I spend the better part of my professional life teaching “Great Books.” This semester’s lineup so far has included Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse (1775), Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). I’m committed to the proposition that these old books continue to speak to us, if only we have ears to hear.
My students don’t always agree, but they really perked up when I speculated about how Adam Smith would approach the phenomenon—the yuuge phenomenon—of Donald Trump.
Teaching philosophy isn’t usually thought to go with an interest in fashion. For one thing, philosophers are hardly legendary for their sartorial flair. For another, someone might question why the philosopher would consider fashion an important subject to think or write about. Fashion and the ethics of the fashion industry do preoccupy me, though. I have my reasons, not least of which is the thought of the German phenomenologist, Max Scheler (1874-1928). Scheler speaks of the “natural outlook,” by which phrase he tries to capture the idea that some phenomena are so close to us, so everyday, that we lose sight…
A while ago, I was driving back to Indiana from the place of my birth and America’s most dysfunctional city, Chicago. As thoughts of Greek-style pensions for public employees, exorbitant property taxes, and sky high murder rates were passing through my consciousness, my car began emitting a strange noise on the expressway. It grew louder, and my stomach sank. It was a flat. The car wobbled onto a nearby exit ramp, and I slowed to the shoulder cursing my lousy luck.
Thankfully I had just renewed my Triple-A membership (after debating to myself whether or not the fee was worth it), so my luck held in the end. The incident led me to ponder the fact that it would not have occurred to me in my distress to try calling a real estate developer, a neurosurgeon, or a former CEO for help. That is to say, anyone lacking a background in auto repair.
Did you know that Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments can change your life? In essays on self-knowledge, happiness, virtue, being loved and being lovely, making the world a better place, and most importantly, fame and self-deception, Russ Roberts’ new book on Smith explores why the 18th century Scottish philosopher has the cure for the denizen of late modernity. The man mostly known for articulating in The Wealth of Nations how nations become rich and how they impoverish themselves also wrote eloquently on why we want to be loved and why we struggle with being lovely. In short, Smith…
Editor’s Note: This excellent post by Hans Eicholz on the need for the Scots to recover their former capitalist and free society enthusiasms if they are to govern themselves is worthy of re-consideration today.
What does it take to secure an independent, self-governing nation? Arguably it takes a self-governing citizenry. And what does that mean? Generally speaking, it means a citizenry composed of persons capable of independent thought and action—capable of sustaining themselves through much of the thick and thin of life through their own voluntary efforts in civil society.
A modern welfare state works directly against that capacity by encouraging ties of hierarchical dependence on political authorities. The modern fallacy is to believe that majority voting is sufficient to prevent the abuse of power; anyone familiar with the workings of government cannot seriously entertain that idea.
The wild increase in laws and more importantly, administrative agency rules, does not translate into the rule of law, but into the selective enforcement of special programs by those entrusted to administer them. That sort of re-feudalization of the economy and society was well understood by Mancur Olson years ago in his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. But Olson was really only further developing the critique of mercantilism first put forward by Adam Smith.
When I was a student, my friends and I would stay up all night to discuss such questions as the truth or otherwise of determinism. Was the entire future of the universe immanent in its past, indeed had everything been determined from the very foundation of the universe (if it had one)? If so, what of our supposed freedom?
It is impossible to exaggerate the enigma within the term “capitalism.” It is in fact one of those big concepts concocted by its enemies, indeed by its chief antagonist Karl Marx. To this very day its central concepts of market and “trickle down” are questioned from the American president to the pope. Even its supporters cannot agree on what it is or even when it began.
“Public choice,” of course, is just a highfalutin circumlocution for “politics.” But the name is usually applied to the leading neoclassical version articulated by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock in The Calculus of Consent.
This theory has a number of obvious attractions for libertarians, which I will briefly describe. Unfortunately, because its drawbacks outweigh these attractions, it needs to be replaced by an updated version of what might be called the Founders’ older “theory of American public choice.”
The problem is by no means peculiar to the theory of public choice, but rather is a general one apparent in all branches of neoclassical economic theory. This requires some explanation.