Posts

Showing posts from August, 2020

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,…

"Nothing Human is Alien to Me": The Liberality of Rational Choice

What makes economics a liberal discipline?It is time to tackle this question head-on.As it turns out, what many detractors of economics point to as evidencing its illiberality is actually the key to its liberality.I am speaking about the rationality postulate: the fundamental assumption economics makes with respect to human behavior, and how it can be made intelligible.First, we need to make clear what rationality is not.Rationality does not mean that people never make mistakes.And it does not mean they are “lightning calculators of pleasure and pain.”These careless accusations are strawmen.Admittedly, economists bear some of the blame for this misunderstanding.Graduate textbooks of microeconomic theory present a set of conditions for rationality that are as unlikely to obtain as they are irrelevant to human decision-making.Rationality is actually very simple.When economics assumes people are rational, it is (properly) assuming no more than this: that they are goal-oriented.When peopl…

The Liberal Tradition in Arts and Letters

The phrase “liberal arts” or “liberal education” calls to mind various undergraduate curricula, all centered around the “Great Books” or the “Western canon.”  Institutions such asSt. John’s College and educators such asEva Brann are well-known examples, and deservedly so.  These programs and the books they include have a very specific goal in mind, which differs significantly from most undergraduate courses of study.This goal is concisely expressed in the editor’s introduction to the Harvard Classicslibrary.  Its 50 volumes, first published in 1909, were compiled and edited by Charles Eliot, then-president of Harvard University.  Eliot writes, “My purpose in selecting The Harvard Classics was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century…I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowle…