14 December 2010
06 December 2010
30 November 2010
23 November 2010
First, the new procedures implemented by the TSA has created some discussion on Pileus, including by me. My most recent reflections led me to recall words from two of this country's great founders.
Second, here is a special Thanksgiving wish from Roger Ream, the president of The Fund for American Studies. It is well worth reading.
04 November 2010
03 November 2010
19 October 2010
05 October 2010
I have never been to Australia, so I am very much looking forward to the trip. I will return to blogging, etc. when I return to the States.
01 October 2010
22 September 2010
07 September 2010
(a) You do not want other students to judge your position based on what kind of person they believe you are or based on their suspicions about your secret motives or hidden agendas; you want them to judge your position on its merits. The best way to get others to judge your position on its merits is to judge theirs on theirs. So begin with the assumption that other students offer their positions, arguments, and reasons in good faith, and proceed to examine them charitably. Do not assume bad faith on anyone's part until long experience allows no other possible interpretation.
(b) Your professor is not infallible, but he has spent considerable time thinking about the issues you are examining in his class, and he has developed professional opinions about those issues. Assume, therefore, that your professor has good reasons for what he asks you to read, write, or do, until, again, there is no other possible interpretation.
(c) Finally, assume that what you are reading is worth the effort to understand it. If you think that its argument is obviously wrong or that it has missed or overlooked obvious objections or problems, assume that you have missed something and go back to the text and look for it. Continue to give the reading the benefit of the doubt until you simply can do so no longer. And even then ask yourself what you can learn from it despite its flaws.
3. Practice. Reading carefully and writing well are skills, and, like other skills, they must be practiced. You must do them over and over again. When you make mistakes, correct them and learn from them. Pay attention to details: Why did the author use this term here or this metaphor there? What exactly--not approximately or "sort of" or "kind of," exactly--are the author's reasons for making the claim he does? When it comes to your own writing, revise, revise, revise. Go over your paper three, four, five times; in the morning and at night; let it go a day and then return to it. Do not be afraid to delete, cut, or globally rethink. There is perhaps no single more important key to successful writing than editing. Use it liberally.
4. Preparation. An old quip has it that ninety percent of success is showing up. I would say: Ninety percent of success as a student is preparation. This means reading the assigned materials, mulling them over, asking yourself what their strengths and weaknesses are, being able to give concise but precise and correct summaries of them--all before you step foot in the classroom. When class begins, you are then ready to proceed immediately to all the interesting philosophical, exegetical, and other deep questions.
5. Finally, purpose. Why, exactly, are you here? You need an answer to that question that is plausible. That means it will have to connect up with your goals and ambitions, it will show some awareness of the scarcity of your resources and your resulting allocation of them, and, most important, it shows that you understand that you are a rational and autonomous being and not just a lump of biomass. It is not necessary that you have a complete life plan worked out in all its details. But it is necessary that you have goals and have given them some thought. You are too precious, and your time, talents, and treasure too dear, not to bring your considered judgment to bear. There are many different lives in which my class might play a plausible, if small, part, and thus many different reasons you might be in my class; but please do not let it be that you simply had nothing better to do. You owe me, and, more importantly, yourself, more than that.
31 August 2010
26 August 2010
19 August 2010
This state of affairs prompts several questions.
17 August 2010
29 July 2010
18 July 2010
10 July 2010
06 July 2010
01 July 2010
29 June 2010
18 June 2010
13 June 2010
10 June 2010
03 June 2010
02 June 2010
27 May 2010
24 May 2010
23 May 2010
Talk about a butterfly effect!
21 May 2010
18 May 2010
17 May 2010
I make the case here.
14 May 2010
13 May 2010
08 May 2010
07 May 2010
03 May 2010
01 May 2010
29 April 2010
28 April 2010
19 April 2010
09 April 2010
How much better is the general understanding of economics today, 400 years after Jonson's play was first produced? My guess is: not much at all. That is a sobering realization. How can it be that, 234 years since the first publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, so many people still believe so many false things about economics? And it isn't just the uneducated masses: it is even among our intellectual elite.
Here is a recent illustrative example: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday--that would be April 6, 2010--gave an interview in which she said this: "It's like the back of the refrigerator. All you need to know is, you open the door. The light goes on. You open this door, you go through a whole different path, in terms of access to quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans."
05 April 2010
24 March 2010
The cover letter that accompanied the copy of the book writes, "President Obama has cited The Theory of Moral Sentiments as key to his thinking." That was something I didn't know, so I did a little looking. It turns out that in 2008 the New York Times asked then-candidate Obama to supply a list of books and writers that were significant to him. He included both Smith's Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments in the list. Here is an article discussing his list.
