14 December 2010

Dignity and Preciousness

If human beings gain nobility and dignity from expression of their moral agency, does that mean that people without the capacity for moral agency--for example, children or incapacitated adults--do not have nobility or dignity? This challenging question from an insightful student prompts me to elaborate on this aspect of my Kantian position at Pileus.

(For my interpretation of Kant, see my paper, "Kantian Individualism and Political Libertarianism," The Independent Review 13, 3 (Winter 2009): 389-409; available here.)

30 November 2010

New Faculty Website

Yeshiva University, where I teach, has put together a new faculty website for me, here. I am not sure where they got that picture of me--I don't think I've ever seen it before--but the page otherwise looks good.

The page also lists an e-mail and phone number for a "media relations" person in case you would like to "request an interview" with me. You could just e-mail me directly, but that makes me sound much more important.

23 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Some thoughts as you make preparations to enjoy one of the best holidays of the year:

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

TFAS Book Club

Are you an alumnus or alumna of a program of The Fund for American Studies, in the Washington, DC area, and interested in stimulating discussion of ideas? If so, perhaps you would like to join a new TFAS book club. TFAS will buy the books and is providing food and drink.

Our first meeting took place on October 21. We had a lively--quite lively, in fact!--discussion of William Easterly's White Man's Burden. For our next meeting, we are considering Amity Shlaes's recent bestseller, The Forgotten Man.

If you would like to join, please contact TFAS at alumni@tfas.org. If you have ideas about books to read or days or times to meet, please forward them along too.

We look forward to seeing you there!

03 November 2010

Defending the Kochs

Billionaire businessmen and philanthropists Charles and David Koch have received a lot of attention recently, most of it negative. I think the criticism has been unjustified. I defend them at Pileus.

19 October 2010

Flummoxing Tea Partiers

People continue to be flummoxed by the Tea Partiers. Who are they? What do they want? Why are they so . . . enthusiastic? Prompted by the Cato Institute's David Boaz, I take another stab at it at Pileus.

Back in the Saddle Again

I have returned from my journeying Down Under. It was a fantastic conference, from which I learned a great deal. My own paper was well received, I think. And it was a joy to see the interesting and beautiful city of Sydney. We even went to a working sheep farm where we observed shearing and I got to try my hand throwing boomerangs and cracking whips!

Though I am still readjusting to the time difference, I am attacking the mountain of work awaiting me with energy and purpose. I expect that I shall be caught up in a few days.

In the meantime, I apologize to my students, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues for matters that I left unaddressed during my time away, and for all those e-mails to which I may not have responded. I will do my best to get to them all, but if I don't respond to yours, please resend it.

05 October 2010

Heading Down Under

I am leaving today for Sydney, Australia to give a paper at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. It is the first meeting I shall attend as a member. My paper is entitled "Lessons from the Scottish Enlightenment."

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

Rants and Raves

This week's rants and raves: On parents doing their childrens' schoolwork, on the flourishing of a neo-Aristotelian notion of "natural slavery" on college campuses, on the impending failure of Alabama's state teacher's retirement pension, and on continuing to pay for the late Senator Byrd's graft and patronage.

22 September 2010

Washington, Witchcraft, and O'Donnell

The recent attacks on Christine O'Donnell have put me in the curious position of defending a person who claims that as a teenager she "dabbled into witchcraft."

Moreover, I am unmoved by the claim that it was a mistake for voters to support her because now we'll have one fewer Republican in the Senate. I think George Washington's warnings about the "spirit of party," and its liability to lead to tyranny, are apt here.

07 September 2010

What a Teacher Wants in a Student

One of the things I get asked frequently is what I am looking for from students. Since we are at the beginning of another school year, I thought I would share a few of the things I often say in response.

1. Effort. I would gladly exchange 10 IQ points for sincere effort, any day of the week. Give me a student who has read the material, genuinely engaged it, and is struggling to understand it, and I will give that student everything I have as a teacher. By contrast, give me a brilliant student who gives a half-hearted effort, and it is hard not to be irritated, frustrated, and short with him.

2. Charity. This is much tougher than it seems, because being a good student requires charity on multiple fronts: toward other students, toward the professor, and, just as important, toward the readings. Take them by turns:

(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

A Libertarian Conundrum?

Adam Smith argued that showing "too little spirit" can sometimes be a vice, because sometimes a situation can call for rising to confront a challenge--even when the challenge confronted is merely a verbal one. I think this suggests that there is such a thing as a "justified punch in the nose." If I'm right, it might present a limited counter-example to the first principle of libertarianism, which is an injunction against initiating violence.

26 August 2010

Robots, Bureaucrats, and New Jersey's Race to the Top

New Jersey was just denied in its bid to receive funding from the federal government's "Race to the Top" initiative. The reason New Jersey was denied provides an object lesson in the way centralized, that is to say bureaucratic, decisions are made.

19 August 2010

Happy Government Freedom Day!

Today is the day that the average American worker finally begins working for himself and his family, the previous 231 days having gone to pay off federal, state, and local tax and regulatory burdens. This is the latest in the year that this date has ever fallen, more than a month later than just two years ago.

This state of affairs prompts several questions.

17 August 2010

Rating Educational Institutions

It is the time of year again when high schoolers will be choosing their colleges and universities--which means it's also the time of year for ratings to come out. Here are two ratings that are worth a look.

29 July 2010

Rants, Raves, and Guns

This week's Rants and Raves: on gambling in Massachussets, on the irrelevance of motivation to the evaluation of a position, on people responding to incentives in health care consumption, and on "the end of men."

Also, if you did not see it, I highly recommend Marcus Cole's post entitled "A Word of Thanks to Four Black Men and a Gun."

10 July 2010

Taxes and Incentives

It is not exactly a newsflash that people respond to incentives. But two recent, dramatic illustrations of this truism--relating to LeBron James and to the impending reinstatement of the estate tax--lead me to make a radical tax suggestion.

06 July 2010

American Independence

I took the family to visit Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery in observance of the 234th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. A noteworthy difference between the two places, and watching the awesome precision of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns, lead me to draw a few lessons about American independence.

01 July 2010

Longevity; Kagan

1. If you could find out, with a 77% accuracy, whether your genes contain the series of markers that would allow you to live to 100, would you?

2. There isn't much to go on in evaluating Elena Kagan, but I think we can make a few inferences.

29 June 2010

Cultural Confusion

One hears recently that we suffer from "cultural exhaustion," which is alleged to be one reason why the West is on the decline. I think another problem is "cultural confusion."

18 June 2010

13 June 2010

Selves and Rants

Two items today:

1. People speak with different voices that represent their various selves. Because it communicates no context, however, the information the internet conveys is flat. That can give us the impression that everything anyone says in any context is equally representative of his entire character. But that is a false impression. Thus I think we should be very hesitant before we condemn anyone's character on the basis of a single utterance or sentence, or even a handfull of utterances.

2. A series of "rants" on impatient drivers, bicyclists, medical students talking out of school, sexual exhibitionism, and the importance of reserving our moral outrage for things that are truly morally outrageous.

10 June 2010

Singer to World: Drop Dead

Peter Singer argues that we should consider sterilizing ourselves so that we are the last generation of humans on earth. No, he's not kidding.

03 June 2010

Authority and Opinion

If Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, has actions he is willing and able to take to address the Gulf oil spill, and the only thing stopping him is that he doesn't have President Obama's permission, then, why, he should by all means sally forth.

02 June 2010

Rand and Marx

The recent publication of two biographies of Ayn Rand has rekindled interest in her, and it has also rekindled interest in a by-now standard roster of criticisms of her and her work. As this article rehearses, Rand's work is superficial at best and fraudulent at worst, and it therefore appeals only to immature minds and to some of our basest instincts--which explains why her work is largely not taken seriously in the academy, for example.


27 May 2010

Distinctions with a Difference

"Capitalism" and the "free market" has come in for a lot of criticism recently. Thomas Frank in the WSJ, for example, calls our recent economic problems "a cataclysmic series of market failures." But a proper prescription first requires a proper diagnosis; similarly, one should properly identify what capitalism and the free market are before undertaking to criticize them. Frank's analysis, as well as that of many others, indicates that there are some important distinctions to be drawn.

24 May 2010

Football and the Military Academies

The University of Chicago ended its powerhouse D-I football program in 1946 because it was becoming too much of a distraction from academic excellence. Should the military academies do the same today?

