05 December 2012

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

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

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

05 November 2012

Update on Hurricane Sandy Status

Dear Students, Colleagues, and Friends,

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

More specifically:

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

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

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

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

With best wishes,

James Otteson

19 September 2012

He Said It: David Rose

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

18 September 2012

Otteson and the President

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


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

12 September 2012

He Said It: Russell

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

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

30 August 2012

He Said It: Hazony

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

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

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

22 August 2012

He Said It: Adam Smith

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

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

19 July 2012

He Said It: Voltaire

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


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

29 June 2012

Summer Reading

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

28 June 2012

Disclaimer on "Said It" Posts

I received an anonymous question that prompts this disclaimer:

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

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

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

26 June 2012

They Said It: Skidelsky and Skidelsky

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

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

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

11 May 2012

In Defense of Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 May 2012

Appearance on "Real News"

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


01 May 2012

"An Audacious Promise"

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

25 April 2012

Today's Pop Quiz: Name that Work

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

23 April 2012

She Said It: Woolf

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

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

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

05 April 2012

Students for Liberty Update

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

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

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

28 March 2012

He Said It: Macaulay

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

11 March 2012

He Said It: Frederick Douglass

The one-time slave Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to his former slave master, Thomas Auld, explaining why he fled. The letter was publshed in The North Star on September 8, 1848. The following excerpt comes from that letter:

"From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act I dispose fo as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bond to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculty remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner. I therefore see no wrong in any part of the transaction. It is true, I went off secretly; but that was more your fault than mine. Had I let you into the secret, you would have defeated the enterprise entirely; but for this, I should have been really glad to have made you acquainted with my intentions to leave." --Frederick Douglass, "To My Old Master, Thomas Auld" (1848; reprinted in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (Oxford, 1996))

I am currently writing a book examining the arguments given on behalf of socialism. This one paragraph from this one letter captures,  more eloquently and movingly than anything I could manage, several of the points I hope to make.

Students for Liberty Webinar

I am pleased to report that I will be taking part in the first-ever Students for Liberty "Adavanced Academic Webinar." It will take place entirely online, on Monday, March 12, 2012. Fifteen graduate students were selected from among the applicants, and we will discuss my paper, "Markets and Order: The Contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment."

Students for Liberty is an extraordinary organization. It was created by students, is entirely organized by students, and it has now grown, in just a few short years, to encompass chapters throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, and Africa. Its main purpose, as I understand it, is to encourage the study of liberty. Here is a five-minute video from them discussing their purpose:


I have given a talk to SFL in the past; this webinar will be my second time to work with them. I hope it is not the last.

09 March 2012

He Said It: Adam Smith

An early statement of Adam Smith's nascent theory of unintended order, from a now lost manuscript Smith wrote at the age of 33:


"Man is generally considered by statesmen and projectors as the materials of a sort of political mechanics. Projectors disturb nature in the course of her operations in human affairs; and it requires no more than to let her alone, and give her fair play in the pursuit of her ends, that she may establish her own designs."

--Adam Smith (1755), quoted by Dugald Stewart in his Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LLD (1793), reprinted in Essays on Philosophical Subjects

01 March 2012

He Said It: Macaulay

"Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed have to wait forever."

--Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay (1800-1859), "Milton" (1825)

29 February 2012

He Said It: David Hume

"We may conclude, therefore, that, in order to establish laws for the regulation of property, we must be acquainted with the nature and situation of man; must reject appearances, which may be false, though specious; and must search for those rules, which are, on the whole, most useful and beneficial. Vulgar sense and slight exeprience are sufficient for this purpose; where men give not way to too selfish avidity, or too extensive enthusiasm."

--David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, sect. III, pt. 2

17 February 2012

He Said It: Israel Kirzner

"We argue that profits grasped by the entrepreneur are in the nature of an unowned, unperceived object first discovered by an alert pioneer, who, in the view of many, becomes the legitimate private owner of that which he has discovered, on the basis of the 'finders-keepers' ethic. [...] The special ethical relevance of spontaneous discovery arises precisely from the circumstance that it can be classified neither as a deliberate activity nor as an occurrence strictly attributable to blind chance."

--Israel M. Kirzner, "The Nature of Profits: Some Economic Insights and Their Ethical Implications," in Cowan and Rizzo, eds., Profits and Morality (Chicago, 1995)

15 February 2012

He Said It: Wilhelm Roepke

"It is a poor species of human being which this grim vision conjures up before our eyes: 'fragmentary and disintegrated' man, the end product of growing mechanization, specialization, and functionalization, which decompose the unity of human personality and dissolve it in the mass, an aborted form of Homo sapiens created by a largely technical civilization, a race of spiritual and moral pygmies lending itself willingly--indeed gladly, because that way lies redemption--to use as raw material for the modern collectivist and totalitarian mass state."

--Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane Economy (1960), p. 12

08 February 2012

"Global Regulation Epidemic," on Freedom Watch

Here is a clip from last night's "Freedom Watch" with Judge Andrew Napolitano. The subject was a Reuters study that claimed that 14,215 new regulatory rules were placed on businesses worldwide in 2011. I was one of three panelists discussing the issue with Judge Napolitano:


23 January 2012

I have begun appearing with some regularity on Judge Andrew Napolitano's television show "Freedom Watch," which appears nightly on the Fox Business Network. (If you don't get the Fox Business Network, contact your television provider!) 

"Freedom Watch" does not live-stream its content, or archive all shows, on the internet, but they do provide clips from each show the next day. Occasionally, the segments that include me make the cut. Here is a clip of my most recent appearance, in which I am a panel discussant on the topic of the President's recent decision not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline: