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  1. Dissing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments": Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949

    • I discovered something that is a maybe:
      Hugh Murray, Enquiries Historical and Moral, Respecting the Character of Nations, and the Progress of Society (Edinburgh, 1808).

      Of “the science which analyses the faculties of the human mind,” he writes:

      “The progress of this science accordingly, has been still slower than that of physics. It is only recently indeed that it has reached its <i>acme</i> of corruption, and has with difficulty found any sure ground on which to rest its foot.”

      For a couple of reasons, I think he might have Ed. 6 of TMS in mind as the acme of corruption.

      In the next paragraph he looks forward to the sciene’s “establishment on a firm and permanent foundation.”

      In the book he mentions (just once each, I believe) Kames, Hume, Ferguson, and Millar, but never Smith.

      He makes some remarks against conjectural history (167), the drift being that we should seek facts, not make things up.

      Several pages of his description of savages reminds one strongly of Smith, “death song”, etc. pp. 276ff.

    • 10 comments
    • First comment 11 Jun 2018 by Daniel Klein
    • Last comment 08 Aug 2019 by Daniel Klein
  2. Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans

    • It would appear that assessments of economic awareness (enlightenment, literacy, understanding – the noun is critical) is a growing industry including, of course, the analysis of estimated awareness in terms of the respondents’ socioeconomic indicators (income, education, political affiliation, etc.). One might hope, over time, to see some intelligent “standardization” of questions, methodology, etc. in what absolutely should be at least an annual exercise.

      Toward this hoped-for standardization (not meaning necessarily any single standard), this study is positively groundbreaking. I am so impressed with its methodology that I hope at least one of the standards evolves from it.

      This is not to say that what I’ll call the Year One version of the study was perfect. The article notes a shortcoming that I would regard as the greatest one I can think of: the lack of propositions chosen or worded so as to challenge respondents of a conservative/libertarian bent. For example: “By raising drug prices, government intervention in distribution of illicit drugs reduces their use.” Enlightened answer is “Yes,” but government intervention challenges libertarians’ beliefs (and favors conservative ones). The eight questions in the survey did not have any questions like this, as the article noted.

      The indictments of the American academy on the score of promoting (or frustrating) economic literacy are among the most-valuable products of this inquiry, and its conclusions along this line provide by far the most-attractive object for attention by college students, their parents, professors, and college administrators.

      The distortion and dismissal of economics as a study essential to the material and spiritual welbeing of mankind may be the most vital element on the cultural/didactic agenda of this century.

    • 6 comments
    • First comment 10 Jun 2010 by N. Joseph Potts
    • Last comment 16 Nov 2015 by wargames83
  3. Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists

    • In the opinion of Deirdre McCloskey Adam Smith was the last virtue ethicist. McCloskey bases this claim on the fact that in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith identifies five distinct virtues. Identifying a limited number of distinct virtues places Smith in contrast to some of the leading figures in enlightenment virtue projects, e.g. Kant and Bentham. In fact McCloskey believes that Smith’s conception and enumeration of the virtues is strikingly similar to that found in the work of Thomas Aquinas who identified seven.

      McCloskey rightly identifies that something is missing in Smith’s selection of the five virtues. Smith did not include two of the transcendent virtues, faith and hope, frequently found in medieval ethical systems. While McCloskey spends time speculating as to why Smith omitted faith and hope, it is important to put these virtues in context. McCloskey uses Aquinas as her source for the count of the virtues and it is important to look there to see if there is any particular order in which the virtues were ordered. In the Summa Theologica Aquinas says “faith is first among the virtues” (II-II q. 4 a. 7 s. c.). Further, he says, other virtues can only precede faith accidentally and those other virtues precede faith in the sense that they remove obstacles to faith.

      For Aquinas then there is a structure of the virtues that McCloskey seems to have completely missed. McCloskey attempts to explain Smith’s exclusion of the virtue of faith as an enlightenment era attitude against religion seems lacking. If McCloskey is trying to show Smith’s more ancient roots, she should also investigate the question of final causality that would have played an important part of any account of virtues for ethical writers like Aquinas. For those authors picking up from where Aristotle left off, there would have been some level of agreement concerning the final end of human action, or at least agreement that there is a final end for man that is part of his very nature. Smith, however, seems to have been influenced by his friend David Hume about the idea of causality—for Hume cause and effect is determined by proximity in time of the occurrence of events and there is as a result no final cause. If Smith accepted this then it is an easier explanation for rejecting faith then enlightenment religious sentiment as faith, for Aquinas, focused on the final end of man. That is, McCloskey skips out on the deep questions arising out of the virtue of faith and the structure it plays in the totality of the virtues as interpreted by Smith. She does this to the detriment of an otherwise interesting article.

    • 6 comments
    • First comment 22 Sep 2010 by Steve Kunath
    • Last comment 14 Nov 2012 by Todd Peckarsky
  4. Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management

    • Though I disagree with its economic approach, this is a perceptive article. Much of religion is about teaching humility: I am not God. We are not even gods. And, religions say, this is true even if you’re very smart and even if you’re a king. The virtue of humility is express in Christianity, but it’s implicit in a lot of religions. And it enters through Providence—- natural laws and the ordinary workings of the world—- as well as directly. THink of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_copybook.htm (“copybook heading” means a wise, often trite, sentence used for children to practice their handwriting).

    • 5 comments
    • First comment 30 May 2014 by Tom Garnett
    • Last comment 15 Aug 2015 by G. Ashton
  5. Advanced Placement Economics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    • Excellent article. I concur with Paul Johnson. Very sad that AP Economics includes so little real economics and so much of the bogus mechanistic/mathematical type.

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 25 Jan 2011 by Paul Johnson
    • Last comment 16 Mar 2011 by David B
  6. The Ideological Profile of Harvard University Press: Categorizing 494 Books Published 2000-2010

    • Quick question about cause and effect… I’m sympathetic to the argument here, and the social psychology literature demonstrates, quite well, that we read things more critically when they run counter to our own ideological perspectives, so clearly conservative books would have a more difficult time in the peer review process. However, I’m wondering if Harvard could defend its publication list by arguing that the number of conservative books published is actually proportional to the number of conservatives in academia. I’m noticing, for example, that some of the numbers here seem to mirror data about the number of conservatives in each discipline. So if field X is comprised of 10% conservatives, and 10% of HUP’s publications in that field fall right of center, couldn’t they argue that conservatives have the same chance of being published as liberals? Is there any way to see a sample of submissions and or rejections?
      April Kelly-Woessner

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 24 Jan 2011 by Hal Luft
    • Last comment 16 Feb 2011 by Milo Schield
  7. The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns

    • In an 1819 lecture, Constant calls on his listeners to realize that there is a fundamental difference between what people of antiquity considered liberty and what the concept means for the modern person. For the former, liberty consists of taking full advantage of collective political rights; liberty to the latter is the conducting of his private affairs without interference. He argues that the liberty of the moderns must be carefully guarded and not forgotten for the sake of political rights. In the course of his argument, Constant also defends the French Revolution as beginning with the right perspective on liberty but later confusing the liberty of ancients with that of moderns, which contributed to the disastrous results. Surprisingly, he praises Rousseau as a lover of liberty who was led into error by the confusion over ancient liberty as opposed to modern liberty.
      Constant offers a point-by-point comparison of the two concepts of liberty that is very illuminating. His main concern is that people would unwisely sacrifice modern liberty as the ancients often did, when in a modern nation, political rights are much less significant and valuable than in a small city-state. His contention that political rights used to be the more valuable of the two in ancient times because people were limited in their economic activity is one of his most striking points. It most clearly highlights the rationale behind people trying to acquire political power at the cost of personal and economic freedoms but also leads to a slightly conflicting message. Constant asserts that private activity is more important and valuable than public activity in modern society yet urges people not to ignore the political process. He anticipates the concept of the rationally ignorant voter by noting that many people will prefer to attend to matters that benefit them most and argues for citizens to be informed and watchful instead.
      It is worth noting that Constant often seems to be sanctioning the liberty of the ancients, where the society had the moral authority to control people’s private behavior, as morally acceptable for that time and the particular conditions. It weakens his argument, since his own concept of modern liberty could become dated in the same way unless it were justified by something other than the current political and economic systems being too large and complex for it to be otherwise.

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 15 Apr 2011 by Ariel Nerbovig
    • Last comment 06 May 2011 by Stephanie Myla Helmick
  8. Entrepreneurship and Islam: An Overview

    • Do any central banks apply Shari’ah principles to their market operations?

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 31 May 2014 by Eric Rasmusen
    • Last comment 03 Jun 2014 by Nathan W
  9. Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology

    • Great study, The next step should be finding “WHY”?
      First of all, we know scientists and faculties are likely to be less religious and more atheists, what about atheists’ political leaning, how much of “atheists” explains the D:R distribution.
      Second, majority of the Faculties are “secondary value generation” which means they do not produce goods and services directly, rather, they are supposed to “enable others to create more value”. We also know people working in “secondary value generation” industries (I.e. journalism, acting, etc) are also more politically leaning to the left.
      Third, “narcissistic intelligence”, which means how much people consider their own political believes and their intelligence is superior than others, and what are the typical political learning for people with “higher than normal self-confidence in their own believes”.
      Fourth, “political openness” what is the likelihood of people with D or R political leaning hire peole who are not politically aligned with them.

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 02 Oct 2016 by John Quiggin
    • Last comment 17 Oct 2017 by Mitchell_Langbert
  10. Preference Falsification in the Economics Profession

    • When I was a cadet in my senior year, we had to take a class with the senior officer in charge of the ROTC department. One of the concepts that I remember him trying to drive home was that we were preparing to enter a “profession”. At the time it struck me that he was grinding some sense of inadequacy, looking for a word that would make his own career more significant in the way some janitors want to be called “sanitary engineers”. However, two elements of his definition of a profession have remained with me (I’m sure there were more). In the colonel’s definition, a career field was a profession if it had a body of knowledge and an ethical code of conduct. Merely having an expert knowledge of a field made you a technician, not a professional. The ethical code of conduct instructed you on how you were to use your expert knowledge, and provided purpose for professional practice.

      In the quote above, Davis is referring to what the important work of the economics profession is, rather than what is important to be successful in the profession in this particular quote, but in an ideal world, the latter should flow from the former. I believe many people come to the social sciences with a desire to make society better (we may not all agree on what “better” means, but that is a separate issue). The dissatisfaction I read, overtly and between the lines, is that the “profession” of economics, in its pursuit of the air of positive science, has lost its ethical code of conduct and has devolved to a technical career field. The statement, “The economics profession is a bad joke. More and more economists are saying less and less to fewer and fewer people. And they conceal their vacuity in abstruse language and mathematical formulae” (p. 364), strikes at the heart of the loss of a professional ethic in the field. What is the ultimate purpose of economics but ultimately to increase society’s understanding of the economy and thereby guide policymakers to make effective policies? This does not necessarily mean that a lay person should be able to pick up an economics journal whose audience is intended to be professional economists and understand it fully any more than a lay person should be able to pick up a copy of the New England Journal of Medicine and expect to fully understand it. Every profession must have an introspective element that works to extend the professional knowledge, and a means of communicating that new professional knowledge.
      Davis paraphrases respondents who say collectively “The bifurcation of the economics profession into researchers, teachers, and policy-makers has gotten worse and the number of individuals who are respected for contributions in all three areas gotten fewer and farther between” (364). I am not sure this is actually a problem – it sounds like a matter of comparative advantage for the individuals involved. We are after all the field that promotes specialization of labor. The real problem seems to be that the economics field has been overwhelmed by its pursuit of the professional body of knowledge, and in particular a very narrow portion of the body of knowledge as defined by the use of mathematical methodology, and has lost its commitment to the ethic of betterment that defines social science practitioners as professionals rather than as mere technicians.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 21 Apr 2010 by Jon Goldstein
    • Last comment 22 Apr 2010 by Shawn Reed
  11. A Life among the Econ, Particularly at UCLA

    • As a student during this period (PhD 1972) I was extremely fortunate to have been taught by these professors. Well remembered is the BSU bomb incident at the department as well as tenured faculty guarding halls against crazies disrupting classes. Learning to reason as an economist was paramount. On one qualifying exam, I felt one question assumed away the problem and rather than give an answer I pointed out the error. This risky strategy was well received. Alchian was on my dissertation committee but was slow to read the work. Knowing his keen interest in market transactions and since i was facing a deadline for a fellowship stipend, I made him a non serious offer. If he would just read it, I would split any stipend with him. This was not asking for an approval, just a reading. Obviously he would never accept any money, but as i knew he would, the market spirit of the offer was appreciated. During meetings of my nonacademic career, my annoying market based queries would often elicit the query “Where did you come from?”. I now know that the answer should have been “The Golden Age of Alchian’s UCLA Economics Department”.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 08 Sep 2010 by morrie goldman
    • Last comment 17 May 2011 by josil
  12. Individualism: True and False

    • Hayek does well to remind people of the true definition of individualism in his opening chapter. Many assume the common meaning of terms and concepts such as “individualism” without evaluating the meaning of the term or concept as it was used in a past age. However, Hayek does not seem to dive deep into the Bible to understand its methods or how they were supposed to work. He assumes that history has proven that biblical methods of economics do not work. He does acknowledge the usefulness of biblical principles, but does not see biblical methods as legitimate. Maybe the reason biblical methods have not worked is because governments and nations refuse to implement certain practices? Hayek does not take time to wonder what would happen if a Year of Jubilee was practiced. Finally, Hayek does not address biblical assumptions about man and how he works either. Men’s hearts are corrupt according to the Bible. Hence, greed and usury is prevalent. Hayek does a wonderful job of defining individualism, but makes too many assumptions about how the Bible should be used in regards to an economic system.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 22 Sep 2010 by Tony Quain
    • Last comment 10 May 2013 by Matt
  13. "The Two Faces of Adam Smith"

    • The Adam Smith Problem has beset philosophers and economists since the time of the man who is its source. What is the best way to integrate the insights of the Wealth of Nations with the ethical theory of the Theory of Moral Sentiments? While consensus has not yet been reached authors still try to resolve the tension. Vernon Smith, the father of experimental economics, attempted to resolve the problem by making an appeal to Adam Smith’s description of the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

      The propensity that Vernon Smith points to is certainly a component of Adam’s system, but in attempting to resolve the Adam Smith Problem by simply highlighting this propensity seems to ask forces other questions into focus. Assuming that Adam Smith had a singular vision of human nature in some sense, where does the individual’s propensity to exchange emerge? According to David Hume reason is a slave to the passions, which Adam Smith would have been familiar with as it affected the development of his own moral theory. Here a problem arises, if the propensity to exchange is simply the result of an innate principle of action, as Vernon Smith implies, then one needs to determine if this action falls under ethical scrutiny or not. If Adam Smith does not consider natural and uncontrolled actions of the individual, e.g. sneezing, twitching, worthy of ethical consideration as they fall outside of the realm of the individual’s control and thereby are incapable of being done in sympathy with the Impartial Spectator, then how does one square a natural principle with ethical analysis? Perhaps if Vernon Smith had described the propensity to exchange as some type of irreducible good then we could see that it could then serve as a reason for action that would first be described by and ethical system, i.e. it would be fitting to discuss in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and then followed by sound advice on instantiating the good in ones affairs, i.e. the Wealth of Nations would give advice on making it a reality. The point of all this is to say that while Vernon Smith seems to be making a contribution to solving the Adam Smith Question, we are left with further questions that need to be answered.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 25 Apr 2011 by Echo Keif
    • Last comment 06 May 2011 by Steve Kunath
  14. Economic Enlightenment Revisited: New Results Again Find Little Relationship Between Education and Economic Enlightenment but Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse

    • People believing firmly in free market and voluntary exchange efficiency (just missed some fluctuations in Q.16 and negative externalities in Q17) are wrong and “Unenlightened”.
      People believing after USSR economy TOTAL failure and China transition to market economy that voluntary transactions are inefficient and only Gosplan could succeed to organize it are right and enlightened? Are you sure Q16-17 really helpful?
      BTW, conservatives actually able to count negative externalities.
      Q14: say Farmer A hired 5 immigrants from the country w/o tradition to respect property and human life, dignity etc. Let Farmer A saved for a Seazon $100K his costs (taxation, salary) and shared part of $100K among his product consumers. So, public wealth increased $100K. OK, now, close to the end of the Seazon (game almost over, last move of the gamer could be very unpleasant) this immigrant workers grabbed and killed farmer B and raped farmers’ C daughter and escaped to Mexico.
      Public losses counted say $5 million at least. So, conservatives actually count negative externalities, some libertarians so stubbornly ignore (Caplan vs. Friedman):
      http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/06/milton_friedman_10.html

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 17 May 2011 by rihir akidan
    • Last comment 28 Apr 2012 by Moshe
  15. The Invisible Hand of Jupiter

    • I hope to add to, and hopefully not just echo, what Erik has already pointed out.

