Familiarity with the canon

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2010

David Williams writes at The Daily Texan:

On May 22, the State Board of Education voted 9-5 to reform its secondary-school social studies curriculum, emphasizing that the content of these guidelines serves to enable students to “appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation.” While these reforms have been broadly condemned by liberals across the country, it is important that both liberals and conservatives together become more broadly familiar with the texts now firmly in the curriculum. Specifically, we should take a closer look at Charles de Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas. …

Read the whole thing, as they say.

{ 95 comments }

1

Bill Gardner 06.16.10 at 9:23 am

So there was a checklist:
[ ] Dead
[ ] White
[ ] European
[ ] Male
But those criteria do not get us to this list. What else?
[ ] Read by Thomas Jefferson (???)

2

Bill Gardner 06.16.10 at 9:26 am

One has to admit, however, that it would be cool to have “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains” showing up as a graffito all across Texas.

3

Kevin Y 06.16.10 at 10:12 am

Given that the board removed Thomas Jefferson (and the word “Enlightenment”) from this same list of philosophers, I doubt that is the criterion.

4

James Wimberley 06.16.10 at 10:16 am

Texan high schoolers will also profit from Aquinas’ recently dicovered excursus on just war theory as applied to the Mexican War, the rebellion of the Confederacy, Vietnam, and Iraq 2.

5

Simon 06.16.10 at 2:19 pm

Is the inclusion of these philosophers supposed to be reassuring? To me it seems most likely that the schoolboard will neglect to teach the philosophers’ emphasis on equality, and only teach arguments for Christianity, arguments for a Christian state, and arguments for property rights as “a foundation of civil society”.

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, but it seems naive to assume that Texas will give the philosophers a fair and evenhanded treatment when they haven’t done so for much else.

6

Uncle Kvetch 06.16.10 at 2:25 pm

So there was a checklist:
[ ] Dead
[ ] White
[ ] European
[ ] Male

So far, so good…but French? What the hell’s that about?

7

Randy 06.16.10 at 2:36 pm

I don’t know if it made it into the final version of the standards, but one of the “cultural figures” with whom students were supposed to be familiar was Tex Avery.

I’m guessing that they just saw “Tex” and approved him automatically.

8

CJColucci 06.16.10 at 2:49 pm

I don’t know why certain people think exposure to the thought of canonical Dead White European Males will lead youngsters marching off stage right. How do they think a lot of us got to be the unsatisfactory sort we are? (Hint: it wasn’t from gobbling up the works of trendy po-mos and post-po-mos, who may well have valuable things to say, though I and many others never grappled hard enough with them to know.) Have these people actually read what they want the youngsters to read? Have they thought about what they think they think?

9

burritoboy 06.16.10 at 2:53 pm

“emphasizing that the content of these guidelines serves to enable students to “appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation.””

Williams misunderstands what the Texas State Board of Education means by democratic.

1. Texas has generally not strongly held democratic values in a meaningful sense over it’s history. The history of Texas actually is more of a tragedy of democracy: it’s history is more properly described as an oligarchic/tyrannical state using the word democracy as propaganda.
2. Notice that the Texas SBOE uses the word “appreciate” rather than such words as “understand” or “analyze”. Philosophers do not help you love actual political regimes (the philosophers seek the ideal regime, and actual regimes are very far from ideal regimes). The Texas SBOE does not want students to pursue knowledge about democracy, but wants to inject vulgar forms of patriotism. Aquinas is a hindrance to vulgar patriotism. Again, Texas selects propaganda for it’s oligarchic regime instead of democracy.

10

harold 06.16.10 at 3:30 pm

Thomas Aquinas? Whose canon are we talking about? The Council of Trent?

11

ajay 06.16.10 at 3:38 pm

7: I think it’s only fair that you get to be in the canon if you’ve actually been canonised.

12

harold 06.16.10 at 3:42 pm

In that case, I nominate Saint Augustine.

13

Tom Hurka 06.16.10 at 3:52 pm

Aquinas is, as per usual, echoing Aristotle in his remarks about business. But aren’t they both wrong?

Business achievement, e.g. starting a company and making it successful, can be valuable in the same way as achievement in sports, e.g. winning five straight Wimbledons. The goal is intrinsically trivial, but if the process of achieving it is sufficiently difficult and requires sufficient skill and dedication, it can have lots of value.

There are lots of good criticisms of unbridled capitalism; this bit of Aquinas isn’t one of them.

14

rea 06.16.10 at 3:56 pm

I nominate Saint-Simon, then

15

ajay 06.16.10 at 3:57 pm

11: not Saint-Just?

16

y81 06.16.10 at 4:18 pm

That kind of jejune, too-clever-by-half mockery from assistant professors leaves me cold. Obviously, the Texas Board of Education is engaged in culture wars; just as obviously, I could get together a list of beliefs and statements from the exemplars the left prefers (Anne Hutchinson, Frederick Douglass, etc.) which would be embarrassing to the left. It’s a silly exercise.

It would, of course, be wonderful if everyone actually understood Aquinas’s ideas on economic theory, Montesquieu’s views on politics, etc., and had an informed engagement with those ideas, but that isn’t likely to happen at too many high schools.

