown. How one might try to affect such shifts is thus even less well understood.

As an aside, I note that in my Actual Ethics, I made a related claim:
Good judgment develops [...] not only by enjoying the freedom to exercise it, but also by being required to take responsibility for its exercise. [...] Another way of making the same point: if you were going to create your own new religion, one requiring people to sacrifice and change their otherwise everyday behavior, it would help to have a hell. Promises of good things to come if one behaves the way your religion prescribes will take you some distance, more with some people and less with others; but your efforts will be considerably aided if you also have punishment for bad behavior. (pp. 11-12)
Not quite the same claim, and I was talking about the development of human judgment, not economic growth. But both seem to agree that (1) human beings respond to incentives and (2) negative incentives for unwanted behavior are at least as important, if not more, than positive incentives for wanted behavior.

UPDATE 11/27/09: This post generated a bit of discussion at Kruse Kronicle. I find myself siding with Michael Kruse in the exchange. I would add to that discussion only the recommendation of a book I found quite interesting on the subject: The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills.

19 November 2009

He Said It: Adam Smith

"A half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children, while a pampered fine lady is often incapable of bearing any, and is generally exhausted by two or three. Barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station. Luxury in the fair sex, while it enflames perhaps the passion for enjoyment, seems always to weaken, and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation." --Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

10 November 2009

A New Movie: "2081"

A student alerted me to the new movie entitled 2081, which is based on Kurt Vonnegut's chilling short story, "Harrison Bergeron." Here is a trailer for the movie. If you have not read the short story, you should. It cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. The movie looks--pardon the pun--equally chilling.

The story explores what happens if we take seriously the imperative that people should be equal. Not, it should be noted, what happens if everyone has equal opportunity, since that, after all, will lead inevitably to unequal outcomes; nor what happens if everyone is equal before the law, since that too will allow unequal outcomes. It explores, rather, what the world might look like if the state took it as one of its duties to ensure that no one had any more of anything than anyone else.

Is it unfair that some are smarter, more beautiful, more talented than others? Is it especially unfair that some indeed are extraordinary, far beyond the range of most humans? If so, and if the state's job is to minimize unfairness, then perhaps it should undertake to minimize these differences as well. If you spend a few seconds thinking about that you will be able to imagine the directions Vonnegut's story (and I presume the movies) go.

There was another movie adaptation of Vonnegut's story in 1995, this one under the same title (see here). I haven't seen it, but I will put it on my list. (I am a bit worried, however, about Sean Astin in the title role: Rudy might be plucky, but does he have the power and beauty that Harrison Bergeron does?)

09 November 2009

Remembering a Great Day for Humanity

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That may be the single most important political event in my lifetime. The toll in human life that Russian communism took is hard to imagine and hard to overstate, and its fall--initiated by the destruction the wall, which was its great symbol of its great features of fear, repression, and brutality--was a cause for joy around the world. It gave the world hope, real hope, for the future of humanity.

I will never forget where I was on that day when I heard the news; neither will I forget the images of people climbing the wall, dancing on it, singing out in protest, even while the East German border guards futilely soaked them with fire hoses. The guards knocked some of the revellers down, but it was too late: the wall was coming down now because it could not withstand the determined onslaught of people striving for freedom. It was a great day for humanity. I hope you too will celebrate it.

There are numerous stories, tributes, and memorials available on the internet. (Incredibly, my local newspaper, The Record, has not so much as a mention of the event in its front-page news section or on its editorial page. Shame on you, Record editors.) Professor Bradley Birzer wrote this provocative essay in commemoration of the event, which I highly recommend.

04 November 2009

The Nature of the State

Compare:

"The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another." --Vladimir I. Lenin in a lecture entitled "The State," delivered at Sverdlov University, 11 July 1919.

"It would thus appear that the State, instead of originating according to any of the conjectures made by English and American writers on the subject, originated as a class-weapon of conquest and confiscation, and that its primary function was, and still is, to maintain the stratification of society into the two classes noted [namely, "a relatively small, owning and exploiting class which lives by appropriating without compensation the labour-products of a relatively large, propertyless and dependent class"]." --Albert Jay Nock, "The State," The Freeman, 13 June 1923.

30 October 2009

This Just In: The Heartland Institute

The Heartland Institute is non-profit think tank in Chicago that produces first-rate research and policy analysis exploring free-market-oriented solutions to pressing social, economic, and political needs. Its research has been influential in areas as diverse as environmental legislation to health care.

I am pleased to announce that the Institute has invited me to become a member of its Board of Policy Advisors, an invitation I was happy to accept. (Here is the link directly to the page they created for me.)

I look forward to working with the Institute, and I am happy to add their site to my blog roll at right. I also look forward to opportunities to head back to my beloved Chicago now and again.

22 October 2009

Pay Cuts for Rich People on the Government Dole?

The Obama Administration's "U.S. Special Master on Compensation" Kenneth Feinberg has decided to slash the pay and benefits of top executives at seven Wall Street companies that have received government bailout funds (here). The justification for that extension of federal power is that if those companies are going to take federal funds, it only stands to reason that the federal government should have some say in how they spend it; besides, we are not exactly talking about "charity cases," as Rep. Barney Frank pointedly put it.

That got me to thinking. Are there other wealthy top executives working for institutions that have received federal money, and who thus should perhaps also be targets of U.S. Special Master on Compensation Kenneth Feinberg's critical eye? Why, yes: American universities.

The top research universities in America receive hundreds of millions of federal, taxpayer-funded dollars every year in the form of research grants. That is a lot of money, and a lot of it goes to very wealthy universities who pay their top administration officials a whole lot of money. Many university presidents, for example, are paid more than $1 million per year (see here or here, for example), and the salary does not include the enormous perquisites--often including housing, expenses, cars, private planes, and so on--that come with the job. Are those administration officials worth it? Are American taxpayers getting their money's worth? Perhaps, but should Mr. Feinberg look into it just to be sure?

But hold on a second! There are even bigger fish to fry: coaches. They routinely make many millions of dollars per year, often more than anyone else at the university. And all the universities take millions in federal research grants, even so-called "private" universities (see here and here, for example).

(Now, don't respond that the coaches are paid out of booster or otherwise voluntarily-contributed or generated funds, not out of the federal monies: exactly the same can be said, and is said, for the Wall Street executives, whose salaries are paid out of the profit they generate, not from the federal funds.)

University presidents and Division-I coaches are not "charity cases" either, and many of the universities for which they work have endowments in the hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars (see here)--so they're not exactly hurting for money. Thus if the populist argument for federal oversight and restriction of pay for top executives at federally-supported institutions holds in one case, why not in these as well?

16 October 2009

A Gift for Parents: Stop Worrying So Much!

I am re-reading Judith Rich Harris's indispensable No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, which seeks to explain not why people are so much alike but, rather, why people can differ so much. Why, for example, can siblings with the same biological parents raised in the same household turn out to have such different personalities? Why can even identical twins raised in the same household be so different--as they commonly are?

Harris's answer is that people's personalities are not simply the result of genes combined with household environment. It turns out that children's peers have far more to do with the personalties they eventually develop than their parents do. If she's right, that is simultaneously relieving--and disconcerting--for parents. It is relieving because it means parents should not worry as much as they do to make sure the home environment is perfect. On the other hand, it is disconcerting because it means that much of the responsibility for how children turn out is outside the parents' control. Once the parents have contributed their genes, for the most part they are cut out of the picture.

There is more to the story, and Harris's full book is well worth reading. But here, to whet your appetite, is a selection of passages from the book:

1. "Differential treatment by parents--the tendency of parents to treat their children differently--accounted for only 2 percent of the total variance [in children's personalities]. Differential sibling interaction also accounted for 2 percent. Family constellation variables such as birth order and age differences between children accounted for only 1 percent" (p. 86).

2. "[...] the results showed sizable differences between siblings that could not be attributed either to genes or to aspects of the home environment they shared" (p. 86).

3. "[...] the results showed that parents were reacting to the genetic differences between their children, rather than causing their children to be different" (p. 87; italics in the original).

4. "Only highly abnormal conditions--conditions of severe deprivation--cause permanent deficits [in brain development]. The environment needs only to provide the bare minimum; beyond that minimum, there is no evidence that variations in quality or quantity make a difference" (p. 127).