17 March 2010
15 March 2010
13 March 2010
10 March 2010
The title of my talk was "The Classical Liberal Tradition: Adam Smith vs. Karl Marx." FEE has put up a notice of my talk, which includes a copy of the presentation I made and a video of the presentation itself, here.
09 March 2010
The structure of that sentence, including especially the word "necessarily," seems to suggest that Marx intends here an argument--that is, premises leading to a conclusion. Yet I am finding it difficult to figure out what it is.
Can anyone help?
23 February 2010
Although Friedrich Hayek is usually regarded as the standard-bearer for such arguments, I show that he builds on arguments Smith made in the eighteenth century. I also show how Smith's arguments would seem to undermine recent arguments defending paternalism of government experts, like those found in Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge and Peter Ubel's Free Market Madness.
I discovered today the recent publication of another paper that draws conclusions similar to mine, and even relies on some arguments that are similar, though does so with a heavier emphasis on economic analysis than, as in my paper, on philosophical and exegetical analysis. It is "The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism," by Mario J. Rizzo and Douglas Glenn Whitman, published in Brigham Young University Law Review (vol. 2009, no. 4: 905-968; text available here). I highly recommend Rizzo's and Whitman's article.
16 February 2010
15 February 2010
14 February 2010
10 February 2010
This is not the first time that people have said disgusting things about Palin. Why, on earth? If her ideas are false, correct them; if her arguments are weak, refute them; if she has her politics or economics or religion wrong, then by all means prove them false. But the ad hominem fallacy is still a fallacy, even when directed at a Republican or at a woman.
Reading the discreditable things Sullivan, among others, has written about Palin reminded me, by way of contrast, of the redoubtable Miles Standish of Longfellow's great poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish." (If you have not read it recently, you can do so here.)
Captain Standish's wife has long passed, and he finally reveals to his friend and "stripling" John Alden that he has love in his heart for a good Puritan maid named Priscilla. Would Alden kindly, out of his friendship for the Captain, make the case to Maid Priscilla to marry the Captain? Alden--whose own secret love for Priscilla now plunges him into a fit of confused duties--gently asks why the Captain, whose many military campaigns have demonstrated his fearlessness, does not make the proposal to the Maid himself. Is this not the same Captain Standish, after all, who has said, "Serve yourself, would you be well served, is an excellent adage"?
Alas, the Captain confesses that he is "a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases." Yet the Captain then confesses an even deeper secret: the prospect of addressing a woman--this woman, on this topic--terrifies him:
Now, as I said before, I was never a maker of phrases.
I can march up to a fortress and summon the place to surrender,
But march up to a woman with such a proposal, I dare not.
I'm not afraid of bullets, nor shot from the mouth of a cannon,
But of a thundering 'No!' point-blank from the mouth of a woman,
That I confess I'm afraid of, nor am I ashamed to confess it!
The maid Priscilla is a remarkable woman. "Modest and simple and sweet," Alden tells us, yet powerful enough to make a grizzled war veteran tremble and to render Alden, the "elegant scholar / Having the graces of speech, and skill in the turning of phrases," able only to stammer "like a school-boy" when he addresses her.
I will not reveal the rest of Longfellow's story, but one contrast with our contemporary culture is particularly striking. The proper comportment of a gentleman before a lady was, clearly, one comprised of deference and deep, sincere respect. She could command him with the lightest touch--when Alden assists Priscilla's spinning, she occasionally brushes his hand with hers, "Sending electrical thrills through every nerve in his body"--and her virtue was at once an inspiration and a warning to him.
My how things have changed. It is difficult to say who, precisely, is at fault for the evaporation of the respect men once had for women; I suspect both men and women are at fault. Perhaps there are some today who will not lament the change, but it is hard to take the coarseness of contemporary manners as anything but a decline.
Reading Longfellow today stirs longings for a bygone era, perhaps permanently behind us. And of course the Victorian world of Longfellow, and the Puritan world he describes in "The Courtship of Miles Standish," had their vices and foibles as well. But the world of the gentleman and the lady still had a dignity and nobility that one cannot help but wish more people today knew of, and indeed, perhaps, even appreciated.
03 February 2010
I have one small correction to make, however, regarding this claim de Jasay makes: "It is probably fair to credit [French nineteenth-century economist Frederic] Bastiat with the discovery of the concept of opportunity cost." De Jasay is right to call Bastiat "shamefully underrated and neglected," he is right to point out that Bastiat brilliantly demonstrated the concept of opportunity cost (among many other things), and he is also right that this concept is as widely underrated and neglected as Bastiat himself is. Yet Bastiat was not the first person to discover the concept of opportunity cost. It goes back at least to Adam Smith.
In his 1776 Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that "The annual produce of the land and labour of any nation can be increased in its value by no other means, but by increasing either the number of its productive labourers, or the productive powers of those labourers who had before been employed" (WN II.iii.32). By way of illustration, he goes on to discuss several historical examples of nations' wealth being dissipated or decreased, concluding:
In each of those periods, however, there was, not only much private and publick profusion, many expensive and unnecessary wars, great perversion of the annual produce from maintaining productive to maintain unproductive hands; but sometimes, in the confusion of civil discord, such absolute waste and destruction of stock, as might be supposed, not only to retard, as it certainly did, the natural accumulation of riches, but to have left the country, at the end of the period, poorer than at the beginning. (WN II.iii.35)
Note that Smith here is making a claim quite similar to the one Bastiat would make, and with far greater eloquence and rhetorical power, nearly a century later with his example of the "broken window." What is now known as the "broken window fallacy"--the idea, which never seems to go away no matter how many times it is exploded, that destroying goods or property actually leads to an increase in wealth--is usually credited to Bastiat. And Bastiat is the first, so far as I know, to use the striking visual example specifically of a broken window. In the passage quoted from Smith, he addresses another way of destroying wealth, namely war--which many continue to think amounts to a net increase in wealth. War is a net loss; see Robert Higgs's Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity for a recent demonstration. Smith's unassuming notice of this in 1776 is one underappreciated aspect of the Wealth of Nations.
But Smith elaborates on why distortions of the "natural" flow of capital, like wars, leads to losses, even if those losses are difficult to see:
More houses would have been built, more lands would have been improved, and those which had been improved before would have been better cultivated, more manufactures would have been established, and those which had been established before would have been more extended; and to what height the real wealth and revenue of the country might, by this time, have been raised, it is not perhaps very easy even to imagine. (WN II.iii.35)
This is very close to another of Bastiat's famous contributions to the history of economic thought, namely the distinction between "what is seen" and "what is unseen." Bastiat argues that the good economist notes not only the former but also the latter, because counting all costs, along with all benefits, is necessary to make an accurate reckoning of any economic proposal. Bastiat is justly hailed for having these insights and, especially, for expounding on them in rhetorically powerful ways. And, as I say, de Jasay is right to lament that too few people appreciate or apply these simple but true--and exceedingly timely--insights into politics and economics.
But Smith saw them first.
02 February 2010
20 January 2010
The year I spent in Innsbruck, my sophomore year at Notre Dame, was transformative for me. I learned more there, grew up more there, and forged deeper friendships there, than in perhaps any other single year of my life. I had hopes that my own children would one day go through the program and experience the exhilaration, joy, and adventure that I did.
I understand why they might want instead to hold the program in a big city. And Berlin is a great city. But I'm sure I speak for hundreds of other graduates of the Notre Dame Innsbruck program when I say that the memories I have of that year nestled in the valley of the Nordkette of the Austrian Alps I shall treasure forever.
08 January 2010
06 January 2010
05 January 2010
I was very glad to hear this, especially since--with a national debt that is over $12 trillion and counting and that is fast approaching 100% of our GDP--the naughties might have been our last good decade for a while.
03 January 2010
One might be surprised to hear that Smith even had a theology, let alone that a series of penetrating essays could be written on the subject. (Perhaps only a conference on "David Hume as Theologian" could be more surprising!) I found the papers quite interesting, and they brought all sorts of things to light for me--someone who has studied Smith for some time. I highly recommend the collection.
02 January 2010
2. Newark's Liberty Airport is going to get the full-body scanners. The images they give of your body are so precise that they have to be pixelated when shown on television. It would seem a rather invasive procedure, but many interviewed passengers don't mind, because they "have nothing to hide" and they'll put up with just about anything "as long as it keeps us safe." The NYT helpfully gives tips on how to avoid further delay. My favorite line from the article: An airport official recommends parents rehearse with children, so they know what to expect and don't get too scared when they go--alone--into the magnetometer. Yes, it is important to begin the training in obedience to government authority early. And they have to do it, because so many of the terrorists travel with their children.
3. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argues that the health care bill that recently passed the senate is unconstitutional. My favorite line: "America's founders intended the federal government to have limited powers and that the states have an independent sovereign place in our system of government." It's a nice effort--no, it really is. But that argument, along with the related claim that "The federal government may exercise only the powers granted to it or denied to the states," has been impotent, and thus irrelevant, to what the federal government does for many decades now.