17

ajay 06.16.10 at 4:43 pm

That kind of jejune, too-clever-by-half mockery from assistant professors leaves me cold.

Oh boy, are you on the wrong blog.
(sorry, couldn’t resist it)

18

Harold 06.16.10 at 4:50 pm

I think it would be ok if they just read the Illiad and the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the first ten books of Livy.

My great grandfather was a judge in Texas and he used to recite Cicero’s invectives to Cataline to the dogs.

19

y81 06.16.10 at 5:11 pm

Quo usque abutere patientiam nostram?! Alas, that’s all I can do from memory.

20

mds 06.16.10 at 5:17 pm

That kind of jejune, too-clever-by-half mockery from assistant professors leaves me cold.

The Texas State Board of Education’s list of influences on our government’s founding principles downplays Thomas Jefferson and includes John Calvin. So I’ll take “too-clever-by-half” over “too-stupid-by-full” any day. And as you yourself note, students in the Texas curriculum are not going to be reading Summa contra Gentiles; Aquinas is simply to be used as another totem for the founding of the United States as an explicitly Christian nation, with the Ten Commandments as the basis for the Constitution. The jejune article merely points out that if students actually did read some of the sources name-dropped by pig-ignorant reactionaries, they would encounter far more philosophical complexity than that shown by the board members.

Anyway, perhaps Professor Williams will eventually be promoted to associate professor, and finally be worthy of some of your respect.

21

Harold 06.16.10 at 5:28 pm

There are some also who, either from zeal in attending to their own business or through some sort of aversion to their fellow-men, claim that they are occupied solely with their own affairs, without seeming to themselves to be doing anyone any injury. But while they steer clear of the one kind of injustice, they fall into the other: they are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means. . . . for indeed it is not an easy matter to be really concerned with other people’s affairs; and yet in Terence’s play, we know, Chremes “thinks that nothing that concerns man is foreign to him.” Nevertheless, when things turn out for our own good or ill, we realize it more fully and feel it more deeply than when the same things happen to others and we see them only, as it were, in the far distance; and for this reason we judge their case differently from our own. It is, therefore, an excellent rule that they give who bid us not to do a thing, when there is a doubt whether it be right or wrong; for righteousness shines with a brilliance of its own, but doubt is a sign that we are thinking of a possible wrong. –Cicero, De officiis

22

y81 06.16.10 at 5:47 pm

“if students actually did read some of the sources name-dropped by pig-ignorant reactionaries, they would encounter far more philosophical complexity than that shown by the board members.”

Absolutely, and if students at the typical progressive school here in NYC actually read Anne Hutchinson, they would encounter theologically complex, and to most moderns exceedingly distasteful, views on the doctrine of unconditional and unmerited election. But all they actually learn, in feel-good politically correct history, is that she was a woman (=good) who was oppressed by the Puritans (=bad) blah blah blah. So I can’t get too excited by the iniquities of either side in the Curriculum Wars.

23

burritoboy 06.16.10 at 6:12 pm

y81,

That’s certainly true. The fact is that very few students, under any educational system whatever, will be able to deeply engage with ideas or texts of the complexity we’re talking about here. Plenty of Aquinas’ students at the University of Paris were far more interested in drinking, making connections, meeting women or fighting in taverns than studying with one of the greatest minds in human history who was standing right in front of them.

That said, Williams seems to be far too optimistic about what the Texas SBOE is intending. It is one thing if, no matter how buried or distorted, an educational system does try to educate (in the best senses) – or, perhaps, has the possibility or openness of pointing a few students in the right direction. It is entirely another thing to have an educational system that is explicitly designed to be propaganda – and further, is designed to train Texans into a future planned tyranny.

Williams’ point that all great minds are subversive is of course true. But, for one example (and people don’t generally know this), it was not very difficult in the USSR to read such writers as Aristotle. Aristotle is of course not particularly supportive of that regime. The freedom to read Aristotle in the USSR had no noticeable effect whatsoever on it’s political development. If schoolchildren in the USSR had had Aristotle included in their curriculum, Aristotle would likely have either no effect on them or even a negative effect.

24

mds 06.16.10 at 6:13 pm

I know that government regulation is often a bad thing, but I can’t help wishing that the FDA had the authority to crack down on off-the-shelf supplements like FalseEquivo(TM) and Two-House Pox(TM). Because they seem to have become many commenters’ drugs of choice. I can’t think of any other reason why an official statewide school curriculum asserting that we are an explicitly Christian nation, founded on Biblical principles of free-market enterprise, could be even remotely compared to oversimplifications about Anne Hutchinson that are supposedly rife in NYC schools. Especially since if I want theologically complex views on unconditional and umerited election, I’ll drop by a Reformed church and not a public school, thanks.

25

chris 06.16.10 at 6:13 pm

@22: I’m curious who suggested basing a curriculum on Anne Hutchinson? I’ve never even heard of her.

I’m sure you wouldn’t be drawing one of those false equivalencies between things of vastly different real-life importance, now, would you?

26

Uncle Kvetch 06.16.10 at 6:28 pm

oppressed by the Puritans (=bad)

Will no one defend the poor Puritans?