23 May 2010

The Real "Randslide"?

If Rand Paul is really a racist, does that mean that the Tea Party is really a racist organization? If the Tea Party is really a racist organization, does that mean their concerns--particularly their concerns about America's fiscal situation--are unworthy of serious consideration? If their concerns are unworthy of serious consideration, does that mean that America will not make the difficult and painful decisions it seems it needs to to avoid fiscal collapse? If America doesn't make those difficult and painful decisions and faces fiscal collapse, does that mean we face global fiscal collapse?

Talk about a butterfly effect!

17 May 2010

The Marketplace of Ideas Is Imperfect

Markets fail--all markets, not just economic markets--because perfect competition never obtains. The failures of the "marketplace of ideas" imposes, I argue, particular obligations on academics, because one central plank in the academic's code of professional ethics is to seek truth above all else. I argue the two obligations it imposes on us are: (1) to encourage and nurture people presenting propositions or worldviews that call our own into question, and (2), where such people are not forthcoming, to take up those contrarian positions ourselves, to the best of our ability.

I make the case here.

13 May 2010

State Aggression and Defensive Action

Can non-violent state encroachment on individual liberty, or other non-violent action of the state, ever rise to the level of bona fide aggression? Can it ever justify defensive, even violent defensive, action? Possibly.

08 May 2010

Quick Hits

Some quick thoughts on Governor Chris Christie, debt and Frederic Bastiat, The Economist magazine, and steroid use in the NFL and in MLB.

07 May 2010

03 May 2010

Arizona and the Genetic Fallacy

Are both the supporters and opponents of the Arizona immigration law committing the "genetic fallacy" of supporting (or criticizing) a law because of the motivations that gave rise to it, instead of on the basis of the law's merits (or demerits) themselves? Jack Weinstein raises this as an open question. I believe they are indeed committing the fallacy, or at least some of them are.

01 May 2010

Bullish or Bearish on the United States?

If you had to put all your chips on the prospects of a single country's prosperity over the next 100 years, which country would it be? Would you pick the United States? It pains me to say that I am not sure I would.

29 April 2010

Arizona and Airports

Can an analogy be drawn between the "papers, please" anti-illegal immigration law just passed in Arizona and the "security measures" in force in American airports? I think so. What do you think?

28 April 2010

Rights, Utility, and Today's Most Surprising Sentence

My latest post on Pileus takes a brief look Ronald Dworkin's 1978 Taking Rights Seriously and raises a question about the ultimate philosophical compatibility of utilitarianism and a belief in individual rights.

19 April 2010

Now Introducing: Pileus

I am delighted to announce the creation of a Pileus, a new group blog of scholarly and political commentary. I am one member of the Pileus team, the only philosopher; the other members are three political scientists, each with a different specialty, a law professor, and an economist.

Pileus will focus broadly on issues of political economy. It will be both provocative and timely, even with a bit of irreverence and wit, but it will also bring our scholarly specialties to bear on the issues it discusses.

Pileus is hosted by The Fund for American Studies, for which I am the Charles G. Koch Senior Fellow. I thank TFAS for its support, and I hereby absolve them of any responsibility for the contents of Pileus.

Pileus will have new, substantive content every day, so I hope you will read regularly and consider adding it to your daily reading. I also hope you will consider joining the conversation with comment, discussion, or criticism. We welcome your contributions.

09 April 2010

Economic Alchemy

One of the leitmotifs of Ben Jonson's great 1610 play The Alchemist is the pervasive economic ignorance of people at the time. They did not understand what profit was or where it came from, and so they tended to think that the entrepreneur and merchant were like the alchemist: engaged in either magical conjuration or fraudulent prestidigitation. The more enlightened members of the play's audience would have suspected, even in the early sixteenth century, that alchemy was a pseudo-science, and there would have already been a general sense that alchemists were untrustworthy, secretive, mysterious people. Jonson exploits these sentiments, and this widespread economic ignorance, brilliantly in his play.

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."

This is what a friend and former colleague of mine calls the "Milk Comes from the Grocery Store" theory of economics. I sometimes call it the "Money Comes from the Bank" theory. In the present context, we might call it a "Healthcare Comes from a Law" theory.