5. "[...] interventions designed to improve parents' child-rearing methods might change children's behavior at home but will not affect their behavior at school" (p. 131). [I am not sure whether that makes me, as a parent, feel better or worse.]

6. "Because children discriminate sharply between situations, the way to improve their behavior in school is not by modifying their parents' behavior but by modifying their environment at school" (p. 135).

7. "[...] the assumptions that underlie popular theories of personality development--that learned behaviors transfer readily from one situation to another, that children learn things at home which they automatically carry with them to other settings, that their experiences with their parents will color their subsequent interactions with other social partners--are incorrect" (p. 140; italics mine). [The last, italicized part of that passage I found particularly striking.]

14 October 2009

Brief Addendum on Traffic

Since I have been reading and thinking about traffic recently, I thought I might relate this recent experience:

Yesterday, I was driving my son to football practice along a two-lane road. The car in front of me slowed to turn left, and, as I slowed to wait for the car to turn, the car behind me honked at me, apparently because I did not pass the car in front of me on the right. There was no lane on the right, only a narrow shoulder. The car behind me decided not to wait, however, and so passed both of us--half on the shoulder and half on grass--while honking and giving me (and my son) the finger, apparently for delaying him.

Approximately three minutes later, I saw this person again, since it turns out he was the father of another player on my son's team. I would estimate he arrived at the practice field some fifteen seconds before we did. (When he saw me, I think he was embarrassed, since he immediately looked away, pretending not to have seen me, and hurried off.)

13 October 2009

Interesting Words: Tom Vanderbilt

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Here is one intriguing passage:

For those of us who aren't brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least fifteen hundred "subskills." At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about twenty per mile, one study found), evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticpating the future actions of others--even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler, or checking voice mail. A survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 "items of information," or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above--and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive. (pp.51-2; emphasis in the original)

This sure puts driving into perspective, doesn't it? Vanderbilt goes on discuss the enormous, and perhaps insurmountable, difficulties researchers are having trying to develop a practicable auto-piloted vehicle. Given the above, it is not surprising.

09 October 2009

Adam Smith and the Future of Capitalism

I was pleased to give a presentation last night as part of a panel on the topic of "The Legacy of Adam Smith and the Future of Capitalism" at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The host and moderator was Professor Daniel Cullen. The other speaker was Professor Peter McNamara of Utah State University.

The discussant, Art Carden, who is a professor of economics at Rhodes, posted a notice of the event here.

I hope to post some comments about the presentations later.

Mercer University Talk on Smith

I gave a talk at Mercer University last week under the title of "The Scottish Enlightenment on the Promise and Perils of Commercial Society." I was invited by the Center for Undergraduate Research in Public Policy and Capitalism and by the Center for the Teaching of America's Western Foundations. (Here is an official notice of the talk; here is an unofficial one.)

It was an honor to speak there, especially as the inaugural speaker for the new CURPPC. Thank you to my gracious hosts, and to the students and faculty who attended the talk and asked such engaging questions.

After I gave my talk, one of my hosts, Scott Beaulier, who is a professor at Mercer and also the director of the CURPPC, posted a series of questions he would have asked me if he had had the opportunity. His questions are excellent (as Gavin Kennedy at Adam Smith's Lost Legacy notes here), and they are worthy of thoughtful replies.

I will post in a separate entry some thoughts about Professor Beaulier's questions.

05 October 2009

This Just In: The Fund for American Studies

I am delighted to announce that I have been named the Charles G. Koch Senior Fellow at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC.

I retain my position as professor of philosophy and economics at
Yeshiva University, and this new association will not interfere with my duties at YU. I will work with the Fund as it seeks to expand its range of activities and as it seeks support to fund them.

If you don't know about the Fund, have a look. It has several excellent programs for students, both during the summer and during the regular academic year, and its Washington internship programs are second-to-none.

11 September 2009

Free Books Online

I discovered a site called ReadPrint, which offers the full text of thousands of books online, all for free. It also includes biographical information about authors, though it is not clear to me who writes it or where it comes from. The site seems to focus on classic authors and important works, so it is probably aimed at undergraduates.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information or for the accuracy of the reproduction of the texts, but a few minutes glancing at the Adam Smith page and its reproduction of The Wealth of Nations suggests it is solid.

