Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part II

The concluding part to a previous post, below I lay out five(-ish) figures worth examining if you are interested in public policy, politics and philosophy. Like the previous post, these figures do not necessarily agree with each other in all respects, and I do not totally agree with any of them across all their positions. If education is about anything, it is about critically examining viewpoints with which you do not agree, and thinking hard about our own beliefs.

Camille Paglia
A self-described “Amazon Feminist” who has long courted controversy, Pagila is often alone in her beliefs but is as happy in being solo and she is fierce. After a half-dozen other publishers passed on her first book, she finally had success in 1991 in publishing Sexual Persona. Since then she has been a cornerstone of dissident feminism, decrying Gloria Steinem as a Stalinist and highlighting the biological foundation of gender roles. Later that decade she helped launch, which she laments has lost its way since her departure. While her books are thick and dig deep into subjects as diverse as the last thousand years of art and the best forty-odd poems in the west, she still finds time to write frequently about everything from Angela Merkel’s rise to why Lady Gaga marked the death of sex. Like most people on this list she holds positions usually seen as untenable; atheist but fond of religion, a sixties radical who likes the family unit, a gender ‘transgressive’ who sees current gender politics as a mark of civilizational decline. Unlike many self-described intellectuals, Pagila still has a day job teaching fulltime at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Based on her ability to rapidly speak her mind and her insatiable curiosity, one wonders if she bothers with a syllabus.

Related: Fellow Democrat Christina Hoff Sommers comes close to Pagila in range of interests and tenacity. The French revolutionary figure Marquis de Sade has had a great influence on Pagila, both in the dizziness of freedom but also the need for tradition and society to place checks and level expectations upon its citizens. Oh and here’s Pagila getting mad at Christopher Hitchens.

Karl Popper
The late Karl Popper was born in Austo-Hungarian Vienna and passed away in the mid-nineties, but in-between had a profound effect on science, history and philosophy. After groundbreaking research in logic and scientific discovery, Popper’s reputation grew as a political thinker in the postwar period as his books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies provided a robust intellectual defense of liberalism. The former book a critique of the totalitarian view of history of having a destination and the latter an examination of how the views of Plato, Hegel and Marx constitute an illiberal ideology at odds with Popper’s idea of the open society. Such a society is described as the only kind that can make substantive improvements to itself without violence by having liberal democratic institutions and a pluralistic society. In the world of listicles that tell us there’s only four (or five or six) things we “need to know” in order to understand complex political events and books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers argue that individuals simply exist to be acted upon by historical trends, Popper’s thought is at once refreshingly new and immediately intuitive.

Related: Popper had an antagonistic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a more positive one with Bertrand Russell and was a friend to Friedrich Hayek.

Thomas Sowell
Recently retired from his weekly column, Thomas Sowell may be the most prolific author on this list. Writing over thirty books and hundreds of columns, Sowell began his career as a Marxist in his 20s, only to lose his faith when his academic work forced an encounter with US federal bureaucrats. After receiving his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, he took several academic jobs in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. At the onset of the Reagan Administration he joined Stanford’ Hoover Institution and has been there ever since. Sowell’s work is characterized by its straightforward prose that makes complicated concepts easy to understand for the economic layman. In his seminal Basic Economics, his simple explanation of the inescapable reality of scarcity requiring economic systems that ration resources is one of the most straight-forward arguments for capitalism. His tome Intellectuals and Society presaged the current populist moment and the growing sense that perhaps our elites are not as elite as they portend.

Related: Sowell was a friend of William Buckley, whose show Firing Line was a great piece of televised politics that has not been surpassed. Josef Joffe, another fellow at the Hoover Institution is also worthy of attention.