27

y81 06.16.10 at 6:40 pm

@25: Hutchinson was in my daughter’s curriculum. Obviously, the curriculum wasn’t “based on” her; she wasn’t more than a minor note. I highly doubt that the Texas public high school curriculum is based on Aquinas, either, or that he actually gets more than five minutes of classroom time in four years of high school social studies.

Among the other things I highly doubt is that the Texas curriculum is designed to promote a “future planned tyranny.” It’s the usual monumental history, in which children learn that our statesmen are the wisest, our soldiers the bravest, our laws the most just, our women the most beautiful, etc. We learn the same stuff in NYC, except that the heroes and villains are slightly different, plus of course here it’s true.

28

mds 06.16.10 at 6:45 pm

I’m sure you wouldn’t be drawing one of those false equivalencies between things of vastly different real-life importance, now, would you?

Why, how on earth could you even think for a moment that …

I highly doubt that the Texas public high school curriculum is based on Aquinas, either

Never mind.

29

matt mckeon 06.16.10 at 7:07 pm

Tex Avery…at least there’s one bright spot.

30

Harold 06.16.10 at 7:29 pm

I believe that Texas already mandates something like 12 years of Texas history — and maybe six months or a year of U.S. and world history.

31

Natilo Paennim 06.16.10 at 8:14 pm

I had about as liberal a public school education as you could wish for — screenings of Roots and Eyes On the Prize, a big chunk of time in 5th and 7th grade focused on Native American history, lots of exhortations to think critically and do additional reading — and I can’t say much of it was very effective. I had to educate myself for the most part, about how the world has actually worked and what side my bread was buttered on. Run-ins with the assistant principal did much more for me in that respect than my 10th grade US History teacher’s somewhat unsettling obsession with James K. Polk and Manifest Destiny. This whole debate calls to mind the brief scenes in Dazed & Confused where the post-SDS high school teacher is regaling her class on the last day of school with stories about Chicago in ’68, and calls out after them “Okay guys, one more thing, this summer when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha, don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes. ” And do they listen?

32

Martin Bento 06.16.10 at 9:08 pm

Snark is fine and good, but maybe this is a good opportunity for the Internet to provide a corrective to nonsense imposed by authority. Maybe we should cobble together a counter-curriculum, going through the Texas-approved materials when they come out point by point. Show what is wrong, misleading, or incomplete about each point. Write it aimed at the same grade level as the original text. Then try to promote it to the local smart@ss rebel kids, who might enjoy the opportunity to make their teachers look like fools or to join their teachers in mocking the official curriculum. Lots of kids are looking for ways to rebel against school, and this would channel rebellion in the service of actual knowledge and learning. I bet kids will learn much more about Aquinas, Voltaire, and democracy looking for ways to mock this ignorant slanted BS then they would learn if it were directly imposed as legitimate curriculum.

33

burritoboy 06.16.10 at 9:11 pm

“It’s the usual monumental history, in which children learn that our statesmen are the wisest, our soldiers the bravest, our laws the most just, our women the most beautiful, etc.”

The Texas SBOE attempted to downgrade a previous focus on Thomas Jefferson, put in a requirement to study the gold standard, had a propaganda segment on how bad the UN is, removed multiple “wise statesmen” of Texas from study (because they were Hispanics) and inserted multiple segments where they propagandize against current US laws. Many of these changes have nothing to do with a glorification of Texas – Jefferson, the gold standard and the UN are not local Texas history.

34

Anderson 06.16.10 at 9:21 pm

See, and I thought the point of the post was snark at the invention of “Charles de Montesquieu.”

… The real entertainment is asking what, say, de Maistre would’ve thought about “conservatives” who assign Montesquieu and Rousseau.

35

Anderson 06.16.10 at 9:27 pm

… And the linked article also includes Voltaire:

Voltaire might find great supporters among those seeking to inject more Christianity into the curriculum

and then cites a Voltaire maxim, “Either Christianity should be renounced completely, or observed,” which pretty clearly carries the sense of “renounced completely.”

Say, y’know whom else they need in this curriculum? Leo Strauss! Persecution and the Art of Writing!

36

Ian Whitchurch 06.16.10 at 9:58 pm

Stuff it.

With regard to Fort Sumter and so on.

Summa of the Angelic Doctor, second part of the second part, fortieth question, first article

I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior.

Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime.

And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them.

And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

37

Dr. Hilarius 06.17.10 at 12:42 am

I doubt that the reading of dead, European males will be very deep. Expect the rehabilitation of Billy Sol Estes as cultural hero.

38

Gene O'Grady 06.17.10 at 1:25 am

y81’s Latin could use a little refreshing — he left out tandem and the vocative address to Catiline (both essential to the success of the rhetoric) and forgot that abutor takes the ablative.

Interestingly enough, I’m pretty sure that (back when I was memorizing the Cicero) my Catholic high school history course included Anne Hutchinson. Otherwise I’ve only run into her in the Baptist church.

And is Tex Avery the same as Dick Avery?

39

piglet 06.17.10 at 3:35 am

Impressive, Gene. y81 really should have checked “wikipedia before bragging about his latin.