Perhaps we should not put too much weight on one remark from one person, even if it is a shocking statement and even if it is the Speaker of the House. But my sense is that this is a common, perhaps even pervasive, sentiment: Pass the right laws, with the right series of regulations and policies, with the right experts in charge, and things will--as if by alchemical magic--be better. Alas, it would be nice. If only reality worked that way.

05 April 2010

24 March 2010

Adam Smith and Barack Obama

I received in yesterday's mail a complimentary copy of a new edition of Adam Smith's 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by my friend Ryan Patrick Hanley and published by Penguin Classics. It boasts an introduction written by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Hanley, for his part, is a first-rate Smith scholar; I highly recommend his recent book Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.

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

He Said It: Burke

"You have theories enough concerning the rights of men; it may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their nature and disposition. It is with man in the concrete; it is with common human life, and human actions, you are to be concerned." --Edmund Burke, Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, dated November 1789

15 March 2010

He Said It: Oakeshott

"To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politcs becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments." --Michael Oakeshott, "On Being Conservative," reprinted in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962)

13 March 2010

Update on FEE Talk

My FEE talk has gone viral! Well, not exactly, but it has been reposted in a few places:

1. WallStreetBlips, here.

2. The Mises Blog, here.

3. The Independent Institute blog, here.

4. The Division of Labour blog, here.

5. Vimeo, here.

Please click on the links to view other interesting material those blogs have.

(Also, a special thanks to Professor Art Carden, who is responsible for at least some of those postings.)

10 March 2010

Talk at FEE

Last Friday I gave a talk at the Freedom 2010 Homeschool Debate Tournament, which was held at the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. What a great group of students--bright, engaged, motivated.

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

Marx's Argument?

In his early essay "Free Human Production," Marx writes, "Since our exchange is selfish on your side as well as mine and since every self-interest attempts to surpass that of another person, we necessarily attempt to defraud each other" (on p. 279 of this edition). By "exchange" here Marx means market exchange within a regime of private property.

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?

E. O. Wilson at the University of Alabama

E. O. Wilson is perhaps the University of Alabama's most famous graduate. Although he has spent his entire professional career at Harvard, he will be returning to UA in a couple weeks for a celebration in honor of the twelfth annivesary of the publication of his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which I highly recommend.

I will be one of three speakers at the event, along with Michael Ruse and Richard Richards. The title of my talk is "Wilson's Scottish Enlightenment." Here is the university's press release about the event.

UPDATE 3/10/10: As one of my friends reminded me, there are probably athletes who are more famous than E. O. Wilson. I should have said that Wilson was Alabama's most famous graduate who made his fame as an academic.

23 February 2010

Casey on Spooner

I published here a brief notice of Gerard Casey's recent provocative article, "Constitution of No Authority: Spoonerian Reflections."

Nudging and the Great Mind Fallacy

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my paper "Adam Smith and the Great Mind Fallacy" was recently published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy. In it I argue that one of Smith's arguments for limiting the scope of government authority is that such authority founders on two formidable obstacles: the "Herding Cats Problem" that humans often do not do what a political theorist or social engineer wants or expects them to do; and the "Gathering Information Problem" that theorists, legislators, or regulators cannot gather and process the information that would be necessary to devise successful and useful regulations. I argue moreover that Smith identifies what I call the "Great Mind Fallacy," which is the false yet strangely persistent assumption that someone, somewhere can overcome both the HCP and the GIP.

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

Choice and Not-Choice

So "Silent Bob" got kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for not fitting properly into their seats--and he's not happy about it. I can understand: It must be embarrassing for him, although he is the one who is bringing so much attention to it.

Still, it should be pointed out that he does have choices. There are other airlines one could select if one chose to fly.

On the other hand, the absurd "security" protocols of the TSA are mandatory and beyond appeal for all who choose to fly, regardless of what airline or what airport. Pat-downs, "random" "enhanced screenings," virtual strip-searches, special punishments for people who dare to speak up, confiscation of toothpaste and hair gel, etc., are now all part of the daily American routine for suspected terrorists and law-abiding citizens alike. (Fourth Amendment? Oh, we long ago stopped paying attention to that.)

