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

    • I neglected to give page cite for the Viner quotation (“I will endeavor…”); it is p. 201.

    • 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

    • McCloskey faults the project of the Enlightenment philosophers, Smith included, for neglecting two of the seven virtues of Thomas Aquinas: hope and faith (though she does claim these were smuggled in through the back door of their philosophies). I must admit to being puzzled about what use a secular moral philosopher should have for either virtue, both of which being explicitly based in religion.

      McCloskey describes hope and faith as two sides of the same coin, the forward-looking imagination and backward-looking imagination, respectively. Without hope, she tells us, there can be no ‘human project.’ Without faith, no ‘human identity.’ They do not, she asserts with no further explanation, ‘have to be theological.’ She implies that without hope as an independent virtue, suicide would be our only recourse, and without faith as an independent virtue, we would forget our identities. She claims that this makes the two virtues intelligible in secular terms, but as I can make no sense of any of it, I have to disagree.

      The ability to carry on projects that will bear fruit in the future does require a kind of simple “hope” that one’s plans will succeed. However, surely if this is all that hope consists of, skepticism must be a coequal virtue, otherwise the wasting of resources on impossible projects would be laudable and proper. And neither hope nor skepticism is an independent virtue, as hope could be described as prudence plus courage in imagination, and skepticism, prudence plus temperance in the same. Indeed, to an atheist, praying for eternal life perfectly fits the idea of “wasting resources on an impossible project.” I can understand hope as an independent virtue only in a specific theological context. The ancient pagan virtue ethicists also distrusted hope as a virtue, pointing out that hope adopted as a stable habit of mind would lead to continual bitter disappointment.

      With regard to faith, to twist it into a secular virtue when its commonplace meaning is the belief in a religion is to do violence to language and reason. McCloskey attempts to describe a physicist’s assumption of the orderliness of the universe as piety and faith (a faith slipped in stealthily whenever an Enlightenment philosopher refers to Nature), but it is nothing of the sort. She uses this poor argument against Rosalind Hursthouse’s reasonable contention that religious piety is “based on a complete illusion” from an atheist’s point of view and then rolls on to blame our uptight refusal to recognize the existence of hope and faith as independent virtues in Western philosophy for the rise of Bolshevism, Hitler, and “all our woe.” Despite violating Godwin’s law here, she declares her position defying two centuries of philosophy evidently correct, and “warmly recommends” her own flavor of non-secular hope and faith.

      McCloskey points out another way God allegedly sneaks in the back door in Smithian moral philosophy: through the idea of an impartial spectator. She claims: “The impartial spectator…is not merely [a behavioral observation] about how people develop ethically. [It is a recommendation.]” This assertion stands in baffling contradiction to much of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which painstakingly describes a positive process of an individual judging the propriety of actions he observes or proposes to undertake with recourse to sympathizing with an imagined impartial spectator. TMS is not a long harangue from “an urbane resident of Edinburgh…hopeful for a rather better society, loving sweetly the imagined result” exhorting its readers to follow a system of virtues. It is principally a description of a positive system of moral philosophy: how we in fact judge the propriety of actions, not how we ought to. Though Smith often lets his values and opinions leak through to color the text, to an extent unfashionable among modern philosophers but charming in this case, the meat of the book is about how humans act, not how Smith believes they should.

    • 6 comments
    • First comment 22 Sep 2010 by Steve Kunath
    • Last comment 14 Nov 2012 by Todd Peckarsky
    • The article misreads Krugman’s comments. In the blog entry the article cites (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/roots-of-evil-wonkish/), Prof. Krugman makes a technical argument against Mankiw’s use of the unit root in his analysis. He does not make a prediction about the speed of the recovery. Krugman’s articles around the time had made it clear that he thought the recession would be deep and the stimulus too small and that the Obama administration was setting itself up for problems in the future by underestimating what needed to be done.

      I will include the full text below:

      March 3, 2009, 9:06 PM
      Roots of evil (wonkish)
      As Brad DeLong says, sigh. Greg Mankiw challenges the administration’s prediction of relatively fast growth a few years from now on the basis that real GDP may have a unit root — that is, there’s no tendency for bad years to be offset by good years later.

      I always thought the unit root thing involved a bit of deliberate obtuseness — it involved pretending that you didn’t know the difference between, say, low GDP growth due to a productivity slowdown like the one that happened from 1973 to 1995, on one side, and low GDP growth due to a severe recession. For one thing is very clear: variables that measure the use of resources, like unemployment or capacity utilization, do NOT have unit roots: when unemployment is high, it tends to fall. And together with Okun’s law, this says that yes, it is right to expect high growth in future if the economy is depressed now.

      But to invoke the unit root thing to disparage growth forecasts now involves more than a bit of deliberate obtuseness. How can you fail to acknowledge that there’s huge slack capacity in the economy right now? And yes, we can expect fast growth if and when that capacity comes back into use.

    • 5 comments
    • First comment 23 Sep 2012 by Brooks
    • Last comment 24 Sep 2012 by Alex Nash
  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

    • Oh yes, I should add that I teach principles of economics. And it has changed a lot… Just one example – the theory of growth is very different and more prominent in principles courses compared to 30 years ago. And I expect that most principles instructors have changed their treatment of this topic.

    • 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

    • John Quiggin: Thanks for your comment on Pew. You have a good point about the importance of baseline numbers. Unfortunately the Pew survey is unclear as to who its survey respondents are. They indicate that they surveyed the membership of the American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS publishes journals, and it includes a large share of academics. Also, its membership includes many outside the hard sciences, specifically in the notorious field of psychology. Hence, the Pew survey isn’t useful as a baseline. I just finished a study in which I actually found a higher rate of D affiliation among hard scientists in elite liberal arts colleges than in the Pew survey, so there is something wrong with it. In fact. some of the past AAAS presidents have been psychologists. A good survey of nonacademic scientists would be a good baseline. When you find one, please let me know. Thanks. ML

    • 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

    • Preference falsification is equivalent to the term “pluralistic ignorance” used in social psychology. There have been a number of studies that have isolated this phenomenon (e.g., public versus private views of drinking habits on college campuses in Prentice and Miller 1993) and suggestions regarding how to alleviate it. For example, Halbesleben et al. (2005) conducted a study on business school students. Previously, it was observed that private views on ethical conduct in business diverged significantly from public views. In general, everyone wanted to be more ethical, but believed everyone else would behave unethically. The researchers administered ethics surveys several times during a semester to students in two classes. The surveys required students to indicate what they would do given a particular situation and what they thought others would do in that situation. In one of the classes, the lecturers spent one session teaching pluralistic ignorance, although not linking this lesson to the surveys or business ethics in general. The researchers found that, in business settings, the class receiving the pluralistic ignorance lesson reduced pluralistic ignorance on the ethics surveys and responded more ethically to surveys.

      This study provides reason for optimism for the economics profession. Merely educating students about the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance (or preference falsification) reduces the phenomenon somewhat. The researchers did not even link the concept of pluralistic ignorance with the ethics surveys. Surely, educating economists on pluralistic ignorance and presenting results of studies similar to Davis’s should greatly reduce pluralistic ignorance in the economics profession. Moreover, one would suspect that the Internet, a medium that strongly promotes the exchange of ideas and internal viewpoints, would also alleviate the “ignorance” of the majority viewpoint. Davis describes that pluralistic ignorance can perpetuate social undesirable practices, but then “can suddenly, and dramatically change” those practices. Perhaps, the economics profession will soon undergo such a change.

      References
      Halbesleben, R. B., A. R. Wheeler, and M. R. Buckley (2005). “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? Pluralistic Ignorance and Business Ethics Education.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 56, No. 4, pgs. 385-398.
      Prentice, D. A. and D. T. Miller (1993). “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 64, No. 2, pgs. 243–256.

    • 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

    • A wonderful remembrance! Although not a major in Economics, I had Alchian for Econ 101 (for non-econ majors?) in the mid 1950s, and a year or two later, a grad seminar with Allen (and someone else) on Internat’l Econ Development. Also, had Hildebrand for K. Marx econ. With the help of Prof Allen’s retrospective, I am now inclined to even greater appreciation than at the time—-partly for their inculcation of an economic perspective but mostly for their character.

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

    • Much of this introductory chapter to Hayek’s 1948 work deserves ample praise: that rationalist epistemology leads to an ever-encroaching desire to design state-imposed solutions; that individualism recognizes that man in a free state will achieve more than is possible laboring under centralized intelligent design; that true individualism is only selfish in the sense that the individual self directs his own affairs, whatever his egoist or altruist intentions; and that equality is a two-sided coin such that pursuing equality of treatment necessitates inequality of results, and vice versa.

      Unlike some other individualist theorists, his attack on state authority and especially its roots in rationalism is made largely on practical terms. He doesn’t say that statism encroaches on man’s “rights” or on moral principles. Rather, he makes the simple observation that individuals should direct their own affairs because they each are aware of the particulars and the intended objective of those affairs. Society at large and bureaucrats as its representatives simply can not know the ends that men seek in their several endeavors and can not devise all the practical means to achieve them.

      Certainly arguing for a liberal social order from a rights-centered perspective (like that of Locke, Rand, or Nozick) has its own pitfalls. But what if the problem is not with Hayek’s airtight reasoning of matching the actor with his wants, but with his presumption that the correct object of analysis is the individual and not society? If the reader believes that social goals are more aspiring than individual goals, Hayek’s arguments could be used against him: just as it is more practical for individuals to know and direct the pursuits of the individual, it is likewise more practical for society to know and direct the pursuits of society. It is not clear that Hayek has established methodological individualism before arguing for political individualism.

      This should not be a difficult proposition. As societies have become less autocratic and more responsive to democratic impulse, they have also become more tailored towards individualistic ends. Post-war rationalist planners (conservative and liberal) emphasize large welfare states to achieve largely individual goals instead of leviathan state actors to achieve collectivist goals. In other words, history is on the side of the methodological individualist. Yet Hayek did not know this in 1948, and should stress that point more.

      What logically follows from this is that rationalist planners would reduce the ends (and the means) of human pursuits to a least common denominator. As Hayek puts it, “The concentration of all decisions in the hands of authority itself produces a state of affairs in which what structure society still possesses is imposed upon it by government and in which individuals have become interchangeable units with no other definite or durable relations to one another than those determined by the all-comprehensive organization.” (p.27) What is lost is individuality and the localized functions of civil society. Even for those who have communitarian or anti-individualist preconceptions, this is a tragic development.

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

    • Echo’s critique is insightful, and touches on Hanley’s recent appraisal of the article. I would like to suggest that while Vernon Smith’s experiments are very interesting, that his jumping off point misses a better way to reconcile Adam Smith’s two works.

      Although Adam Smith does attribute the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange to man as one of his most innate qualities, it is not the most obvious bridge between the two books. As a method of operation in the world, the propensity is important; as an explanation of the origin of our behavior, less so. The Adam Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments proposes a picture of man who receives input from the world around him about how he ought to behave. The man wants to be loved and to be loveable out of a concern for his self-interest. Both works address the content of self-interested behavior. The content which makes up self-interest in each book is explained differently, but they both amount to an exploration of self-interest in different frames. Paganelli (2008) even suggests that self-interest is judged with a more friendly result in the Theory of Moral Sentiments than in The Wealth of Nations.

      Self-interest, rather than the propensity to truck and barter, is perhaps the real tie between the two works. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith addresses humanity in the full context of human interactions, while in the Wealth of Nations he addresses that part of society most affected by the virtue of prudence. The method of approach is therefore different, but the starting point for each is not so far apart as is often assumed.

    • 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

    • How did you intend the word “purported” to be interpreted, with respect to your article?

    • 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

    • Thanks for your comment Ronald.

      You give me too much credit. The approach I used was not my technique, but the conventional approach used in the literature.

      As it happens, I agree with you that the conventional approach to reporting education level premiums can be misleading. I’ve made the same point elsewhere. Unfortunately for you and I… if we want to make comparisons with other estimates around the world or through history, then we need to use the same approach as others.

      Perhaps we can help change that convention over time. Good luck to us. But the point of this paper was more modest.

    • 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
    • Hoover Institution publication Policy Review just printed its last issue this month (2/2013). That’s one less conservative SSCI journal cited in the Klein and Chiang article. Will any of the remaining conservative academic journals (such as ANAMNESIS, Academic Questions, First Things or Modern Age) ever obtain SSCI?

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

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