Written December 30, 2009:
[Favorite] Books — tie between Chris Coyne’s After War, and Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook, with honorable mention going to Bill Easterly (both The Elusive Quest, and The White Man’s Burden) and Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues.
John Mackey [photo: Dan Winters]
From an article in the New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten, “Does Whole Foods Know What’s Good for You?” Prudentia discovers John Mackey’s book interests:
He sits in a recliner, surrounded by stacks of books. He gives them a good working over, marking them with underlinings, highlighter, and Post-its. He is, as he says, an intuitive-thinking type, on the Myers-Briggs scale. … Among [his books are] a critique of Keynes, biographies of Booker T. Washington, Peter Drucker, and Ayn Rand …; books about "bourgeois virtues,â€ … and Pride and Prejudice.
See more on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues.
I wanted to send you a quick note of encouragement. This semester I am taking a history of economic thought class here at UNI. We recently were discussing Thorstein Veblen, while researching a paper on him I came across some of your work, specifically The Bourgeois Virtues. I started reading it this week and hope once Christmas break arrives I can dedicate more time to it. From what I have read thus far its amazing. I want you to know you are the ideal intellectual I aspire to be one day. Thank you so much for your courage both academically in challenging mainstream economics to better itself and personally in the struggles you have gone through, its an inspiration to this young economist and many others. God bless and take care!
I just watched online the recording of your Beyond Belief talk, in which you were cautious not to explain what sparked innovation in 18th c. England except to argue that it was ideological. I was surprised at your restraint, because it seems like you had the makings of a nice just-so story there on the counter you'd laid out. At least as one push in the direction of ignition, how about the rise to international celebrity and to statesman stature of Ben Franklin, who was a paradigm "self-made manâ€? (Note you even have a literal spark figuring in that story line, as well as a Leiden Jar, I believe). Part and parcel of Franklin's personal rise would have been the success of the American revolution, by which a bunch of entrepreneurial frontiersmen were recognized as having created a sovereign and independent society in the New World. Also aren't Americans famous at least among ourselves for our resourcefulness and ingenuity? I could believe a lot of this was involved in developing the New World. To be successful in a New Worldâ€“faced with new problems, new resources and a very large newly imposed cost and delay in delivery of hardware from the previously established providersâ€“had to have taken ingenuity. You even have patents entering as Article I of the new Constitution. The ideology of self-making may just go along with imperial expansionâ€“allowing the rise of new Roman families to prominence alongside older ones, and necessitating more democratic governance. You could say new land begets a renegotiation of the pecking order, or social standing, which is chiefly what we compete for, once safe, sheltered, fed and watered. O.K. Done rambling. Enjoyed your talk!
After it was announced that Mr. Friedman had received the Nobel Prize, one day he was lecturing on his permanent income hypothesis. He was describing the effects of small changes in income on current and future consumption. I commented that I thought I understood the hypothesis for small changes and asked whether the same effects could be expected from large discrete changes â€” like a $160,000 tax free lump sum cash award for example.
The class laughed and Mr. Friedman politely let them laugh and when it died down he looked at me and remarked that I apparently did not understand the hypothesis because, if I had, I would have understood that to the extent the $160,000 increment was expected it would have already been spent!
I tell you this story because after reading your Virtues, Smith's Moral Sentiments, and a small smattering of other works of greater or lesser degrees of relevance, I have a question for you that might reveal my poor understanding of one of your points and, if so, I guess I'll carry another embarrassment around with me. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained . . .
I gather that you think that Utilitarianism, the moral philosophy that seems to underpin most of modern economic thought, is too narrow for a rich moral philosophy and too weak to well support the discipline of economics.
I agree that as a guide for behavior, Utilitarianism will not do. Kenneth Boulding thought that rational economic man was boring and I think you might fault the model more severely. Even John Stuart Mill in On Liberty seems to abdicate it. I found the moral philosophy that you articulated in Virtues appealing and persuasive but is a rich moral philosophy needed by economics or for that matter any other subject studying human behavior?
Mr. Friedman's "as ifâ€ construction in his Methodology of Positive Economics suggests to me that perhaps useful economic predictions can be generated from a theory based on the behavior of people acting as if they were only boringly rational utility maximizers. If so, does it really matter that Max U is morally deficient and Maxine Ï€ is cold, calculating, and uncaring? Can a fruitful economic theory be constructed using more morally well-rounded actors?
Do you think that by teaching utility maximization we are sanctioning it as a model of moral behavior? If so, it surely must be a good thing that capitalism swamps that influence by creating truly more virtuous folks.
First off. Thank you for being unorthodox. Always an attractive quality in classical liberal people.
I'm just getting started on your Virtues, and plan to make it the topic for one of my reading groups, namely the slightly anarchistic liberal reading group, as we call it. Liberal in the continental sense, of course.
Could you recommend a few other works along the same note, either agreeing with you or in opposition?
Again thank you for your work.
Kim Hvid Johnsen
University of Copenhagen. Dep. of History
Gradually reaching the end of Virtues. I've only been at it for nine months!
At the end of Chapter 44 you say: "Knight and Merriam are not really undermining Christian orthodoxy and Christian ethics. They are misunderestimating them.â€
You are not one to misuse words – even the ones you make up. But, did you mean to write "misunderstandingâ€, "underestimatingâ€, both, or neither.