And do not--I repeat, do not--question anyone at any time about any aspect of the process. Questions are prima facie evidence of, well, of something, and they will all be punished. "This is America now," as one airport official told me once, who proceeded to threaten not to allow me on my flight if I kept asking questions. Just do as we say, head down, eyes lowered, in strict obedience and compliance, and maybe, just maybe, we'll leave you alone.

To me, the TSA's virtually unlimited discretion and the submissive obedience in which they are training Americans is far greater cause for worry about the future of our republic than Southwest's seat policies. They're not even in the same league.

15 February 2010

The Pope is Catholic

And in other breaking news, it turns out that people might respond to incentives. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a study from Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy finds that as New Jersey has significantly raised income taxes over the last five years, people have left the state. More precisely, wealthy people left the state, leaving it with enormous budget deficits and less charitable giving among its citizens.

This finding is consistent with the recent claims of Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that political and economic institutions might have some effect on people's economic activities. Whether Smith was right or not, it is too soon to tell.

14 February 2010

Risks and Responsibility

The Boston Herald thinks the "IOC owes athletes a safe Olympics," pointing to the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday as evidence it is not living up to its moral obligation. An Australian luger, Hannah Campbell-Pegg, is quoted as saying, "I think they are pushing a little too much. To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

I think this is nonsense. No one is throwing Campbell-Pegg, or anyone else, down the tracks. She is not a lemming: she is a free moral agent, fully able to take responsibility for her decisions. If she deems it too dangerous, then she should quit--period. If she instead continues, then it is she who bears responsibility, not any mysterious "they" on whom she would apparently like to put responsibility for her actions.

Luging, like most sports in the Olympics, contains inherent dangers. That is part of the thrill, part of the reason people watch it and part of the reason athletes compete in it. In luging there is a tradeoff between safety and speed; reasonable people might differ about how much speed to sacrifice for safety. Unless you ban the sport altogether, however, it will never be entirely "safe."

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the father of the tragically killed Georgian luger had told him that he was scared of the track. Some will no doubt take this as further evidence that the IOC, or perhaps someone at the site in Vancouver, was at fault and should be blamed or punished for his death. But he was not a boy: he was twenty-one years old, a legal adult in this country, in Canada, and, I suspect, in Georgia as well. That means that he was responsibile for his actions.

There can, moreover, be no single threshold of "acceptable" risk that holds for all people. I would not go down any luge track, because the risks are, for me, too great. Clearly lugers have higher thresholds for "unacceptable" risk in this regard than I do. In both cases, however, we are making free decisions and should therefore be held accountable for them.

That does not lessen the tragedy of what happened on Friday. I do think, however, that crediting Kumaritashvili as a responsible agent shows him respect: He died doing what he wanted to be doing, in full knowledge of the risks, which he accepted. To blame anyone else is to consider him to have been less than a full moral agent, as someone incapable of fully understanding or properly assessing risks. For reasons that are her own, Campbell-Pegg is pretending that she is not a full moral agent; but she is. Regardless, to pretend now that Kumaritashvili was not responsible for his fateful decision to take the track last Friday is to deny him the dignity I believe he deserves.

10 February 2010

Respect for Woman

The disgusting words (to which I will not link) that the contemptible Andrew Sullivan recently had for Sarah Palin, especially printed in such a prominent place, shows that there are still those who seek to discredit strong women by reducing them to mere sexual objects. Palin may be a Republican, but she is still a human being, and it is, or ought to be, beneath us to speak of other human beings as Sullivan does of Palin.

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

De Jasay, Bastiat, and Smith

Across my desk has just come an interesting essay from Anthony de Jasay entitled "Weeding Out the 'Socially Not Useful'" (available here). As with most of de Jasay's work, it is well worth reading.

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

My Updated Curriculum Vitae

cv Feb 10
[Trying a new software program. Thanks, NG!]

Incentives, Bankers, and Bailouts

One of the most important truths about human nature that one must always keep in mind is: people respond to incentives. If one forgets that, one is bound to be frustrated by all the otherwise inexplicable things people do.

For example, bankers paying themselves large bonuses. People are on their moral high horses about how bad it is that executives from banks that received bailout money are now going to pay themselves big bonuses. It is "shameful," "the height of irresponsibility" says President Obama. The standard story is that these bankers engaged in irresponsibily high-risk investments and then lost their shirts. The federal government then had to come in and bail them out, at taxpayer expense, to stabilize the economy; and now, since the banks have recovered, they're once again being totally irresponsible in paying themselves huge bonuses, even while the rest of America has not yet recovered.

