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June 02, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Who's Going to Pay to Read John Tierney? Department)

Matthew Yglesias reads John Tierney so that we don't have to. Today he comes across John Tierney's claim that the ethics of Darth Vader are those of Adam Smith:

Darth Vader's Family Values - New York Times: [Darth Vader] says he could never betray the Jedi because they're his family, but then the chancellor puts the family question in perspective: 'Learn to know the dark side of the Force, Anakin, and you will be able to save your wife from certain death.' Anakin promptly recognizes the limits of altruism, just as Adam Smith did in the 18th century. Smith knew that some people professed love for all humanity, but he realized that a man's love for 'the members of his own family' is 'more precise and determinate, than it can be with the greater part of other people.' Hence his famous warning not to rely on the kindness of strangers outside your family: if you want bread, it's better to count on the baker's self-interest rather than his generosity...

Matthew, quite rightly, goggles at this--first, because praise of the ethics of Darth Vader is simply bizarre, and, second, because it is a clear misreading of Adam Smith:

Matthew Yglesias: Tierney on Smith and the Sith: Today's column is certainly more interesting than your usual rightwing effort. Still, I can't help but think it strange that not only The Wealth of Nations (which, NB, I haven't read and thus hesitate to comment on) but also Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments are listed at the end as 'further reading' on the theme. Tierney seems to be pushing an Ayn Rand-style 'greed is good' line here that is very much not what Smith's other book, at least, says...

The self-interest on which Adam Smith suggests we rely--our mutual willigness to enter into win-win deals as we truck, barter, and exchange--is a self-interest that has already been channeled and tamed by an extraordinary degree of development of our moral sentiments. Consider highland Scotland, where people are divided into three groups: clan members to be aided, clan enemies to be killed, and strangers to be robbed. No getting your bread from the baker's self-interest there, especially if he is a MacDougal.

And then it gets really weird, for Tierney goes on to denounce the United States as an enterprise, claiming that America is not a community with a "national sense of shared purpose" because:

America is not a clan with shared values. It is a huge group of strangers with leaders who are hardly altruists - they have their own families and needs.

And that those who say that we are all, in some sense, Americans are conning us:

We are born with an instinct for altruism because we evolved in clans of hunter-gatherers.... [W]e no longer live in clans small enough for altruism to be practical, but we still respond to politicians who promise to make us all part of one big selfless community.... [L]iberals stressed charity and social programs for all, while conservatives promoted patriotism and spending on national security - but they both expanded the government....

And, according to Tierney, that was bad.

Now there are places in the world in which altruism is not practical--places into which John Tierney dare not venture because he would be beaten bloody and senseless by the first person he came across who wanted his watch. But that is not a good description of America and Americans. The overwhelming majority of people in America are altruistic toward each other, and altruism toward your fellow citizens has a name: patriotism.

Posted by DeLong at June 2, 2005 12:10 PM