Richard John Neuhaus
Like others on this list, the late Neuhaus had a long intellectual journey in his life. Born in Canada in the mid-1930s, he became a prominent liberal Lutheran preacher in impoverished Brooklyn during the turbulent 1960s. Preaching against the Vietnam War and marching with civil rights leaders, he was one of the most well-known religious figures of the period. His revulsion at the Roe v. Wade decision was the start of his journey toward political conservatism. After establishing several institutes and centers in the 1980s, his Institute on Religion and Public Life in 1990 founded First Things, a magazine focused on public policy informed by religion. The monthly magazine featured writings from across the political and ecumenical spectrum, but more than any other magazine helped create an intellectually strong social conservative community within the United States. In the midst of this, Neuhaus converted to Roman Catholicism and later joined the priesthood. Neuhaus passed on in 2009 at the onset of the Obama Administration, and one wonders what he would have made of that false dawn, the populist revolt it preceded, and the turbulent period in which we find ourselves.

Related: George Weigel was a good friend of Neuhaus and continues to write about public policy and philosophy. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was greatly influenced by Neuhaus’ writings.

The politicians
There is not much to like about most politicians. Beyond the typical deception and power hungry machinations, most of them are simply boring. Talking points and stock answers are always much safer than standing out–something true for the common person and especially true for politicians. At the moment, there are a handful that bring intellectual rigor and contrarian thinking to the political arena. The leftist Democratic Congressman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is a figure with whom I mostly disagree, but her full-throated arguments against the conventional wisdom in her party and unrelenting stances on foreign policy stand out. The libertarian Republican Congressman Justin Amash from western Michigan is the head of the House Liberty Caucus and is often a lone voice for constitutional principles. Another Republican, Senator Ben Sasse, is more conventional but still stands out in his robust and well-considered defense of limited government and a concise diagnosis of the institutional decay in his chamber. At this rate he may very well surpass the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose old desk Sasse now occupies. Across the pond, the Tory MP Rory Stewart is among the most interesting people in politics. The rights to his biography already purchased by Brad Pitt, his understanding of the United Kingdom’s security threats as well as the nature of modern democracy are worth considering. Finally, the retiring Independent MP Douglas Carswell may be one of the most successful politicians to never hold ministerial office. By leaving the Conservative Party for UKIP and standing with the Vote Leave campaign, he helped mainstream a position that had lingered on the fringes of British politics for decades. As he leaves politics, he leaves with his fundamental purpose accomplished and his nation transformed.

Related: The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a towering intellect and a controversial figure despite his patrician tone. Tory Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan is also worth examining, not least because of his excitement of finally being fired from his job, come 2019.


Beyond Left and Right: A Multi-Party American Political System

With the election of Donald Trump, everyone’s assumptions about how the American political system worked were upended, including and especially the pundits and think-tankers whose job it is to know such things. I would like to at least offer a simple explanation of why so many were looking at things the wrong way: our two-party system limits the way we think of political ideology, especially in a society so vast and diverse as the one we inhabit today in the 21st century United States of America. And maybe, just maybe, the two parties running the show were more alike than any partisan would like to admit. This left a lot of ideologies that felt unrepresented. Hence the rise of Sanders on the left and Trump on the right to challenge those who held power for so long and assumed the range of policies and ideas they were discussing in the halls of power represented the entire spectrum.

As Trump attempts to work with a Republican Congress, the tension inherent in the different parts of the coalition are blindingly obvious. The House Freedom Caucus simply doesn’t like Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan clearly does not really like Trump. Trump has threatened to support primary challengers to members of the House Freedom Caucus for not going along with his plans. Steve Bannon thinks Paul Ryan is the enemy (no really, he has explicitly said so)[1]. At this point I think Paul Ryan’s dog is iffy on Paul Ryan. This is not a personal attack on the Speaker, who was brought in for the very reason of healing the divide of the warring factions already present. The point to all of this is that there is very little ideological cohesion on the right. The GOP finally has the big tent it wants, but as they say, be careful what you wish for….

As a well-regarded political theory known as Duverger’s law posits, our voting and representation system makes having more than two parties for any stretch of time near impossible[2]. This means that we won’t have a parliamentary system any time soon. We build our coalitions before elections, which is why our primaries are much more onerous and we draw out elections for as long as we do. After the elections are over parties tend to close ranks and compromise behind closed doors. This is also why we have much less theatrical shouting like we see in countries that build coalitions after elections such as the British Parliament. American political parties value the illusion of a united front. I think, however, the normally closed door process that happens when parties deliberate might benefit from some transparency, as we are now seeing with the very public failure of the AHCA. Republican in Name Only (RINO) used to be an insult, but it might just be an accurate way to describe a group of politicians whose views diverge so widely.

This brings me to my main point. Let us imagine a political world in which we are not constrained by the paradigm of right/left or Republican/Democrat. What might this world look like? My general view is that we would see four parties emerge (excuse the working titles and attempt to drop any connotations you may have of them): Libertarian/Constitutionalist, Centrist/Corporatist, Populist/Nationalist, Socialist/Green. The tension in the current GOP is occurring because they have a large portion of three of these ideologies under its tent, and they often come into conflict. If these three ideologies were allowed to run as their own parties, however, they would likely pick up some support from current Democrats,  leaving the Democratic party with nothing but their far-left socialist wing. It would also drop the pretense that Rand Paul and John McCain have all that much in common. Lets take a look at what these four parties might look like:


  • Libertarian/Constitutionalist: This party believes in maximum personal liberty, very limited government, and the rule of law as currently enshrined by the Constitution. They also are suspicious of law enforcement and foreign armed intervention as a rule. They would believe not only in ending the War on Drugs but also the War on Poverty due to a belief that federal intervention tends to create more problems than it solves. Federal Reserve skeptics may fit in here as well. They likely would be for marijuana decriminalization at the very least and likely full legalization. Many would be for the legalization of all drugs for any use whatsoever. They believe in the free movement of both people and goods across borders. Social issues are a bit of a mix, as a strict libertarian does not believe the government should not have a say in marriage at all, and that government should neither support nor restrict any religious ideology. They also believe in freedom of association, so you should be free to bake or not bake a cake for whomever you choose. This group would also be the strongest proponents of gun rights for reasons of personal liberty.


Likely Members: Most of the current House Freedom Caucus, to include Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and Mark Meadows. Also Rand Paul and the Koch brothers.


  • Centrist/Corporatist: Politics as usual in the past 30 years or so has been dominated by this segment. This segment generally believes in capitalism but also allowance for some regulation and wealth redistribution by the government to correct the perceived inequities they see as caused by capitalism. They realize that the government owning the means of production is probably a bad idea but are not always averse to subsidies, regulation, taxes, and heavy influence by the federal government. I would guess that in foreign policy, many of the hawks would reside here. They also are generally in favor of free trade and globalism, as it benefits the corporations they see as a net social good if regulated properly. They also are for relatively open borders. Free from hewing to the populists and libertarians, they would likely pick up some business-friendly Democrats. They would not favor an outright ban on firearms but would favor heavily controlling and regulating them.


Likely Members: Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton (yes those two names are side-by-side), Bill Clinton, The Democratic Leadership Council of the ‘90s, Corey Booker, Charles Schumer, John McCain, George W. Bush, John Kasich, 80% of my MBA peers.


  • Populist/Nationalist: This segment has obviously received a lot of attention in the last election cycle. A heretofore unrecognized large amount of the GOP hews to this ideology but so do the so-called  “blue-dog Democrats”. This party stands for the American worker, believes in restricting trade for their benefit, and restricting immigration for both economic and security reasons. They are far more union friendly than either the corporatists or the libertarians. This group’s nationalist streak makes it not only appreciative of both the military and law enforcement, but also less critical of some of their bad actors’ abuse of power. They do believe in law and order and are likely to trade liberty for some security. As Trump has proven, however, they may believe that the nation building campaigns we have waged abroad were a waste of our time and resources. The general sentiment would be akin to “why are our boys fighting for someone else’s freedom?” that characterized the more isolationist trend typical of US politics before the WWII era. This group is likely to pick off the blue-dog Democrats that saw their representatives decimated in the elections of 2010 and 2014. Its nationalist streak unmoored from the centrists or the libertarians could become susceptible to ethno-centric or racist elements, although this is not necessarily central to their ideology. I predict those with religious/social issue concerns would find the most likely place here, although it is not all definitive. American populists would likely favor gun rights, as they see them as a check against the oligarchs that enjoy outsized privileges, as well as for a hunting lifestyle that they are more likely to pursue than any other segment.


Likely Members: Donald Trump, Steve King, Steve Bannon, Howard Dean, Joe Manchin, Jim Webb, any rust-belt or coal country Democrat.


  • Socialists/Green: Free from the moderating forces of the populists and centrists, this party would fully embrace the socialist mantle. They would likely call for the nationalization (or at least public-utility model) for several industries deemed essential to the public good. They would likely start their nationalization efforts with single-payer healthcare. Much like the populists might embolden racism, the socialists may embolden full-on totalitarian communists. They would also be the most likely to call for strict environmentalist policy. The social justice crowd would also find their most likely home here, although they might form a coalition with the libertarians on civil liberties and criminal justice reform issues. This group would also be the most likely to favor an outright firearms ban.


Likely Members: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jill Stein


  • Wild Card: There are certain politicians that do not fit neatly into the model, likely because political realities have forced them into compromises they don’t actually believe, or they have adopted the tactics of another segment to further their aims (think libertarian types using the somewhat populist tea-party). That is why you will see a lot of party leadership on here.


Members: Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Ronald Reagan


Not to sound too much like a Republican, but I would like to dwell on Ronald Reagan for a second. He is THE exception that proves the rule for my thesis. The current aches and pains that the GOP is going through are a symptom of the success of Reagan 30 years ago. He united the libertarian Goldwater-ites, the religious moral majority, the corporate profiteers, and the war hawks all under one banner. He managed to convince the populists, the libertarians, and the corporatists that they weren’t so different after all. The American right at the highest level internalized this to such a degree that they forgot there were any major differences at all. To be fair, he had the Soviet Union as a convenient foil for all these groups. Such a powerful common enemy does wonders for cohesion. Even after the fall of the Soviets, there were several factors that delayed facing the inevitable splintering of the broad coalition on the right. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis appeared to have trumped Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” at this time. A great economy and the first Republican congressional majority in decades during the ‘90s, a foreign terrorist enemy that momentarily galvanized the entire country, and a perfect liberal bogeyman in Barack Obama delayed the inevitable realization that there were real ideological differences in the coalition.


To close out, I would like to leave with an apt quote from George Washington’s farewell address[3]:

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

On that note, whether we generally agree with Democrats or Republicans, let us dispense with the “spirit of party” as Washington so masterfully said. Let us really dive into why we believe what we believe. Let us realize that which party we chose to identify with when we signed our voter registration card does not define us for all time. We all see how ridiculous it is when people get violent at sporting events because your team wears the blue jersey and the other person’s team wears the red jersey. On some though certainly not all political issues, let us realize that our conflicts are only slightly less arbitrary. Above all, let us embrace a more tolerant pluralism, and find a better way to think about our common interests.

-Matthew Maughan






Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part I

If you are reading this you are probably interested not just in free market advocacy but also the moral, social and economic philosophies in the public square. Below, I share my current favorite thinkers worth examining. As a number of these thinkers are in opposition to one another, I hope it will be clear I do not fully agree with any single entry below. Further, my attempt to reduce what is often a lifetime’s worth of work to a listicle paragraph will fall short in capturing each person, so I encourage anyone who finds any of these people interesting to reach out or to embark on your own search for more on these great figures.

Rene Girard
The recently deceased father of mimetic theory was one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century. A man whose thoughts went beyond any simple classification, he began his work as a literary critic with an eye toward psychology and anthropology. In his observations of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and others, he came to develop his theory that human conflict does not arise from our differences but from our similarities. He came to see the only way societies deal with the problem of mimesis was to use a scapegoat mechanism, but his thoughts went from academic to apocalyptic when he turned back to the Catholic religion of his youth. In rediscovering the cultural roots of his native France (and adopted American homeland) and taking the Christian religion literally and seriously, he became gripped with the fear that the foundations of Christianity lay bare the essential myth required for societies to hold together. In his final years, he explored these themes as they play out in a globalization that wipes away differences and the nature of the violence of modern terrorism. While not clear from the outset, MBA students can learn a great deal from Girard- his thoughts help explain why we tend to gravitate toward the last big trend in business and why some companies on campus get hundreds of students for a handful of internship spots.

Related: There are a number of figures who influenced Girard, including Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt and Jacques Lacan. Interestingly, Girardian thought, broadly applied, may inform the strategists of the current White House, as remarks by Steve Bannon and Peter Thiel have shown. Thiel, of course, was an undergraduate philosophy student of Rene Girard at Stanford. An author who seems to operate in the same world of mimetic violence would be Don DeLillo, whose books Point Omega, White Noise and most recently, Zero-K explore ennui and the post-modern condition.

Peter Thiel
The co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, Peter Thiel’s business success needs little introduction to a business school student. His Zero to One dominated the New York Times bestseller list, adopted from publicly available notes on a course he taught at Stanford. His politics has been long-informed by his former professor, Rene Girard, especially in diagnosing the problems the world has encountered since 1973. It was after that year, Thiel has often said, in which we essentially gave up on the future and put ourselves on a path in which 140 characters were more valuable than flying cars. For Thiel, it is no accident that was the last year that saw gains in median income in the United States. For years, he evangelized this unpopular notion that we are not in an enchanted forest of technological wonder but in fact a bare desert, leading him to lambast Eric Schmidt as being “the chief propogandist of Google.” Politically, Thiel has drifted from supporting libertarian candidates like Ron Paul to forcefully supporting fellow billionaire Donald Trump in a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention and at the Washington Press Club. Long a supporter of technologies with long development pipelines (like life extension and building floating cities in the ocean) and completely new endeavors (like Palantir and the Thiel Fellow program that pays students to drop out of college), his investment in the Trump campaign has paid dividends as he now serves as an informal advisor to the White House. Not known for pronunciations of optimism for the modern state of politics, it is likely he holds the current moment as having the most promise in decades.

Related: His friends Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Max Levchin are all worth following for their insights into business and society. Thiel’s friend Garry Kasparov co-starred in an obscure documentary about them both.

Soren Kierkegaard
The father of existentialism, this once-obscure 19th century Danish philosopher proposed a radical interpretation of Christianity that makes much of modern commentary almost impossible to take seriously. Observing that “Subjectivity as Truth”, in that subjectivity is that which emerges from the relationship between the individual and the object in question. While not discounting entirely the role of science, this assertion had implications for how the natural world was being observed, not to mention the obvious problems that arise from the study of history. Helpfully for MBA students going struggling through substantial life decisions, he also reflected that “Anxiety precedes sin”, in that the former is one of the oldest states of human experience and is the product of facing the immense freedom humans have over their own lives. Reflecting his philosophy, Kierkegaard’s thoughts were dispersed in a disorganized fashion across pseudonyms, short stories, letters, plays and books, often taking different sides of an argument to make a wider point. Unlike Nietzsche, Sartre, and the endless line of existentialists that came after him, Kierkegaard saw Christianity’s central paradoxes and promise of personal revelation as showing a way out of the despair of a world without meaning.