40

piglet 06.17.10 at 3:36 am

(Try again)
Impressive, Gene. y81 really should have checked wikipedia before bragging about his latin.

41

novakant 06.17.10 at 11:08 am

So business people are amoral at best? That’s stupid and also a bit rich coming from academics whose livelihood is paid for by taxpayers money.

42

alex 06.17.10 at 11:36 am

Business competition is amoral at best, how could it be anything else? The object is to do someone else out of business in favour of yourself. You’re lucky we don’t flat-out call it immoral. That it may, on the other hand, have positive moral consequences is scarcely a new observation either, I refer you to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.

43

Alex 06.17.10 at 11:40 am

So the gold standard is just mandated, not part of an economics curriculum? There are going to be some very odd kids in Texas…

44

novakant 06.17.10 at 12:35 pm

Neither the boundless desire for profit, nor the wish to eradicate all competition are defining characteristics of business practice. They exist to varying degrees, but so do many, many business people who take pride in making good products or providing useful services and who value long-term relationships with other businesses, clients and employees – in short, people who are not greedy assholes. Otherwise business simply wouldn’t work.

But hey, if it’s so immoral, then the academics who so easily pass holier than thou judgments without knowing what they’re talking about could simply refuse to take money from these evil people…

45

alex 06.17.10 at 12:36 pm

Going to be…?

46

alex 06.17.10 at 12:39 pm

Oh grow up novakant, do you really think any of us are stupid enough to suggest such ridiculous oversimplifications as anything other than a joke? This whole thread is a joke, it’s taking the piss out of people who are transparently morons, but who think they have the golden key to a virtuous polity in their sole possession.

47

novakant 06.17.10 at 1:08 pm

Oh, so when the argument fails, it’s all a joke, including your #42 I presume. Be that as it may, unfortunately such childish views are all too common to be laughed off.

48

Hogan 06.17.10 at 1:46 pm

If we’re counting on the public school system to make our children familiar with Tex Avery, then the terrorists have already won. Back in my day, we learned about Avery the same way we learned about sex–by watching TV.

49

roac 06.17.10 at 2:22 pm

Back in my day, we learned about Avery the same way we learned about sex—by watching TV.

And there’s another thing I never thought of before. The space between getting home from school and dinner, for my generation, was all filled with Avery/Jones/Clampett et al. (along with, it must be said, a fair amount of dreck). Is this stuff accessible to kids today? (The point that it would be a preferable alternative to the Texas curriculum hardly needs making.)

50

mds 06.17.10 at 3:16 pm

Be that as it may, unfortunately such childish views are all too common to be laughed off.

Well, we don’t all have access to your angrily-redlined file of clippings, do we?

51

novakant 06.17.10 at 4:32 pm

Well, we don’t all have access to your angrily-redlined file of clippings, do we?

Yeah, of course, if I think that relying on the Council of Trent when it comes to economic matters is silly, it goes without saying that I must be a crank.

52

mds 06.17.10 at 4:47 pm

Yeah, of course, if I think that relying on the Council of Trent when it comes to economic matters is silly, it goes without saying that I must be a crank.

No, when you that relying on the Council of Trent when it comes to economic matters is “all too common,” presumably including commenters here, it goes without saying that you must be an ass.

53

piglet 06.17.10 at 5:04 pm

novakant’s resistance to irony is admirable but joking aside, another thing that is “all too common” is people claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who think moral disapproval of wealth is silly. (That may or may not apply to novakant but it sure applies to 90% of the US right).

54

novakant 06.17.10 at 5:22 pm

Well, actually there are enough people, and yes that does include some CT commenters, that go even further than the Council of Trent in their disdain for anybody who is involved in business activity, especially those that make more than they do.

55

Substance McGravitas 06.17.10 at 5:28 pm

I am pleased to see that some CT commenters have developed such precise clairvoyance that they can read my tax return.

56

novakant 06.17.10 at 5:39 pm

We all know what your average academic makes…

57

alex 06.17.10 at 5:45 pm

By my understanding quite a lot of tenured profs are well into the $100K/yr bracket, which makes them part of the ‘rich’ by any reasonable measure. So, your point was…?

58

James Wimberley 06.17.10 at 5:50 pm

burritoboy in #23: “The freedom to read Aristotle in the USSR had no noticeable effect whatsoever on its political development.”
How do you know? In the last twenty years of the Soviet state, kids were subjected to classes in Marxist history and ideology that neither they not their teachers were able to take seriously. Where did the intellectually curious find sustenance? Many took refuge in mathematics and natural science; some seem to have found Hayek; more no doubt found Tolstoy and Shakespeare; but you can’t rule out some getting provoked into real thinking by Aristotle and company. The point is important for how you read China today. The government censors currently contentious stuff, but not subversive dead white Europeans. Do they still bite?

59

piglet 06.17.10 at 6:04 pm

Just trying to set the record straight.

Thanks for nothing. this is getting annoying but observe that both 41 and 42 used the term “amoral”, not “immoral”, implying precisely no moral conclusion. Language is so difficult, which is why we need those tough Texan curriculum standards so badly.

60

roac 06.17.10 at 6:24 pm

Of course “business competition” might be amoral, or not.

Here’s the thing: Many people, maybe even most people, have a set of moral principles or intuitions to which they try to conform their behavior. Probably no two sets are identical; but equally probably, no such set has a boundary that exactly conforms to the set of what is “legal” behavior at a given place and time. Individuals can and do refrain from performing legal actions that would offend their moral principles, although doing so would be advantageous to them.

According to the accepted rules of capitalism, however, a corporate manager has a “fiduciary duty” to the shareholders to pursue any legal and advantageous course of action, regardless of whether it conforms to his or her personal moral intuitions.

Since the great majority of economic activity is conducted by corporations, the statement that “business competition is amoral” is self-evidently true. You can defend the regime, but you’re stuck with the adjective.

61

piglet 06.17.10 at 7:27 pm

Language again. novakant asked whether “business people are amoral at best”, and alex replied that “Business competition is amoral at best, how could it be anything else?”. Look, most of us were having fun on this thread, until a few dead serious no kidding sort of guys arrived and gave us gems such as:

The Machiavellian businessman/statesman, is not literally “amoral”. He just pursues a more flexible (“ends justifies the means”) morality to serve the interests of corporation/state. That is his moral obligation, given his social role.

If we were in the mood, we could take that nonsense apart, but let us just assume you are joking, ok?

62

piglet 06.17.10 at 7:31 pm

And this:

“According to liberal economic theory this policy would maximise utility, which is the moral outcome.”

Unfortunately such childish views are all too common to be laughed off. Let’s laugh anyway.

63

chris 06.17.10 at 7:48 pm

#63: Friedman was quite consistent and within his moral rights to urge businessmen to be profit-maximizing within the law. According to liberal economic theory this policy would maximise utility, which is the moral outcome.

That depends a great deal on the content of the law. If the law, for example, permits slavery, then this policy would produce the most profitable possible uses of slavery. That might indeed maximize utility — for the slaveowners. But it’s still not a moral outcome.

Indeed, that’s the point of declaring business competition amoral — if you want morality to emerge from your business sector, you have to inject it somewhere else, such as the law. Businesses will not, on their own initiative, engage in a moral restraint that is not imposed on them. That’s practically the definition of “amoral”.

Creating a legal regime that aligns businesses’ self-interest with positive social outcomes is one large-scale goal of a regulated-capitalist society.

64

chris 06.17.10 at 7:51 pm

Also, the market doesn’t maximize utility — it maximizes (utility * buying power). The difference is sometimes important (for example, it’s why there is often famine in Africa — it’s quite possible to produce enough food to feed hungry Africans, but they don’t have the buying power to induce the market to actually do so, regardless of how much utility they would derive if it did). Correcting for the influence of unequal buying power is another thing that has to be done outside the market sphere or not at all.

65

piglet 06.17.10 at 8:36 pm

chris, trying to argue rationally with somebody who can’t parse an English sentence into subject, verb and object?

alex kept digging in his hole by insisting that no businessmen qua businessman could be moral.

Except he didn’t say any of that but pointing that out will only trigger five more idiotic posts from Strocchi so let’s just roll our eyes.

66

burritoboy 06.17.10 at 9:15 pm

“How do you know? In the last twenty years of the Soviet state, kids were subjected to classes in Marxist history and ideology that neither they not their teachers were able to take seriously. Where did the intellectually curious find sustenance? Many took refuge in mathematics and natural science; some seem to have found Hayek; more no doubt found Tolstoy and Shakespeare; but you can’t rule out some getting provoked into real thinking by Aristotle and company. The point is important for how you read China today. The government censors currently contentious stuff, but not subversive dead white Europeans. Do they still bite?”

I know because I lived there.

The example teaches us:
1. There simply aren’t enough intellectually curious people to matter.
2. It’s fairly easy for regimes to control the intellectually curious: you make it clear that it’s acceptable (even very advantageous) to pursue some types of knowledge but not others.

This strategy has worked even better in the US than it did in the USSR (it also works better in the US than it does in China). All you need to do is defund areas where serious political thinking might possibly go on (humanities and social sciences academia, the theologians of real religions, journalism, etc) and heavily fund activities where any serious thinking is more or less impossible (business and other vocational academia, fake religions like evangelical American Protestantism or Mormonism, propaganda outlets like Fox instead of actual journalism). You can also promote intellectual tendencies that ensure that little actual serious thinking of import will take place (Chicago School economics, analytical philosophy and so on).

67

chris 06.17.10 at 9:16 pm

thats a big “if” you quietly dropped in there

Compared to what? From my angle it looks like your comment 63 blithely assumes that *any* action that is legal is also moral, an assumption to which slavery is only one of the most obvious exceptions.

If there is some act which is simultaneously legal, profitable, and immoral, some business will engage in it, because it only cares about the first two traits. (Market competition will weed out their more scrupulous competitors — a dynamic that has played out numerous times in this and other societies.) Therefore, if you want to prevent businesses from engaging in immoral acts, you need to arrange your legal system so that they are illegal as well.