President Obama has made this one of his new causes, suggesting caps on executive compensation, various new taxes or fees, etc. I think all this misses the boat.

In a free country, people should be allowed to take any risk with their money that they want. Who is to say that the risk someone takes is unreasonable? Some people are more risk-averse than others; entrepreneurs, gamblers, and skydivers take greater risks than most others. But there is no objective criterion determining when a risk becomes too risky. It all depends on one's schedule of values, one's available resources, one's obligations to other projects or other people, etc. Even knowing those variables in a given case does not tell one whether another person ought to take a particular risk, because there are no external grounds on which to base that "ought."

So bankers should be able to take any risk with their money that they want. Ah, but there's the rub: it's not their own money, the critics charge, that they're risking--it's ours. But whose fault is that? Put yourself in the bankers' shoes for a moment, and ask yourself how you would behave. If you knew that any losses you incur from your investments would be paid for by someone else, but any profits you incur would go only to you, what would you do? Would you be cautious and conservative in your investments, or would you be aggressive and take high-risk/high-reward shots?

Imagine you were going to spend a week in Las Vegas, and I told you that, although you have to gamble with your own money, I will pay for any losses you suffer, any at all--and yet you get to keep whatever winnings you get. Would that alter your behavior? Would you limit yourself to the low-risk games, or would you play with reckless abandon? Exactly. Now suppose that you did this once, lost a lot of money, and I duly paid for all your losses; but then I said to you that you shouldn't have done that and don't do it again, but if you do, I'll pay for your losses again, though I won't be happy about it. Well, you go to Vegas again; what's your behavior this time?

The federal government bailed out bankers for their risky investments the first time around, and it would do so again--and the bankers know it. To be shocked, shocked that bankers would continue their riskiness, or pay themselves huge bonuses when the big risks pay off, strikes me as either naive or disingenuous. Of course that's what they're going to do.

The only way to make sure that taxpayers are not left holding the bag for bankers' risky investments (or anyone else's bad decisions) is by making sure taxpayers are not required to bail them out when they lose. There is no other way. Say to them, "You're free to do what you want with your money, but if you lose it all, don't come crying to us. It's your responsibility. Now invest wisely." That instantly links decision-makers with the consequences of their decisions, introducing a natural discipline that no rearguard brow-beating or finger-wagging could ever accomplish.

So I say, cut them loose. Give them the freedom to decide how to spend or invest their resources, but also the responsibility of having to live with the results--good or bad. Such a policy would have not only the benefit of not obligating taxpayers to pay for others' foolish decisions, but it also treats everyone concerned with a dignity befitting truly moral agents who are both free and accountable.

20 January 2010

Notre Dame and Innsbruck

It is a sad day for study-abroad programs: Notre Dame is shutting down its program in Innsbruck (hat tip: Brad Birzer).

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.

12 January 2010

Smith's TMS and WN

GMU economist Pete Boettke asked recently, "What reasons would you postulate as to why [Adam Smith's] The Theory of Moral Sentiments came to be under-appreciated in ethics and philosophy, and the interpretation of The Wealth of Nations came to be constrained and distorted in economics and political economy?"

This is an interesting question to raise. I responded to his question on his blog, but I thought I would re-post my thoughts here as well. Here is what I wrote:


You're asking a few different questions, Pete. One is why TMS's influence faded and was eclipsed by WN. Another is what the connection between the two books is. A third is why people thought--and some still think--that there is a tension between the books.

Several things combined to explain the phenomenon addressed in the first question. I'll mention two: one philosophical, one psychological.

The philosophical explanation is that philosophers came to see TMS as lacking in a serious way, namely in providing a bona fide source of moral normativity. TMS looks for all the world like an empirical investigation into the mechanisms that give rise to moral judgments and into the factors that account for three phenomena: (1) the fact that all (or almost all) human beings transition during their lives from amoral infants to highly moralized adults; (2) the fact that all (or almost all) human societies generate a rough consensus about wherein morality consists; and (3) there is a significant overlap among the respective moral consensuses various human societies adopt.

