Posts

A Wealth-and-Welfare Reading of Hesiod's Works and Days

We begin with Hesiod’s Works and Days.  Hesiod probably composed Works and Days (in addition to Theogony and Shield of Heracles, the other complete works of his that remain) at the end of the eight century BC.  This is likely contemporaneous with Homer’s famous epics.  However, Hesiod lived on the Greek mainland, whereas Homer came from Asia Minor.  According to Dorothea Wender, who translates and introduces theversion I use, whereas “the tradition in Asia Minor…produced epics designed for an upper-class audience, the tradition in Boeotia (Hesiod’s district…) produced more pedestrian works: genealogies, catalogues, handbooks on divination, astronomy, ethics, farming and mental work.”  Finally, it’s worth noting that Hesiod, as with Homer, may have been more than one person.  Scholars are divided on the question as to whether all of Hesiod’s works derive from a single author.
Works and Days is an eclectic work with an overarching theme: “The poem, a mixture of mythology, ethical maxims,…

Economists and Liberal Education

In my previous post, I provided some thoughts about the ability of the institutional university to supply the holistic educational experience necessary for what it provides to be called a liberal education. That post was an attempt to think institutionally about the points made by Alex regarding liberal education. I am going to continue that form of inquiry by looking at an institutional equivalent of economics: the economist. While it is possible for economics to be liberal, what does it mean for economists to be liberal?Let us return briefly to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s conception of liberal education. For education to be liberal, it must be holistic. The student must gain insight into the interconnectedness and necessity of all the disciplines and not just the major object of their studies. While a liberal education does not guarantee a virtuous person, it does provide the opportunity for a mature person: one that has (some) grasp on the world and society. Therefore, the chief …

Universalizing Economics

Because economists spend so much time analyzing markets, prices, and related phenomena, it is easy to get the impression that economics is a science of wealth.  That is, economics is defined by its subject matter: the production and distribution of commodities.  But as Ipreviously argued, this conception of economics is needlessly limited.  Economics has many valuable things to say about markets and market-supporting institutions.  But it is not confined to these topics.  Rather, economics is the way of thinking that generates those insights. It is the science not of action in markets, but action as such.The universalization of economics is the theme of Professor Israel Kirzner’s sagacious essay on the history of economic thought,The Economic Point of View.  Kirzner acknowledges that the activities of merchants “are of specific interest for the economic perspective on social phenomena” but economists have often disagreed about why mercantile activity was so important.  “For some [econ…

The Path to Liberal Economics

“Getting and spending, we lay waste to our powers.”This line of Wordsworth’s sums up how many people think about economics.It is a mean, selfish, illiberal discipline.Perhaps compromise with its teachings is necessary, but it is never desirable.Economics can never be a peer to disciplines like history, literature, philosophy, or theology.In other words, economics cannot be humane.
Nonsense!Economics is not a science of wealth, or rather, not primarily a science of wealth.Economics does have something to say about the production and distribution of commodities, of course.But this is a consequence of its central teaching, not the teaching itself.Economics is a science of purposive human action.It provides a universal logic for interpreting human history.Because of this, it is an essential component of a liberal worldview.Economics is indeed humane. The liberal tradition in arts and letters teaches us that humane studies are primarily formative.Liberal education is character-focused.It sho…

Some Thoughts on the University

Image
Recently, Alex defined his understanding of liberaleducation and argued for the place of economics among the liberal arts. I want to continue this focus by considering the idea of the university and its role in defining and continuing the liberal arts. To borrow a phrase, I want to talk about education and the institutions in which education takes place.
If a liberal education served as the universal system of higher education, then the role of the university was the transmission of the knowledge necessary for such an education. In his defense of liberal education, Cardinal John Henry Newman adopts this fact as the motivating characteristic of the university and notes that the object of its deliberation is the student and not the advancement of the sciences. Alex’s previous posts bring to our consideration a type of higher education system focused on knowledge for its own sake which leads by happy coincidence to the growth of the student. Cardinal Newman agrees: “Certainly a liberal…

Illiberal Economics: The Use and Abuse of Rationality

I recently argued economics was a liberal discipline because of the rationality postulate.  Finding rational explanations for human behavior, no matter how bizarre, is an important commitment of a liberal worldview.  A liberal mind is one that is willing to understand, and even sympathize, with practices and cultures radically different from one’s own.  The liberality of rationality lies in its charity.  It keeps the social scientist humble, and the people under investigation human.  This “charitable projection” is a necessary, though not sufficient, component of liberal studies.Committing to rationality places a great burden on the social scientist.  But it is a joy to carry.  Because rationality means taking agents’ plans, expectations, and beliefs seriously, it requires us to get inside their heads.  Not only works of history, but philosophy and theology, are relevant to understand the minds of others.  We need to reconstruct the world as the agents themselves saw it.  For example,…