This is, of course, reckoning without illegal business, which isn’t even concerned with the legality of its actions except insofar as to try to reduce the risk and cost of having the law enforced on it (including by subverting the mechanism of law enforcement, if that’s cost-effective). But I assume Friedman didn’t suggest allowing the Mafia to freely pursue their own interests.

68

virgil xenophon 06.17.10 at 10:59 pm

Its been my experience in the business world that most–although certainly not all–businessmen equate legality with both morality and wisdom insofar as their daily decision-making plays out as a practical matter in the real world. Whether this approach is either wise or moral is problematic–but it is certainly profitable–until unwise practices produce major dysfunctions which threaten the very existence of the business–as BP is ruefully discovering.

69

novakant 06.18.10 at 1:19 am

Since the great majority of economic activity is conducted by corporations, the statement that “business competition is amoral” is self-evidently true.

The first part of the sentence is not even true, and thus the conclusion is neither. And your average book publisher, restaurant owner or hairdresser has no interest in driving out all competition or maximizing profit at all costs, even if that was possible, which it isn’t. Rather they aim to provide a good product or service and cultivate longterm relationships with clients which will provide them with a sustainable livelihood.

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roac 06.18.10 at 1:47 am

Of course the great majority of businesses are owned by individuals or families, or closely held corporations that amount to the same thing; nor that many of them do their business in the way you describe. But I didn’t say “the great majority of businesses” I said “the great majority of economic activity.” And while I have no figures and don’t know where to find them, I bet I am right. How many neighborhood restaurants do you think you would have to aggregate to equal the gross income of the Fortune 500 corporations?

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novakant 06.18.10 at 2:16 am

roac, we don’t need to throw statistics around, the point was about the morality of people involved in business activity, so income or turnover are not really all that relevant

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roac 06.18.10 at 3:15 am

the point was about the morality of people involved in business activity</i<

No, the point is not about "the morality of people involved in business activity." The point is about an influential ideology, taught I believe in MBA programs everywhere, which says that corporate managers are supposed to maximize profits on all occasions at the expense of all other considerations, and if they fail to do this, they are stealing from their stockholders. How many times do I have to repeat myself?

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Gene O'Grady 06.18.10 at 4:07 am

I take exception to Burritoboys flogging Mormonism as a fake religion; that is simply untrue in my extensive experience with the LDS faith in the Western US. Furthermore, in my time as a flunky in a Fortune 500 company it was clear that the LDS middle managers, who were typically held back from reaching the level their potential might have justified (even worse than the Jews sometimes were) were the most ethical guys around and the ones that more often than not were called on to fix messes made by higher fliers who lacked the ethics of the Mormons they had sailed past moving up the corporate ladder.

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Chris Bertram 06.18.10 at 6:06 am

Multiple posts by Jack Strocchi deleted. (Strocchi is permanently banned from commenting on any post by me following comments on other threads that breach our comments policy.)

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novakant 06.18.10 at 11:44 am

How many times do I have to repeat myself?

Firstly, the point was about business activity and the people involved in it being regarded as inherently disdainful. My point was that such beliefs are quite commonplace and wrong.

Secondly, while there might be some “greed is good” MBAs, generally they don’t teach that approach. And if all it took to succeed in business was being a greedy mofo, then it would be easy – it isn’t.

Thirdly, I’m not denying that there are business people narrowly focused on profit maximization and that they and the ideology they adhere to could be described as at best amoral – but that’s not the whole story.

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y81 06.18.10 at 12:54 pm

This whole discussion about business and morality seems to assume that there is a distinction between morality and self-interest rightly understood. Many have denied the existence of this distinction, and the case against the distinction seems especially strong in business, where (i) many of the hard cases, like soldiers dying for their country (or the socialist motherland, if you prefer) don’t exist and (ii) long-term relationships and reputations are important.

Slavery seems an especially irrelevant example. The corporate form was virtually non-existent in the American South, and many have argued that (i) slavery was economically inefficient and (ii) the morality of Southern planters was essentially pre-capitalist. Obviously these issues, and the ones in the first paragraph, are contested, but the discussion seems to presume without proof a particular set of conclusions on these issues.

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chris 06.18.10 at 1:56 pm

@76: If you don’t like slavery as an example of legal immorality, what about tragedies of the commons? One of the US’s commons is being befouled right now, in a way that may or may not have been legal, but certainly resulted from the actual practices of an actual business. (Indeed, if they scoffed at the law in the pursuit of lower operating costs, doesn’t that only strengthen the case for their amorality?)

The self-interest of the business was clearly far removed from the interest of the general population in preserving the Gulf Coast. If there is no distinction between morality and self-interest, doesn’t that require the conclusion that it was moral to imperil the Gulf in order to lower operating costs by skimping on safety measures? That doesn’t sound like a very appealing moral system to me.

OTOH, if you think that was neither moral nor enlightenedly self-interested, then you have to face the problem that businesses actually guide their actions by self-interest *as they understand it*, and catastrophic blunders are par for the course, which rather eviscerates the claim of efficient optimization.

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piglet 06.18.10 at 3:05 pm

novakant:

“Firstly, the point was about business activity and the people involved in it being regarded as inherently disdainful.”

Nobody was making that claim. You have been fighting straw men for the whole thread. It was only you and Strocchi who insisted in equating statements about business competition with statements about individual business people. You are distorting a criticism of capitalism as an economic system into some “all capitalists are evil” caricature. Nobody here subscribes to that view. Now shut up, or provide direct quotes to the contrary.

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roac 06.18.10 at 3:55 pm

Further clarification by the guy who was holding up the straw man: For me this not even about economic theory; it’s about ethics.

I discovered as soon as I was old enough to think about it that I had a set of moral intuitions, a/k/a “conscience,” that prompted me in some situations to act in a way contrary to my obvious self-interest; and that when I complied I felt good, and when I didn’t, I felt bad. I was told at the time, and believed, that this disposition was implanted in me by God. I have had to give up on God since then, but I find that the intuitions have not changed.

I find moreover, by long experience, that roughly the same set of intuitions is widely though not universally shared, and that people tend generally to admire altruistic actions and condemn self-serving ones.

When people tell me that “conscience” is a delusion and a product of sloppy thinking, and that what I need is to read and reread the works of Ayn Rand until I have eradicated it, I say: No thank you, assuming the cure you prescribe is effective, I do not choose to undergo it (and not just because of the pain involved).

I do NOT believe that business people, taken as a group, have less effective consciences than other kinds of people. My experience suggests otherwise. What horrifies me, to say it again, is the doctrine that it’s OK to be altruistic on your own time, but in your capacity as a corporate manager, it is your sacred duty to extract the last penny from the widow and orphan. People do preach this (M. Friedman & R. Posner, for example), and other people do listen and subscribe (the commenters on Megan McArdle’s blog, for example).

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y81 06.18.10 at 4:11 pm

“catastrophic blunders are par for the course [in business]”

Very true, but it hardly distinguishes business from other activities. Academics, doctors, politicians and generals all make catastrophic blunders. These are usually not taken as indicating that practitioners of those professions are necessarily amoral, but that they are capable of being stupid, and in some cases wicked.

Tragedy of the commons is a more complicated issue. Note, however, that the eponymous tragedy of the commons is caused by selfish, pre-capitalist peasants in a subsistence economy, not by capitalist businessmen.

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John Quiggin 06.18.10 at 4:30 pm

The eponymous tragedy of the commons was mythical, at least for Britain where the story was first told. Precapitalist commons were invariably ‘stinted’, that is subject to constraints on the number of cattle that could be grazed.

The mythical tragedy was used to justify the actual seizure of the commons by capitalist landlords.

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piglet 06.18.10 at 4:43 pm

Thanks for the clarification JQ and a few links if anybody is interested:

Achim Lerch, The Tragedy of the “Tragedy of the Commons” (http://www.boell.org/downloads/Lerch_Tragedy.pdf)
Elinor Ostrom, Coping with Tragedies of the Commons (http://www.soc.duke.edu/~pmorgan/ostrom.AR.html)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons
http://p2pfoundation.net/Tragedy_of_the_Commons

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ajay 06.18.10 at 4:45 pm

81.1 is right. Is 81.2 right, given that the concept dates (apparently) only to William Forster Lloyd in 1833, by which time enclosure had been going on for quite a long time?

I thought that inclosure was justified by “that’s some awfully nice land there, I want it”. What Pratchett would call the ancient legal doctrine of quocumque acquiris rapis.

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alex 06.18.10 at 5:13 pm

Enclosure was actually a very complex process, in which pre-existing rights of property were scrupulously protected. However, in so doing, merely customary rights of usage were extinguished, and many poorer property-owners were forced to sell their share, on account of being unable to meet the compulsory costs of the actual physical enclosure – paying men to dig ditches, build walls and plant hedges. So, yes, it was a vile stitch-up, but one done very carefully in accordance with the law. It was justified by the argument that it would enhance agricultural productivity, which it did, thereby facilitating, in an equally complex way, the industrial revolution and the rise of modern urban society. Whether any of that was worth the extinction of customary common-rights is a subject open to wide-ranging discussion.

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chris 06.18.10 at 5:34 pm

I do NOT believe that business people, taken as a group, have less effective consciences than other kinds of people. My experience suggests otherwise.

Mine doesn’t. It depends somewhat on the line of business, but anyone who suggests that their company should refrain from a profitable act because they personally disapprove of that act tends not to get ahead in that business (and the same goes double for inter-business competition).

For example, Sam Walton’s conscience doesn’t stop him from imposing the infamously bad conditions of employment of many of his employees, or by engaging in coercive and in some cases blatantly illegal unionbusting to keep those conditions in place (and the concomitant political corruption so his company isn’t prosecuted for the illegal parts of its unionbusting strategies). I think it is likely that if it had, he wouldn’t have become as successful as he has (given the same amount of talent, starting capital, luck, etc.) for the simple reason that treating his employees decently would be more expensive, thus less profitable, thus leave less retained earnings to fuel the rampant expansion of his company.

P.S. In retrospect, “catastrophic blunder” was too charitable a way to describe Deepwater Horizon. Abandonment of safety standards constituted playing Russian Roulette with employees’ lives as well as the environment — and some of them lost. Similar remarks apply to the WV mine disaster, also caused by willful neglect of safety measures.