The problem is that, irrespective of whether Smith's proposed explanations of these phenomena are correct, it's not clear that Smith provides any way for people to critize moral orders. If our moral judgments arise the way Smith describes, as the unintentional results of people attempting to serve their ends in the company of others, then that seems to reduce moral judgments to the status of mere strategems. It makes them hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives. And moral philosophers like their categorical imperatives. (Remember, too, that Kant was about to come onto the scene, and his attempt to ground categorical moral imperatives--partly in response to Smith's (and Hume's) challenges--came to dominate moral thought. Smith's program is very different from Kant's in its aims and methods, and thus Smith's program came to be seen as alien, not really moral philosophy at all. It was thus relegated to other disciplines like psychology or anthropology, or to the dustbin of history.)

The psychological reason, at least for the latter half of the 20th century in the British and American world, is that Smith is associated with a political and economic order that the vast majority of academics find distasteful, even morally repellant. It is psychologically very hard to separate the two. It's like asking people to consider whether Mein Kampf has any redeeming literary virtues. As a result, most people will not even read, let alone seriously consider, anything Smith wrote. Moral philosophers who are interested in the "Smithian" program would rather read Hume than Smith, since Hume is not associated with capitalism. (Humanities scholars who work on Smith must constantly combat the initial "why on earth would you work on HIM?" question, before getting people even to consider any substantive issues.)

A quick thought on why people might think there is a tension between TMS and WN. WN does not mention TMS; it does not discuss the "desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments" or the "impartial spectator"; it does not mention any of the cardinal virtues TMS described; and in the Index Smith prepared for WN, it identifies "self-love" as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society." Moreover, there is none of the theological language in WN that was present in TMS. It's almost as if two different people wrote the books--a curious fact since Smith was revising them side by side throughout most of his adult life.

In a book of over 1000 pages, one would think there might be some discussion of the connection between Smith's only two books. Indeed, one might expect that there would be a deep and extended "conversation" between the two books. Alas, there is none of that.

That doesn't mean the two books don't go together or can't be reconciled. But it does mean, I think, that it's not simply foolish (as some claim) to suggest there might be an interesting tension here.

--Jim Otteson


08 January 2010

Update on the "Great Mind Fallacy"

The Forbes editorial I wrote is based on a paper I just had published in Social Philosophy and Policy entitled "Adam Smith and the Great Mind Fallacy." For those interested in the more detailed argument, the paper is available here.

Most issues of SP&P are very good; this one (vol. 27, issue 1, winter 2010) is as well. It collects several excellent papers from a distinguished group of scholars all addressing the general topic of "ownership and justice." I highly recommend the other papers as well.

06 January 2010

Government Experts and Adam Smith's Great Mind Fallacy

A new editorial by me for Forbes under (approximately) the above title, here. (There should be more to come in the future.) Post your thoughts or comments on the Forbes site!

Review of My Book

I just discovered this brief review of my book Actual Ethics on the blog "Goodness Is Cool." (What a cool name for a blog!)

Thanks to Tom Burnett, the blog's administrator who wrote the review.

05 January 2010

How Bad Were the Naughties?

Tyler Cowen argues recently in the NYT that the previous decade was actually not as bad as you might have thought, since the poor in many countries around the world made significant economic gains. And Art Carden argues in Forbes that the "naughties" brought many goods and services that we already take for granted.

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

Worth a Look: Smith as Theologian

Routledge is bringing out a fascinating collection of articles (disclosure: one of them is mine) on the theological underpinnings of Adam Smith's work. Entitled Adam Smith as Theologian, it is edited by Paul Oslington, who is joint chair in economics and theology at Australian Catholic University. The essays were written for an enormously stimulating conference sponsored by the Templeton Foundation that was held in January of 2009 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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

Some Quick Hits

1. The New York Times wonders when too many high school honors societies begins to diminish their value. Some students are apparently in as many as nine honors societies. My favorite line from the article: "But as honor societies have grown, some schools have screened out less serious students. At Florida’s South Miami Senior High School, the math society delays induction of new members until they fulfill a requirement for community service, and withholds honor cords from seniors who skip meetings, said Ileana Rodriguez, the activities director." What does community service have to do with mathematical ability? If your math honors society has too many members, why not screen out those who aren't as good at math?

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.