(I notice, however, that the site does not have my books, so that's clearly a strike against it.)

10 September 2009

He Said It: Schumpeter

"Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort. [...] [T]he capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses." --Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy(1942), pp. 67-8


29 August 2009

Question for Psychologists

I grew up a Cubs' fan, but having not lived in the Chicago area for many years, I haven't watched many games recently. So it was fun to watch a nationally televised Cubs vs. Mets game today, especially since the Cubs won. The fans in Wrigley Field were happy to clap and cheer the team upon the win.

But here is my question. Why aren't those fans rioting instead? Here is a team that is not only totally out of the race this year, but hasn't won the World Series in over a hundred years. One hundred years! It requires almost deliberate planning not to win in that many years. I don't know how the Cubs do it, but they somehow manage always to lose when they need to.

Why do Cubs fans put up with it? Indeed, not only put up with it, but actually continue to be fans! And when the rare occasion happens that the Cubs win, they cheer. How can anyone cheer for or support a team without any expectation whatsoever that they will win?

This Just In: Kennedy's Death Bringing Out the Worst in Some

I was not a fan of most of Ted Kennedy's political endeavors, and I was even less a fan of the way he used his social and economic privilege to exempt himself from the rigors of life that all of us non-super-rich face. His condecension, combined with what was to me the inexplicable adoration, deference, and exemption from the normal rules of morality and decorum people showed him and his family, soured me on the entire lot.

But I would not say any of that out of respect for his passing, were it not for what I think is the obscene and disgusting things some people are saying upon his death.

Apparently Kennedy would joke--joke!--about what happened at Chappaquiddick, frequently asking whether people had "heard any new jokes" about it. As shockingly repellent as that is, some are treating it with a shrug of the shoulders, indeed as part of Kennedy's "charm." Others have the indecency to wonder aloud whether Mary Jo Kopechne would actually believe that the callous disregard for her life, the cover-up afterwards, and the pass most of the world gave Kennedy for his role in her death was all "worth it," given the great things Kennedy went on to do for the world.

James Tarantino of the Wall Street Journal suggests that this indicates that some people regard "women as expendable." I am not sure about that, but it is hard not to be disgusted by this.


UPDATE: It turns out that Mark Steyn says some similar things in a recent column of his.

26 August 2009

Update on Obama at Notre Dame

President Obama's appearance as the commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame last May caused quite a stir. (I myself wrote an invited short opinion about it for National Review Online, here.)

Now Bishop John D'Arcy, whose diocese includes Notre Dame, has written a measured and thoughtful assessment of the controversy. His article, "The Church and the University: A Pastoral Reflection on the Controversy at Notre Dame," appears as the cover article in the new edition of the Jesuit weekly magazine, America.

I think Bishop D'arcy's article is well worth reading for anyone interested in the issues involved, and indeed I find the Bishop's argument compelling.

For further reading: here is a story from Catholic News Agency summarizing the Bishop's article; here is another article in America, this one occasioned by Bishop D'Arcy's, by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco on the "role bishops should play on the national political scene."

24 August 2009

Wise Words: Bastiat

"God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works." --Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), The Law (1850)

14 August 2009

The Recession and Jewish Day Schools

The Jewish newspaper Forward has a recent article describing the difficulties the recession is creating for Jewish day schools. Donors are reducing their gifts and even pulling back on commitments, creating real hardships for many of the schools and their students.

One advantage these schools might have over other schools facing similar difficulties, however, is the relative cohesiveness of the Jewish community. Even across the spectrum of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, the Jewish community often sees itself as being in a common enterprise, and it will join together to help one another when hardship arises. The Forward article mentions several such efforts. It is a powerful example of the beneficial potential of civil society.

(On a side note, I cannot resist adding a personal anecdote. A little over two years ago, when I was contemplating accepting a position at Yeshiva University (which I subsequently accepted), an Orthodox member of the community told me that, if I were Jewish and given the size of my family and the ages of my children, I would need to make $183,000 per year in order to provide properly for my family. His calculation of 'proper provision' included the considerable cost of sending my children to Jewish day schools. At the time I was astonished, not only at the number but also at its precision--$183,000, not 180 or 185. He assured me that it was not uncommon for Jewish heads of households to calculate things like this with such precision, and he further argued that indeed it was their moral and religious responsibility to do so.)