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y81 06.18.10 at 6:27 pm

“anyone who suggests that their company should refrain from a profitable act because they personally disapprove of that act tends not to get ahead in that business”

Probably true, but suggestions that a particular act, though perhaps profitable in the short term, will damage the company’s reputation for X (quality, honesty, etc.), or will jeopardize the company’s long-term relationship with Y (lenders, suppliers, etc.) are pretty common.

In general, suggestions based on personal taste aren’t popular in business. It would be silly if I argued that we shouldn’t finance a particular building because I wouldn’t want to live in it, or expand into a particular soap because I wouldn’t want to bathe with something scented, or whatever. People in business are expected to submerge their individual identities into collective objectivity.

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chris 06.18.10 at 9:30 pm

Probably true, but suggestions that a particular act, though perhaps profitable in the short term, will damage the company’s reputation for X (quality, honesty, etc.), or will jeopardize the company’s long-term relationship with Y (lenders, suppliers, etc.) are pretty common.

Do you really think that’s enough to encompass all important parts of morality? What about actions that harm someone who isn’t particularly important to the company’s bottom line, in an indirect, plausibly deniable way that the company expects to be able to obfuscate if necessary?

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roac 06.18.10 at 10:12 pm

It would be silly if I argued that we shouldn’t finance a particular building because I wouldn’t want to live in it

Yes, that would be silly indeed. But what if we argued that we shouldn’t market a particular product because it will not do what we are suggesting it will? In other words, because nobody would buy it if they knew what we know?

Case in point: the whole “herbal supplements” industry.

And I’ve heard the whole libertarian line that goes Paternalism! Freedom of contract! Who are you to tell somebody that he can’t buy our product which is supposed to enlarge his penis? So don’t bother to deploy that. Let’s focus on the seller, shall we?

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Dr. Hilarius 06.18.10 at 11:05 pm

roac is correct in stating that “fiduciary duty” is taught to exclude consideration of morality. This was explicitly taught in my “trusts and estates” course in law school and I have no doubt it is still being taught.

Fiduciary duty is used as an excuse for behavior harmful to the world at large but is ignored when convenient. The huge payout to the CEO of Washington Mutual Bank comes to mind. Millions of dollars for tanking the company and leaving the stockholders with nothing.

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bianca steele 06.19.10 at 12:25 am

y81@86:
I think you are confusing two different things. Walmart is an excellent example. They have a business plan–a long term business plan–that involves the imposing of their will on their suppliers, for example, and that requires their having a kind of power in the marketplace that their “peers” (taken in terms of “similarly large box vendors selling to similar sets of consumers”) actually cannot execute. They don’t play off the short term against the long term, both work together.

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y81 06.19.10 at 1:55 am

@87: Do I actually believe that self-interest rightly understood is synonomous with morality? I have spent my whole life wrestling with that question, and don’t have a conclusive answer.

@88: “Let’s focus on the seller, shall we?”

OK, but we have to show that businessmen are more likely to sell useless products than are politicians to propose counterproductive laws (case in point: regulation of debit card interchange fees), or academics to propound worthless theories (case in point: dependency theory), or generals to employ losing strategies (I’m currently reading about Montcalm). Otherwise, we are only talking about the general run of human blindness and selfishness, not some amorality unique to business.

@90: The Walmart strategy you describe doesn’t strike me as immoral, anymore than it is immoral for Alex Rodriguez to use his hitting ability (which is greater than that of his competitors) to get lots of hits, or for Google to use its IPO proceeds (which reflect P/E ratios higher than most other companies) to finance R&D that might lead to new products, or for David Boies to use his ability as a litigator (which most lawyers can’t match) to win lots of cases.

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bianca steele 06.19.10 at 4:10 am

@81
Still not sure what you’re arguing. Walmart either values good relations with suppliers or high profit margins or reputation or what it values. It isn’t a matter of whether it is immoral for them to use their advantages to outcompete their peers, or for that matter of whether it is immoral for their peers to use different advantages to attempt to outcompete Walmart (however futilely). And the decision isn’t simply one between myopic short-term thinking and wise long-term thinking.

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novakant 06.19.10 at 9:51 pm

So if this not about business people, why limit the argument to “business competition”? There are all sorts of other areas where competition can lead to unethical behaviour.

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roac 06.20.10 at 12:16 am

we have to show that businessmen are more likely to sell useless products than are politicians to propose counterproductive laws . . . or academics to propound worthless theories . . . or generals to employ losing strategies

No. What you have to prove, to refute the point I keep making over and over, is that politicians are taught in politician school that it is their duty to propose counterproductive laws, or that grad students are taught that it is their duty to propound worthless theories, or that losing strategies are held up as models by the MS&T Department at West Point. (I say “or” — convince me of even one of the these propositions and I will concede.)

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Abelard High Professor of Postmoderny Deconstructionisms 06.23.10 at 11:03 pm

“Voltaire might find great supporters among those seeking to inject more Christianity into the curriculum”

haha, did they miss the whole ecrasez l’infame statement??

“The Canon” is the most subversive reading list one could ever come across. Tangentially, Plato is far more subversive than Derrida could ever hope to be.

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