Related: Much of what Kierkegaard protested in his writings was the prevalent Hegelism of his time, and as such Hegel comes as a related recommendation. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote comes recommended as a full-length novel that anticipated Kierkegaardian thought. And not actually related philosophically, but Friedrich Engels once attended a lecture by Kierkegaard late in the Dane’s life.

Slavoj Zizek
The “Elvis of Cultural Theory”, Zizek may very well be the last well-known communist philosopher active in the west. Born in Yugoslavia at the dawn of the Cold War, his obscure work turned more toward popular culture analysis and an ever-more eclectic critique of global capitalism. Thus, he is known to attack German bondholders of Greek debt in one breath and DreamWorks pictures for Kung-Fu Panda in the next. His value to those of us who could do without Marx is not just in his push against political correctness but in dismembering the banal assertions of mainstream cultural and political commentators. For Zizek, the assertion of “unbiased” news is an obvious lie- rather, there are “unknown knowns”, those things we do not know we know, i.e. ideology. An example of this would be that you are reading this extended listicle because you do not consciously think this is worth your time- you do not know that you know it is worth it.

Related: Zizek is possibly most important due to his outsized influence on the modern left. He wrote one of the opening editorials in The Jacobin, one of the most important magazines for leftist thought today.

Christopher Hitchens
The late Christopher Hitchens is famous for many things, including his conversion from Trotskyist to neoconservative during the 2000s. A contrarian who literally wrote the book, he attacked a number of sacred cows, from Princess Diana to Mother Theresa to the idea of the sacred itself. Never one to shy away from a debate, his “Debate of the Decade” with George Galloway regarding the Iraq War still stands as a convincing argument for liberal interventionism, as does his unrelenting defense of enlightenment values of free speech and inquiry. While on the record on doubting the current President’s political offer and the appropriateness of having a supposedly unideological figure in charge, there was no doubt how he felt about the Clintons. His definition of public intellectual helped inform this list, and while there is likely not a single person in the world that agrees with all his views, the world would be a better place if we had more journalists like him.

Related: The journalist Michael Tracey is the closest thing we have right now to the idiosyncratic Hitchens. The “other Hitchens”, Peter, is a paleoconservative who, after being profoundly unhappy with politics in both sides of the Atlantic, is finally seeming to be a bit more cheerful. An interview between these two figures was just posted and worth thirty minutes of your time.

-James McKinney, outgoing VP of Programming

Adam Smith Society Healthcare Trek – Testimonials

The Adam Smith Society Healthcare Trek was a unique opportunity to explore current issues from a free-market perspective.  Ross has given me the opportunity to learn how the healthcare system currently operates, but never a forum to discuss how it should function.  The Smith Soc conference was an intimate setting to learn from industry experts and fellow MBA students from across the country.  It was structured around different facets of the healthcare system: pharmaceuticals, payment models, politics, etc.  By breaking it down into smaller parts and bringing in experts with deep industry knowledge, the conference focused discussion on specific ways that free market concepts can improve the US healthcare system.  I would recommend applying for next year’s conference!

– Katie Redman, MBA 2017


Earlier this month I participated in one of the Adam Smith Society’s Smith Soc treks — this one was focused on healthcare. Going into the experience I had almost no expectations. I did not know anyone who participated in a trek previously, was a brand new Adam Smith Society member having signed up to apply for the trek, and I was unfamiliar with the speakers highlighted. The only expectation I had was to broaden my perspective on healthcare reform. As context, I had lived in the healthcare policy world for three years working at Avalere Health in Washington D.C. before coming to Ross, so I had some background on the trek topic.

The trek met and surpassed my one goal to broaden my perspective. The largest difference between the trek and taking healthcare classes at Ross was that we went beyond discussing facts by opening up the floor for real opinions. Notably, there was a diversity of backgrounds in the room that ranged from two doctors and a health insurance expect to industry entrepreneurs. Everyone participated in the conversations, and I learned from each person. In addition, we had impressive guest speakers. My favorite was the founder of 23andme — it was a memorable experience listening to a female leader in the industry talk about her experience and opinion on the direction of healthcare innovation and policy.