12 August 2009

Language and Thought

In his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau puzzled over the paradox apparently involved in the inception of human language. In order to have language, Rousseau thought, one must already be in possession of abstract thoughts; yet in order to have abstract thoughts, one must already be in possession of language. Thus we are faced with a dilemma: either language had no beginning, because it was impossible; or it appeared by miraculous intervention. Neither was a particularly appealing option to Rousseau, so he left the paradox's resolution to others.

The relation of language to thought has puzzled us ever since. Interestingly, however, for some time now--certainly through the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first--political reformers have operated on the assumption that the direction of causality goes from language to thought, not the other way around. Thus controlling language leads to controlling thought. If people can be trained not to say certain things, they will in time, it is thought (hoped, feared), no longer think those things. The prohibitions can become so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, habitual practice that no longer requires deliberation or conscious self-control. And that, of course, is tantamount to controlling people, which is the ultimate goal of most political reformers.

The point was brilliantly made in George Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is recently explored again by one of today's great essayists, Theodore Dalrymple. (I have my own brief discussion in chapter 7 of my Actual Ethics.)

Although I am no expert on the matter, I tend to think the political reformers are right: controlling speech is a first, and a significant, step toward controlling behavior. Whether language ultimately determines thought or the other way around, I am not sure. But as the range of taboo speech increases, the realm of free exploration of thought shrinks. It is for that reason that I think it must be resisted. Control one's speech for decency, clarity, penetration, perspicacity, wit: but not for political expediency. Refrain from saying what is unintelligent, unbecoming, or ugly: but not what offends bigotry.

A vigorous citizenry arises only in conditions of robust freedom, and it can be sustained only in a culture that allows, even encourages, a wide scope of liberty to speak, think, and act--and, of course, to take responsibility for one's speech, thought, and action. A citizenry that guards its words (and thoughts) for fear of running afoul of political sensibilities will not be a "civilized" citizenry--which is usually the rationale given for the establishment of speech codes. It will instead be, or become, a servile and dependent citizenry, increasingly unable to exercize one crucial feature of humanity, independent judgment. And that, as Jefferson said, makes them fit tools for the designs of ambition.

11 August 2009

This Just In: IBD on Adam Smith

Here is a short article that appeared recently in Investor's Business Daily, entitled "Adam Smith Was on the Money." It cites me briefly toward the end. The article is part of IBD's "Leaders and Success" series.

UPDATE 8/12/09: Gavin Kennedy has an interesting commentary on this IBD editorial at his site, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, here.

31 July 2009

The Digital Age: Expanding the Frontiers of Ignorance

A recent article in More Intelligent Life got off to a good start: instantaneous access to worlds of information is producing not more intelligent humans but, instead, more and more ignoramuses. The knowledge that all knowledge is at one's fingertips licenses one not to keep any knowledge in one's mind. (Reading and remembering are taxing, after all--and, as with almost everything else--why put forth the effort if it's not necessary?)

But the article concludes with a whimper: everything is pretty much okay, so don't worry; putting forth effort to learn isn't necessary for being an intelligent person.

That is a comforting falsehood.

(On this topic, one might read Mark Bauerlein's sobering book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).)

23 July 2009

This Just In: "Intimidator in Chief"?

A report in today's WSJ describes President Obama's alleged attempt to "lean on" "Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the supposedly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, who last week told Congress that you can’t 'save' money on health care by having government insure everyone."

Elmendorf seems clearly right, at least to me: the Obama administration's claim that universal insurance will save money is hard to take seriously. But that is beside the point. What is more troubling is the apparent attempt to silence dissenting opinion. As I mentioned in a previous post, officials at the EPA, apparently with approval from the Obama administration, recently took actions to quash a report from some of its own scientists that questioned some of the central assumptions behind Obama administration climate initiatives. This second incident now suggests a worrisome pattern.

Politics should not trump the truth, and our political agendas should not be allowed to interfere with the vigorous pursuit of the truth. We often do not know what the truth is, and often people of good faith disagree about important issues. That is an abiding fact of the limitations in human abilities. The only way to make the most of our limited abilities, however, is to allow open discussion and debate, and to encourage unfettered pursuit of the facts, regardless of where that leads.

09 July 2009

This Just In: An Excellent New Book on Adam Smith

I just received my advance copy of Ryan Patrick Hanley's excellent new Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. I know it's excellent because I had an opportunity to read it in manuscript. In fact, the back cover of the dust jacket leads off with a blurb from me, which reads, in part, that Hanley's book is "one of the most important books on Smith in more than a decade."

Believe me, praise like that does not come easily from me. Everyone interested in Smith scholarship should read the book.

07 July 2009

This Just In: Climate Change

Here is an interesting discussion of the economics of proposals for "climate change" legislation by economist Robert P. Murphy. It is brief and somewhat technical in a few places, but a good overview.

06 July 2009

Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee

A troubling article in today's WSJ suggests that officials in the EPA are censoring research that might call into question their official position on (alleged) global warming and on its (alleged) man-caused influences. (I say "alleged" because among the claims that the censored research makes are (a) that we are actually in a global cooling trend and (b) that there is little or no reliable evidence that human activities have contributed to (earlier) global warming.)

What is especially galling to the author of the WSJ article is the fact that the Obama administration and the new head of the EPA both have repeatedly derided the previous administration for, as they claimed, putting ideology over science, and have touted their own dedication to science unadulterated by political agenda. Yet here seems a clear case of politics trumping scientific investigation.

I cannot vouch for the facts of this case, of course, but double-standards for allowed speech are rampant in my own field of American higher education. People who dare to stray from the approved circuit of political and moral views--however gingerly, however tentatively, even under cover of anonymity or humor--suffer ad hominem attack, have their characters savaged, are fired from positions of authority, do not get promotions, get passed over for positions for which they are otherwise qualified, are not welcome at the lunch table or in the break room, are ignored in the hallways, are the butt of indecorous jokes, and are otherwise villainized, punished, and pilloried for their independence and impudence.

I do not exaggerate. (See here if you are skeptical.) Political correctness in higher education has become such a cliché that people have become inured to it. Another person persecuted for dissenting from the reigning orthodoxy? Ho-hum, heard that one before. The toll this takes in individuals' careers, and in their personal and family life, is not insignificant, however.

But this is not mere special pleading. The cost to the the academy of driving out or silencing a range of perspectives is a steep one. As Mill argued, it robs us of a clearer and livelier perception of the truth brought about by honest debate and discussion from competing perspectives; moreover, unless we make the unlikely assumption that the current orthodoxy is infallible, silencing or persecuting dissenting views robs us of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth.

That is bad for everyone concerned. Echo chambers are not crucibles of truth. Yet it is even more dangerous when it comes to science. The quality of human life depends in many important ways on the progress of science. Allowing ideology to bend science to its will, rather than the other way around, imperils the scientific enterprise. That is too high a price to pay to flatter our vanities and rationalize our prejudices.

02 July 2009

Free Bernie Madoff?

A reader sent me a link to this column, arguing that Bernie Madoff should be freed. Now that is a position not many people, I suspect, are taking. As an employee of Yeshiva University, which, as I've pointed out before, also suffered at the hands of Madoff, I have taken particular interest in the continuing Madoff saga.

I'm not sure I'm convinced by this article, but the author makes a stronger case than I anticipated, so I thought it worth posting. Judge for yourself: here it is.


UPDATE: A reader sent me a link to another take on the Madoff caper, this one also provocative and entertaining. Here it is.

01 July 2009

An Opt-Out Option?

Thomas Sowell argued in his book A Conflict of Visions that much contemporary political thought traces to one or another of just two conflicting worldviews. These worldviews he dubbed the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions (Steven Pinker would later later call them the "tragic" and the "utopian" visions, respectively).

The difference, in brief, centers on what a person believes the limits of human knowledge and goodness are: If you believe humans are inherently flawed and fallen, and that, though they can make marginal improvements, imperfection and evil (even sin) will always be an abiding part of the human experience, then you subscribe to the "constrained" or the "tragic" vision. If, by contrast, you believe that humanity can be indefinitely improved, and that, with the right combination of institutions and leaders in place, most human vice can be eradicated, then you subscribe to the "unconstrained" or "utopian" vision.

I would fall into the "constrained" or "tragic" camp, both on religious and on empirical grounds.

I mention Sowell's argument here, however, because one of its implications is that disagreements between proponents of the two "visions" are intractable. They have different worldviews, and their political and economic positions are implied by those fundamentally different worldviews. That explains both why differences between the two groups can become so acrimonious, and it also predicts, unhappily, that there may be little hope for reconciliation. They will often simply have to agree to disagree.

Which brings me to today. The Obama administration is proposing to nationalize a significant portion of the health care "industry" (as it's called), and many supporters have not hidden their desire eventually to nationalize the whole ball of wax. For many of them this government takeover is required by their conception of justice. Significant numbers of detractors and critics, on the other hand, argue not only that this may increase inefficiencies and costs, but also that it violates their sense of justice to take health care choices out of the hands of individuals.


So, drawing on the Sowell argument, here is my proposal for a compromise between the two sides: Pass the legislation, but include in it "opt-out option" for dissenters. Exercizing the opt-out option would mean forsaking any and all right to the care or coverage provided under the government's plan, but it would also mean no requirement to pay into it. Indeed, I would propose allowing an "opt-out option" for other government benefit programs as well, including Social Security, for example. Allow people who wish to be in charge of saving for their own retirement to opt out of the program, giving up any and all benefits, but not paying into the program either.

The biggest worry about my "opt-out option" is that such a number of people would exercise it that the program would not be able to sustain itself--and then the people who are intended to be the primary beneficiaries, the least advantaged among us, would once again be left in the lurch. I recognize and concede that worry. I have two thoughts in response.

First, my own conception of justice, which draws on the British and American liberal tradition, entails giving a tremendous deference to individual consent: if a person does not want to be part of my organization or my program, then I think I need a very strong reason to override his wishes. Imminent danger to national security, for example, might count, but the threshold should be that high.

Second, many people who could monetarily afford to leave the systems would choose not to. I have colleagues, for example, who would prefer to stay in Social Security or a nationalized health care system, if for no other reason than that way they do not have to bother with finding the "best" investment counselor or wading through myriad private health care providers and insurers. I expect many others would be moved by similar considerations.

Many people will also, out of their own sense of justice, wish to be a part of the systems even if they could afford to or would benefit from leaving, just as many people who could send their children to private schools choose for their own reasons to send them to public schools. Hence I think the number of people exercizing the "opt-out option" might not be as great as one might fear.

I confess, however, that even if I am wrong about the number of people who would exercise the option, I find the notion of respecting people's consent to be compelling nonetheless. If someone says "no, thank you, I want no part of your program," we can remonstrate with him, try to convince him otherwise, even beg, plead, or shame him; but if we insists, then I believe we must honor his wishes and let him go.

30 June 2009

Obama on Public vs. Private Health Care

A lot of hay was made about ABC News's special on health care reform, "Questions for the President: Prescription for America," which aired last week. Many conservatives and Republicans complained that it seemed more like a partisan "infomercial" than an objective news story, and they claimed it showed ABC News's bias in favor of President Obama (see here, for example).

The contrast between the way the media treated the Bush administration and the way they are treating the Obama administration is certainly stark, but that is not what struck me about this ABC News special. What leapt out at me was the exchange between one Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at NYU, and the President during the question-and-answer part of the program. According to this account of the exchange, Dr. Devinsky charged that "elites" often propose health care policies that limit the options of the less privileged, while the elites remain comfortable in the knowledge that they will be able to afford to pay for better care if they want or need it.

Dr. Devinsky then asked President Obama if he would be willing to promise that if his wife or children got sick, he would not seek health care outside of whatever is provided by the public health system he is proposing. President Obama would not make that promise. He replied that "if it's my family member, if it's my wife, if it's my children, if it's my grandmother, I always want them to get the very best care."

Quite a telling response, it seems. It is akin to wealthy politicians who send their children to private schools (as the Obamas do), while opposing education vouchers, credits, or other plans to enable poorer people to have choices as well. I do not begrudge the President wanting "the very best" for his family; I want the same for my family, as I presume you do. But a policy that allows an expanded set of options for wealthy people while restricting the options of everyone else seems, to me, suspicious on the face of it. And that suspicion is only heightened when the elites admit that it would not be good enough for them but that they think it is good enough for everyone else.

23 June 2009

This Just In: Pseudonymous Posting

Well, this is not just in, but a student only just now alerted me to it: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, was revealed a couple years ago to have been posting on competitors' websites under a pseudonym (see article here).

Mackey is an interesting fellow. He calls himself a "free market libertarian," but he believes a company should, as he says, "try to create value for all of its constituencies"; he claims that as CEO of Whole Foods, he "puts customers ahead of investors" and is interested first and foremost in serving customers, not in turning a pofit (see here).

Apparently, a few years ago, when Whole Foods was considering buying rival Wild Oats Markets, a person calling himself "rahodeb" posted on some of Wild Oats Markets's sites various claims, like that its prices were too high, that it was badly managed, that Whole Foods would not buy it until it went into bankruptcy, etc. It turns out that "rahodeb" was Mackey himself, "rahodeb" being an anagram for "Deborah," his wife's name.

According to the article cited above, when it was later revealed who "rahodeb" was, Mackey dismissed the importance of it all, saying that he was posting only for fun, he never wanted or intended anyone to know it was he who was posting those things, many people post anonymously or under pseudonyms on the internet, and in any case he did not mean everything he said--he was often playing "devil's advocate."

I can relate. So too can many people who have written books, articles, blogs, and postings anonymously or pseudonymously. Sometimes people do this for malicious reasons--they want to attack or discredit others and do not want to take responsibility for their attacks. Other motives are nobler: sometimes people are whistle-blowers who do not want to face retribution; sometimes people work in fields where there is strong pressure for ideological conformity and they wish to express independent views, again without fear of retribution; sometimes people are members of a disfavored sex, race, ethnic group, religion, or political worldview who are not allowed by the "tyranny of the majority" to speak their minds.

As James Taranto recently noted in the WSJ, pseudonymous blogging can be dangerous, even if--as in the case of the modern-day "Publius"--one is serving an important function and engaging in (for the most part) serious commentary. Consider, for example, that many of the Leveller pamphlets that played an important role in bringing about the English Civil Wars were published anonymously, or that John Locke never publicly revealed during his lifetime that he was the author of the Two Treatises of Government published in 1690, or that the Federalist Papers were written not by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay but by "Publius," or that Soren Kierkegaard published under probably dozens of pseudonyms, and on and on. (See this site, which lists scores of pseudonymous authors, some who published under many pseudonyms.)

In all these cases, we should evaluate the writing on the merits, not on the identity of the author or on the fact that it is published anonymously. Who knows what motives an author might have for wishing to keep his identity secret? I think we have a further duty, however: if we somehow discover the true identity of an author writing under a psudonym, unless that author is engaging in clear libel or deliberately malicious attack, we should "play along." That is, we should treat the real person based only on our experiences of the real person; we can, if we like, engage the pseudonymous author as an author, but if the person wants to have separate identities, I think we should respect that.

All of us have many circles in which we turn, many lives, as it were, that we lead. Most of these overlap, but some do not, and some we wish to keep strictly separate from others. If a person has one "life" that he wants to keep strictly separate from another, who are we to judge whether his reasons for doing so are good ones, and who are we to take the liberty of betraying his personal decisions? The issue is one of privacy, and respecting others justified expectations of it. Just because one disagrees with what a pseudonymous author says does not entitle one to indulge the base and indeed wicked instinct of desiring to destroy what one does not like, of "outing" someone who wishes not to be outed.

Back to Mackey: One aspect of his story distinguishes it, perhaps, from the others I have mentioned, namely that he was disparaging a direct competitor in an apparent effort to secure for himself a better financial bargain in the process. If one's pseudonymous writings are designed to profit oneself at the direct expense of others in a way that would not be possible if one's identity were revealed, then that, it seems to me, casts things in a different light. Not to put too fine a point on it, that's pretty low.

Aside from such cases, however (which I believe are pretty rare), I say: Long live the pseudonymous writer! May they continue to agitate, spur, lambaste, discuss openly, investigate, and explore--all without fear of punishment for entertaining heretical ideas.