      It would seem that Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” allegory in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is used to illustrate the edict of nature and society that direct economic activity. Whereas, in the History of Astronomy the “invisible hand” is used to explain the unexplainable— the events that are beyond the natural laws of the secular world. On the surface, the “invisible hand” reference takes on a slightly different connotation in the three Smith pieces mention above. In The Wealth of Nations it can be interpreted as the natural laws that manage markets and society; in The Theory of Moral Sentiments it can be seen as a divine set of universal rules directing a just and virtuous society; and, in the History of Astronomy it can take on the role of a divine authority overriding these rules and laws. I believe, as I deem Erik does, that the latter use of the “invisible hand” also shows up in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Consider the following few lines from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The rich…only consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life…had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants…”. Although “selfishness and rapacity” would seem to be characteristics that would not direct society in the way of justice or virtues, the industrious individual’s “natural” penchant to serve his own interest ultimately benefits society—the mean may not appear agreeable, but the end is. Is this “natural” penchant toward “selfishness and rapacity” not assumed to be put in place by a precocious, divine authority? It certainly can be interpreted that way. If we except that the “invisible hand” is the work of a higher authority, who has directed the butcher and the brewer to act in their own self interest, and who has provided society with nature ethics and virtues to govern themselves, and who makes it “lightening” and “thunder”, then the metaphor is consistent in all three of Smith’s works referenced above. Since this heavenly intention or intervention is not observable, Smith does not bother with a speculative explanation, simply calling it the “invisible hand”.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 15 Oct 2011 by Pavel Kucha?
    • Last comment 15 Nov 2012 by Francis Conlon
    • I do not share Eric’s confidence in perfectly and justly adminsitered providence.

      If we want things to be better on earth, I do not think we should wait for providence. We may have to wait for a very long time, and poor, starving and vulnerable populations worldwide need out compassion and support today, not whenever providence thinks it is time to do it.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 May 2014 by Eric Rasmusen
    • Last comment 10 Jun 2014 by Nathan W
  16. Education Premiums in Cambodia: Dummy Variables Revisited and Recent Data

    • John, I do not believe you understand my point. Computed as discrete changes, which is what you do, the percentage difference of the premia (college versus high school) is not equal to to the difference of the percentage premia (college versus base minus high school versus base). You are implicitly using a false assumption; it is the same false assumption made by the Mexican government in the example I cited: that the difference of the percentage changes (+50 – 33.3) is the percentage change of the difference. It causes you to greatly overestimate the education premium.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 Sep 2015 by Ronald Michener
    • Last comment 30 Oct 2015 by Ronald Michener
    • I am and always have been surprised by the “cartel” view of taxis. No one calls the Maine lobster industry a cartel. Yet surely and appropriately it is. The lobster fishery is a common access resource. So, too, are the streets of a city. Part of the income enjoyed by lobster fishermen is a scarcity rent. So, too, is the price of a taxi and a taxi-cab medallion. Cities for many, obvious political-economy reasons are awful at managing common access to the streets. Nonetheless, the social value of Uber is not to lower the price of a taxi, which should be even higher in some cases, but to offer the consumer a more technologically efficient way of delivering the scare good

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 Sep 2015 by Michael Maloney
    • Last comment 24 Oct 2015 by Carl Edman
    • After a Google keyword search of “Commentary Magazine” and “Social Science Citation Index,” I found this article and was introduced to EJW. The bias Klein and Chiang illuminate, exists not only in the slant of the SSCI journals which make and break careers, but also the themes and questions addressed at major conferences and their panels. (Just take a look at the CfP for next year’s APSA annual.) Now finishing up a PhD and finding the same problem on the job market, the research backgrounds often asked for (my area is IR/ IPE) also come from left field. Rather than become disheartened, this state of affairs increases my resolve to follow and intelligently express my conservative convictions in the face of single minded institutionalized opposition. I love a good fight and know the truth will prevail. I’d rather be right than loved, although it would be nice to be both.

    • 2 comments
    • First comment 01 Nov 2011 by Alex Littlefield
    • Last comment 11 Feb 2013 by Alex Littlefield

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