The awesome bonus about the trek was that I not only learned more about the healthcare industry, but I also learned about wine! It was my first time in Napa, and we had three hours free every afternoon to explore the area on our own…which made the evening sessions more entertaining. Overall, I enhanced my knowledge about healthcare policy, met impressive people, and had a lot of fun — I would definitely apply for a future trek if I could!

-Caitlin Delaney, MBA 2017




Adam Smith Society Opening Blog

Adam Smith Society Opening Blog

5 February 2017

1776. Most Americans will immediately think of the Declaration of Independence as the seminal document written in this year that has profoundly shaped the intellectual trajectory of modern society as we know it. There was a second document, however, that has arguably done as much, if not more to shape our thinking of political economy and the role of man in society. That is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. We, of the Michigan Ross chapter of the Adam Smith Society, believe it is worth exploring the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of not just Smith’s magnum opus, but also his greater body of work and the fantastic advancements of ideas in the circles in which he traveled at the time in which he lived.

Those who have even passing familiarity with Smith’s work may be familiar with such concepts as “the invisible hand”, or the role of self interest in promoting societal good as illustrated by the quote “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Smith, however, was no cold-hearted miser with a transactional view of the world. He saw our behavior in the marketplace as a large part of the story of human behavior, but he also understood that many other factors motivated mankind. Those who have more than a passing familiarity with Smith also know that the work that preceded Wealth of Nations by 17 years, titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments, dealt with how humans regard themselves as moral beings, where charity and benevolence originate, and the nature of our feelings towards what is right and wrong. Smith only came around to laying the groundwork that made him the father of modern economics after grappling with moral issues and human societal relations for decades.

Indeed, Adam Smith had many contemporaries grappling with these ethical, philosophical, and moral questions. Although Smith’s frameworks, concepts, and conclusions were his own, these 18th century thinkers were mostly seeking answers to the same questions. What is liberty and who grants it? What emphasis should be placed on equality? How do you balance liberty with social order?[1] David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Voltaire[2] would all come up with radically different and possibly opposing answers to these questions. It is through the exercise of asking these questions, however, that great advancements were made in how people came to view themselves in relation to their livelihood, their society, their government, and the wider world that was quickly getting smaller by the day.

While this is all well and good and an interesting philosophical exercise, one may wonder what this has to do with us today. I would like to share a quote taken from lecture notes while Smith was a professor at the University of Glasgow in 1755:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

 This is a useful starting point from which to view how best to obtain the ordered liberty on which society thrives. I personally find it very compelling and it informs the way in which I view policy today, from border adjustment taxes to occupational licensing, from criminal justice reform to agricultural subsidies.

That being said, the above quote is not all that controversial. I could see any politician today on either side of the aisle translating that into tweet form and having broad agreement. His statements immediately afterward, however, may prove somewhat more divisive:

All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.

 What does this mean? What constitutes “thwarting”? Is “oppressive and tyrannical” an overstatement? Smith would likely have a lot to disagree with on both sides of the political aisle as evidenced by this quote. We at the Adam Smith Society would love to have the conversation. Are Smith’s thoughts outdated? Could he not have anticipated our current world, the rise of globalism on a massive scale, or the way in which society and government have evolved? I would personally argue no, but I believe it is a conversation worth having. We at the Adam Smith Society at Michigan Ross will strive to sponsor events on campus that foster this conversation. We hope that you will join us.

Matthew Maughan

President, Adam Smith Society, Michigan Ross chapter.


[1] The structure of these questions is borrowed from the introduction to a collection of writings called What Adam Smith Knew: Moral Lessons on Capitalism from its Greatest Champions and Fiercest Opponents Edited and Introduced by James R. Otteson, Encounter Books, 2014.

[2] A one word pen name, his birth name was actually Francois-Marie Arouet