February 09, 2003
The Worth of the History of Economic Thought/Letter from Machiavelli to Vettori

A surprisingly-large number of people have recently asked me why I am interested in the history of economic thought. They make various points. First, we don't learn physics from Galileo's Discourse on Two New Sciences. There are other, better, more complete, more accurate ways of presenting the material. In any real body of knowledge, the more up-to-date has to be preferred to the less because we know more than they did. Second, there are the dangers of promoting dead and dry texts to the status of unquestionable authorities. Karl Marx saw misery in industrial England in the 1840s, jumped to the conclusion that market economies could never deliver persistent, sustained, significant improvements in real wages to the working class, jumped to the conclusion that markets had no place in any truly human mode of social organization, and--because his words became Holy Writ, the sacred gospel that was never to be questioned of a Millennarian World Religion--more than a billion people were doomed to even deeper poverty for more than a generation. Third, there is the danger that one will read texts one has placed high on a pedestal and discover in them a secret message, a crucial form of knowledge that is desperately important and that only you have the wit to decode as it exists in hidden form beneath the surface of the "apparent meaning" of the text.

These are indeed powerful drawbacks, ever-present dangers in any enterprise that contains any substantial intellectual history component. One may well find oneself attached to outmoded and partial knowledge, abandoning one's right mind to become the acolyte of some strange old book-based cult repugnant to reason, or transformed into a madman convinced that only one and one's own sect has been able to master the hermetic mysteries of the vitally-important true-but-hidden meaning of the text.

But there is an upside. What is the upside? Let me approach it in a roundabout fashion. Let me start by quoting a famous letter, a letter from circa-1600 Florentine politician Niccolo Machiavelli to his friend and hoped-for patron Francesco Vettori, describing what Machiavelli's life is like in the internal political exile to which he was consigned after the fall of Florentine Republican government that he had served.

The letter is best known for its description of how Machiavelli spent his evenings, found in the second paragraph below:

I am living on my farm.... I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters.... Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn.... I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach.... So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost...

In short, on the coming of evening Niccolo Machiavelli enters his personal library. There he talks to his friends--his books, or rather those who wrote the books in his library, or rather those components of their minds that are instantiated in the hardware-and-software combinations of linen, ink, and symbols of Gutenberg Information Technology that is his personal library. They are "ancient men" who receive him "with affection," and for four hours he "ask[s] them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and... I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death..."

Remember that Machiavelli lives only two generations after Gutenberg. He is thus one of the very first people in the world to have had a personal library. Before printing, libraries were the exclusive possession of kings, sovereign princes, abbots, masters of the Roman Empire (like Caesar and Cicero). The idea that a mere mortal--a disgraced ex-Assistant for Confidential Affairs to the Republic of Florence--might have a personal library would have been absurd even half a century before Machiavelli. To him, therefore, his personal library is not something he takes for granted, but something new, something he has that his predecessors did not. And so he can see clearly what his personal library does for him.

What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends. Especially in disgraced semi-exile--when many he would talk to are afraid to be seen in his company, and where he is afraid to be seen in the company of almost all the rest--the ability to read and reread his personal copies of Publius Ovidius Naso, Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Titus Livius, Plutarch, and the rest makes them his friends: almost the only people who will receive him with affection, and definitely the only people who will honestly answer his questions about politics and history. And it is important to have such friends, and to pay them proper respect. Hence Machiavelli will not go to them in his clothes-of-the-day--those in which he had managed his farm, haggled over the price of firewood, gambled, and on which he had spilled beer. He will, instead, enter his library only in "garments regal and courtly."

To my mind, studying the history of economic thought has much the same effect. It is not that any of us are in Machiavelli's situation--where a single wrong sentence to the wrong person and we would find ourselves under torture in the dungeons of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. But it is very nice to add some highly intelligent, extremely witty, and very thoughtful people living far away--for the past is indeed far away, and in its strangeness provides an important element of perspective--to our circle of friends.

Moreover, people's rough edges are filed off in their books. Adam Smith found Jean-Jacques Rousseau impossible in person, but that chunk of Rousseau's mind that is instantiated in the hardware-and-software combination of Gutenberg Information Technology is very pleasant company. Nobody outside his family (save Friedrich Engels) could ever stand Karl Marx for any length of time. But that part of Marx's mind that is instantiated in his books doesn't fly into irrational rages, doesn't accuse one of being a police spy, doesn't beg for money, doesn't demand that one accept that he is very much smarter than one. Instead, Marx-in-the-book speaks passionately of his hopes and fears for the future--hope coming from the progressive destiny of humanity and the extraordinary progress of technology, and fear coming from our constant tendency to f*** up our social engineering problems--and (save when he starts raving Hegelian gibberish, or when you see that whole chunks of his argument fall away because he has confused the physical capital-output ratio with the value capital-output raio) can be very good company indeed.

And then there are those whom one really wishes one had gotten to know in person. For who would not like to be good friends with (if one were quick and witty enough to avoid becoming one of his targets) John Maynard Keynes, or David Hume, or John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith?

Letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to Francesco Vettori

10 December 1513

Magnificent Ambassador:

"Never late were favors divine." I say this because I seemed to have lost--no, rather mislaid--your good will; you had not written to me for a long time, and I was wondering what the reason could be. And of all those that came into my mind I took little account, except of one only, when I feared that you had stopped writing because somebody had written to you that I was not a good guardian of your letters, and I knew that, except Filippo and Pagolo, nobody by my doing had seen them. I have found it again through your last letter of the twenty-third of the past month, from which I learn with pleasure how regularly and quietly you carry on this public office, and I encourage you to continue so, because he who gives up his own convenience for the convenience of others, only loses his own and from them gets no gratitude. And since Fortune wants to do everything, she wishes us to let her do it, to be quiet, and not to give her trouble, and to wait for a time when she will allow something to be done by men; and then will be the time for you to work harder, to stir things up more, and for me to leave my farm and say: "Here I am." I cannot however, wishing to return equal favors, tell you in this letter anything else than what my life is; and if you judge that you would like to swap with me, I shall be glad to.

I am living on my farm, and since I had my last bad luck, I have not spent twenty days, putting them all together, in Florence. I have until now been snaring thrushes with my own hands. I got up before day, prepared birdlime, went out with a bundle of cages on my back, so that I looked like Geta when he was returning from the harbor with Amphitryon's books. I caught at least two thrushes and at most six. And so I did all September. Then this pastime, pitiful and strange as it is, gave out, to my displeasure. And of what sort my life is, I shall tell you.

I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their neighbors. And as to this grove I could tell you a thousand fine things that have happened to me, in dealing with Frosino da Panzano and others who wanted some of this firewood. And Frosino especially sent for a number of cords without saying a thing to me, and on payment he wanted to keep back from me ten lire, which he says he should have had from me four years ago, when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini's. I raised the devil, and was going to prosecute as a thief the waggoner who came for the wood, but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and got us to agree. Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing, each ordered a cord from me. I made promises to all and sent one to Tommaso, which at Florence changed to half a cord, because it was piled up again by himself, his wife, his servant, his children, so that he looked like Gabburra when on Thursday with all his servants he cudgels an ox. Hence, having seen for whom there was profit, I told the others I had no more wood, and all of them were angry about it, and especially Batista, who counts this along with his misfortunes at Prato.

Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost. And if ever you can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you; and by a prince, and especially by a new prince, it ought to be welcomed. Hence I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it; he can give you some account in part of the thing in itself and of the discussions I have had with him, though I am still enlarging and revising it.

You wish, Magnificent Ambassador, that I leave this life and come to enjoy yours with you. I shall do it in any case, but what tempts me now are certain affairs that within six weeks I shall finish. What makes me doubtful is that the Soderini we know so well are in the city, whom I should be obliged, on coming there, to visit and talk with. I should fear that on my return I could not hope to dismount at my house but should dismount at the prison, because though this government has mighty foundations and great security, yet it is new and therefore suspicious, and there is no lack of wiseacres who, to make a figure, like Pagolo Bertini, would place others at the dinner table and leave the reckoning to me. I beg you to rid me of this fear, and then I shall come within the time mentioned to visit you in any case.

I have talked with Filippo about this little work of mine that I have spoken of, whether it is good to give it or not to give it; and if it is good to give it, whether it would be good to take it myself, or whether I should send it there. Not giving it would make me fear that at the least Giuliano will not read it and that this rascal Ardinghelli will get himself honor from this latest work of mine. The giving of it is forced on me by the necessity that drives me, because I am using up my money, and I cannot remain as I am a long time without becoming despised through poverty. In addition, there is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone; because then if I could not gain their favor, I should complain of myself; and through this thing, if it were read, they would see that for the fifteen years while I have been studying the art of the state, I have not slept or been playing; and well may anybody be glad to get the services of one who at the expense of others has become full of experience. And of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; and he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; and as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.

I should like, then, to have you also write me what you think best on this matter, and I give you my regards. Be happy.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in Florence

Posted by DeLong at February 09, 2003 08:04 PM | Trackback

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Says Teresa: Here is the true voice of Stephen Maturin.

What an amazing, affecting post.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on February 9, 2003 08:36 PM

And thus, Machiavelli, through Mr. Delong, has identified exactly why I come back to this site on each day, regardless of the earthquakes that rumble through the economic fault lines, or the coming storm of war.

Like Smith, or Hume, or Petrarch, Mr. Delong is very good company on a Sunday evening.

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here on February 9, 2003 09:34 PM

Where you say "Titus Ovidius Naso", don't you mean "Publius Ovidius Naso"? That is, the great poet of the Art Of Love, Ovid?

Posted by: Long past High school Latin on February 10, 2003 12:05 AM

clap clap clap clap clap bravo bravissimo

Posted by: Hans Suter on February 10, 2003 03:02 AM

Well said indeed. But it's not fair to let economic historians have all the fun!

I submit that studying Galileo's own words would have a analagously salutary effect on physicists(throw in Plato, Copernicus, and Newton there; others for other disciplines as appropriate).

Along these lines, I would recommend Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's book "Leviathan and the Air-Pump."

-Motts

Posted by: Motts McGregor on February 10, 2003 03:25 AM

Brad,
There is a wide variety of texts on the history of economic throught, some significantly better and more acutely analytical than others. Could you, would you, please post one of your famous reading lists? My selection for suggested inclusion - which inevitably tends to reflect personal preferences and interests - is:

Breit and Ranson: The Academic Scribblers; Princeton UP (1998)
Niehans: A History of Economic Theory; John Hopkins UP (1990)
Blaug: Economic Theory in Retrospect; CUP (1997)
Buchholz: New Ideas from Dead Economists; Penguin (1999)

Posted by: Bob Briant on February 10, 2003 04:27 AM

>>Where you say "Titus Ovidius Naso", don't you mean "Publius Ovidius Naso"?

Ah... *Sigh*

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 10, 2003 06:08 AM

When the professor is good, he is very, very good:

>>...there is the danger that one will read texts one has placed high on a pedestal and discover in them a secret message, a crucial form of knowledge that is desperately important and that only you have the wit to decode as it exists in hidden form beneath the surface of the "apparent meaning" of the text.

As in the following, for just one instance:

>> > "The version of [Adam Smith] that's given today is just ridiculous. But I
> don't have to do any research to find this out. All you have to do
> is read. If you're literate, you'll find it out. I did a little
> research in the way it's treated, and that's interesting. > -- Noam Chomsky

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on February 10, 2003 07:14 AM

Patrick, you're talking bollocks. The "hidden meanings" in Adam Smith which Chomsky is talking about there are his distrust of cartels, advocacy of publicly provided education and advocacy of local enterprise and disdain for non-managing owners. None of these are "hidden" in the sense which Brad is referring to; they're all right out there in the text.

Posted by: dsquared on February 10, 2003 10:07 AM

Brad,

"circa-1600"? that must be a typo for "circa-1500". Machiavelli died in 1527.

best,

Lapo

Posted by: Lapo on February 10, 2003 11:41 AM

I have little sympathy for Chomsky, but in this case I'll take him over Patrick Sullivan any day. A few nice quotes from the Liberty Classics edition of Wealth of Nations:

p. 267. "The interest of the dealers [i.e., merchants and entrepreneurs], however, in any particular branch of trade manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public...It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the publick, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the publick, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions both deceived and oppressed it."

p. 734. [On joint stock companies] "The usual corporation spirit, whereever the law does not restrain it, prevails in all regulated companies. When they have bee allowed to act according to their natural genius, they have always, in order to confine the competition to as small a number of persons as possible, endevoured to subject the trade to many burdensome regulations. When the law has restrained them from doing this, they have become altogether useless and insignificant."

p. 91 [On the East India Company] "The difference between the genius of the British constitution wich protects and governs North America, and that of the mercantile company which oppresses and domineers in the East Indies, cannot be perhaps be better illustrated than by the different state of those countries."

In short, Smith had no sympathy for the large corporations which dominated colonial policy in India in his time (the East India Company for all purposes waged a privatized British foreign policy of conquest in its sphere) and which dominate the world economy today. Smith would be skeptical of anti-globalization protesters, but he would find more to agree with them than he would the representatives of Monsanto or the gian pharmaceuticals.

All of which goes to show that Smith deserves better than to be put on a pedestal by a******s like George Gilder, Thomas Sowell, Jude Wanniski, and the Objectivists. They are trying to do to Smith what the communists did to Marx, and it is up sensible people to thwart them.

Posted by: andres on February 10, 2003 01:28 PM

While I'm at it, let me suggest that the History of Economic Thought should be a required course for all economics majors, graduate and undergraduate. I could be wrong, but I think I learned more economics from Wealth of Nations than from any intermediate-level textbook and probably from any Samuelson-type introductory textbook as well.

Posted by: andres on February 10, 2003 01:35 PM

On the subject of Machiavelli [can you tell I'm warming up to this topic?], here also the man's actual writings contradict the public image of him. To call the Bush people "the Mayberry Machiavellis" is a gross insult to old Niccolo, who never advocated anything as simpleminded as an "ends justifies the means" or even "means are ends in themselves" types of philosophies. On the contrary, much of Machiavelli's writing is a lesson on the terrible consequences of both blind self-interest on one hand and ideological rigidity on the other.

Posted by: andres on February 10, 2003 01:46 PM

There is also "mankind does not so much need to be instructed as reminded" (from memory, quoting someone whose name escapes me for the moment).

We can revisit older works to find the questions that have escaped us for the moment. Twenty years ago people had forgotten the Balkans, but now the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica gives us valuable background if not any answers. Similarly a generation ago people had forgotten about chronic unemployment, so older workers in the field are now worth revisiting.

For these and similar reasons, I find Nassau Senior and Pigou of interest. Pigou's line of work (externalities, real balance effects, etc.) was effectively derailed by Keynes, which means that there are things there that may well still have value - the derailing wasn't a result of failure of the approach. Nassau Senior's observations about absentee landlordism in Ireland being more harmful than in England SHOULD tell us how damnably stupid it is to get developing countries to aim for agricultural exports and foreign ownership of their own local resources - but nobody was listening. So now we get countries exporting cotton, all aiming for more coffee exports in the one market, selling off reserves of food in the good years, and all crowding out their subsistence living. All of which looks good on a statistical base that only captures aggregate numbers from the cash economy.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on February 10, 2003 02:06 PM

Brilliant - my own introduction to the richness of the history of economic thought was not through my training as an economist but through Geoffrey Hodgson's How Economics Forgot History and its narrative of the Methodenstreit. It prompted me to find out more about some of the 'forgotten' economists such as Werner Sombart and Gustav Schmoller - the used books part of Amazon and Barnes & Noble is brilliant for obtaining older writing that have been out-of-print (especially if you don't have access to a University library). I find my blog is a great way of keeping track of all those little thoughts and observations you tend to have when reading.

With regard to whether the history of economic thought should be part of all economics programmes, I think we have the problem that most economic programmes try to teach too much of modern economics, which pushes out parts that may seem less relevant. Hence, the common absence of economic history - which of course complements the history of economic thought nicely.

Kerry

Posted by: Kerry Nitz on February 10, 2003 02:25 PM

Very good point. The other need for studying the history of economic thought is that by reading the originals one gets an idea of how badly they are represented in modern economic theory. To give one example, textbook theory believes that Keynes' theory of recessions and unemployment depends on the assumption of sticky nominal wages, which, right or wrong, is a completely laughable misrepresentation of what is actually written in the General Theory. At the risk of committing lese majeste against the host, Brad's comments on Marx in the above entry contain any number of inaccuracies, though I will refrain from mentioning them here in the interests of not drawing troll fire, as any favorable comment on Marx is bound to do.

Point: even if one disregards P.M. Lawrence's nice argument above on the usefulness of past theories on modern problems of economics, a hugely important reason to study the history of economic thought is to prevent the past from being slandered by the present, because this is one of the main ways in which undemocratic practices and eventually dictatorship take hold.

Posted by: andres on February 10, 2003 03:25 PM

SFAIK most undergaduate majors in Economics do require a unit or two in history of economic thought. I wish they also required a unit or two in economic history - as someone pointed out, they complement each other.

But in my experience most people who find the analytic side of economics attractive find the reflective side boring.

Posted by: derrida derider on February 10, 2003 03:52 PM

SFAIK most undergaduate majors in Economics do require a unit or two in history of economic thought. I wish they also required a unit or two in economic history - as someone pointed out, they complement each other.

But in my experience most people who find the analytic side of economics attractive find the reflective side boring.

Posted by: derrida derider on February 10, 2003 03:53 PM

We mustn't let insights from the past simply displace later insights in their turn. When I read Nassau Senior I had to do a lot of further thinking to see what was wrong with the simplistic extrapolation "foreign ownership of resources in a developing country is wrong". I had to, as it were, close the book of later insights to read the earlier ones, then re-open it again, like memorising lines from a text or preparing for an exam.

The catch with "foreign ownership ... is wrong" is that it leaves out just what ELSE happened in acquiring them. The official view is that in a proper free capital market the locals got a capital inflow in exchange, which in turn boosted local capacity and output enough to make up for the downside. Nassau Senior was talking about absentee ownership of resources that had been acquired by conquest.

And THAT'S worth looking at, since both of those things are wrong. Irish landlords HAD put in capital resources as well as just taking them, it's just that that had washed out in the face of Malthusian issues. And, modern acquisitions of resources in developing countries do NOT always match up with productive capital flows, both because some of the things are misnamed (going to kleptocrats and behaving as in Ireland), and also because flows of nominal capital in a fiat reserve currency aren't a symbolic expression of an underlying capital flow after all, but just a mobilisation of local resources.

And we can see that last part from the behaviour of the French in occupied areas during the Revolutionary Wars, and of "peaceful penetration" by the likes of the French and Dutch when dealing with their more advanced colonial areas. It was even inherent in German approaches to Vichy resources, both in metropolitan France and in North Africa.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on February 10, 2003 04:02 PM

Both d squared and andres are incorrect about what Chomsky is up to in the quote I provided. Shortly afterwards Chomsky offers us:

>> The founders of classical liberalism, people like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who is one of the great exponents of classical liberalism, and who inspired John Stuart Mill -- they were what we would call libertarian socialists, at least that is the way I read them.

And d squared is being particularly disingenuous about Smith supporting "public provided education". Adam Smith makes a case for both subsidies to education, and strictly private means. For example:

>> Those parts of education, it is to be observed, for the teaching of which
there are no public institutions, are generally the best taught. When a young man goes to a fencing or a dancing school, he does not, indeed, always learn to fence or to dance very well; but he seldom fails of learning to fence or to dance. The good effects of the riding school are not commonly so evident. The expense of a riding school is so great that in most places it
is a public institution. The three most essential parts of literary education, to read, write and account, it still continues to be more common
to acquire in private than in public schools; and it very seldom happens that anybody fails of acquiring them to the degree in which it is necessary to acquire them. >>

And he sums up in Book V, Chapter 1:

>> The expence of the institutions for education and religious instruction, is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society,and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society. This expence, however, might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be
defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on February 10, 2003 04:31 PM

I have long and weary experience with Sullivan's selective quoting battles, so I will simply withdraw any and all comments made about public education, reiterate all the other points I made about Smith and repeat my initial assertion "Patrick, you're talking bollocks".

Posted by: dsquared on February 10, 2003 10:57 PM

Progress! But sorta like WWI trench warfare, I pound the opposing forces with the heavy artillery of the facts, and grudgingly they retreat. But not before convincing themselves they really didn't want that territory anyway.

So, from:

>> The "hidden meanings" in Adam Smith which Chomsky is talking about there are his distrust of cartels, advocacy of publicly provided education and advocacy of local enterprise and disdain for non-managing owners.

We can now officially subtract "publicly provided education", from the defense perimeter. However, we're still clinging to the other three positions (orders from headquarters?).

Not a viable strategy, Fieldmarshalls. Chomsky's clearly trying to draft Adam Smith into the "Exploitation of Labor" Army, in the quote I gave you. He claims that what is taught about Smith is "myth":

>> if you look at the myth of Adam Smith, which is the only one we get, the discrepancy between that and the reality is enormous.

and that Stigler, specifically, hasn't said anything accurate about WoN.

Now, I'd be very surprised to find that Stigler ever denied that Smith had a "distrust of cartels". So we need something new, and that's provided by Chomsky in such lines as:

>> For example, Humboldt, like Smith, says, Consider a craftsman who builds some beautiful thing. Humboldt says if he does it under external coercion, like pay, for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. On the other hand, if he does it out of his own free, creative expression of himself, under free will, not under external coercion of wage labor, then we also admire what he is because he's a human being.

Nothing there about cartels, nor "local enterprise", nor "disdain for non-managing owners".

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on February 11, 2003 07:47 AM

"The past is never dead. It is not even past."
- William Faulkner

Posted by: Peter McKay on February 11, 2003 07:51 AM

As a former actual historian, I feel obliged to belabor a few details in this excellent post. Around 1500 most books were printed on cotton paper, and -- still -- parchment. Mere mortals had been acquiring libraries for some time: Bruni (d. 1444) and Petrarch (d. 1374) being particularly proximate examples, if not exactly everyman. There are plenty of (atypical) medieval examples, like John of Salisbury or even Abelard, though the number of books involved seems tiny to us (>200).

It is also important to realize that before movable type, the vast majority of people with the training and inclination to read books had relatively easy access to them through institutions. It is hard to dispel the image of the downtrodden monk denied access to [P.] Ovid or Catullus, but the fact is that most men who were interested could obtain the run of their institutional library. On the other hand, Catullus is an instructive example, because only one manuscript survived into the 14th century, and it was at the chapter library in Verona, where, safe to say, it was little-consulted.

Thus the most important impact of printing was not to allow slightly less wealthy men to possess more books, it was disseminating a broader array of "great books" more evenly to the gradually increasing number of people who could read. Even after printing, 200 was a lot of books to own, and more than you needed to settle in for a quiet conversation with the ancients, who, if you think about it, were not particularly numerous (count only the red volumes of the Loeb Clasiscal Library, as practically no one knew Greek).

History is its own reward, and people who don't get that don't deserve as eloquent an explanation as you gave. And thanks for sparing us Santayana.

Posted by: Max Withers on February 11, 2003 10:40 AM

"Progress! But sorta like WWI trench warfare, I pound the opposing forces with the heavy artillery of the facts"

Alas Patrick its more like you pounding us with the heavy artillery of the farts rather than the facts after a certain point.

Posted by: achilles on February 11, 2003 10:59 AM

Hmph. Patrick, I'll see your heavy artillery and raise you some trenchfoot and influenza, though I doubt the flu virus is as obnoxious.

Reaching into my handy copy of WoN, let's look at the following:

p. 784. "The education of the common people requires, prhaps in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the publick more than that of people of some rank and fortune."

p. 786. "The publick can impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education, buy obliging every man to undergo an examination or probation in them before he can obtain the freedom in any corporation, or be allowed to set up any trade either in a village or town corporate."

p. 788. "Thought the state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of the people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders."

In view of these and other passages, it would be silly to claim that Smith was against publicly _funded_ education. Furthermore, any undertaking which is publicly funded would also have to be publicly regulated, to make sure that funds are not misused. i.e., whether you are talking about public education as we know it or vouchers, education still requires public funding and regulation.

Formal cartels, as far as I know, did not exist in Smith's time. But Smith continually fulminated first and foremost against the East India Company but also against the South Seas Company, the Turkey Company, and the Dutch East India Company. These were all joint stock companies--the forerunners of modern corporations--and their activities well indicate what a toxic brew one gets by combining the principle of one pound = one vote with the long-distance planning of economic policies in colonies halfway across the globe.

i.e., Chomsky is not an out-and-out Marxist and he certainly would not succeed in drafting Smith into the anti-exploitation school, but he is totally right in trying to draft Smith into the fight against corporate domination of the world economy. Again, Smith deserves better than to become a poster-child for modern capitalism.

Posted by: andres on February 11, 2003 12:50 PM

andres, I am very curious how you can take my writing:

>> Adam Smith makes a case for both subsidies to education, and strictly private means.

and launch into:

>> it would be silly to claim that Smith was against publicly _funded_ education.

Especially since I followed with Smith himself saying BOTH:

>> The expence of the institutions for education and religious instruction, is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society,and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society.

AND:

>> This expence, however, might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be
defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education...

Was it Smith's "even with some advantage" that confused you? Apparently d square was closer to the barrage, and recognized the better part of valor. (BTW, YOUR Smith quotes don't support your point.)

Now, getting to the point that was actually under discussion (i.e. what CHOMSKY is trying to do with Smith), it is irrelevant that Chomsky will fail in his conscription attempt. What is relevant is that he is clearly trying to do it (and he isn't alone in the attempt).

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on February 11, 2003 01:47 PM

Ah, the prototypical Patrick Sullivan thread. How in the world did this become a thread about CHOMSKY? I look back and I see it is because it was introduced by....yes, Mr. Sullivan.

Both dsquared and andres then get dragged by Patrick into a detailed exegesis of Chomsky that is as far as I can tell perfectly irrelevant since the two of them are more interested in discussing the views of Smith, aka someone relevant to the thread.

Gentlemen, DON'T FEED THE TROLLS!!!

Especially the ones who are sad enough to think that detailed analysis of irrelevant texts on blogs is the mental equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.

Posted by: achilles on February 11, 2003 02:57 PM

Patrick,
The first point that needs to be made is "chill out." You followed an amazingly twisted trail from Brad's post on Machiavelli to making whatever small ideological point you made.

Actually there is a legacy question between Smith, Ricardo and Marx. Basically Ricardo picked up Smith (WoN) while on vactation, read it thouroughly and kind of had an Ah Ha!
moment. While we know Ricardo for one of the truly deep insights within economics (comparative advantage) he also produced a labor theory of value related to what he got out of Smith. Then Marx picked up Ricardo and basically drove the labor theory of value off a cliff. Indeed most of the classical economists believed in some form of a labor theory of value. Thus, although I haven't read Chomsky, from your quote he seems to be rediscovering something that would not be considered all that heretical, or absurd.

By the way, I've never really been able to plow through Marx like Brad evidently has but I have found Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus to have been enoumously p[rofitable to read. My favorites Ricardo "On Machines," Malthus "On Population" because it is actually a theory of pre-capitalist cycles, and Smith, WoN who is enourmously witty in his own way. Like when he says the rich should pay more taxes because they gain the most from a state that protects property.
; > }
Lawrence

Posted by: Lawrence on February 11, 2003 03:01 PM

I have heard Chomsky speak a few times on the topic of Smith. His effort is to link Smith to a non-hierarchical view of what he believes an advanced, rational society can and should strive to be - including both its enterprises and its state. In short his concern is for the fullest democratic participation in both areas. Exploitation (the appropriation of surplus by those who did not produce it), was never mentioned in this (or any other) context by Chomsky, from what I recall.

Posted by: Eric on February 11, 2003 03:02 PM

Hi achilles. I gave up troll bashing along with role-playing games, but whenever one of these troglodytes says something that is just plain nonsensical, you have to call them on it. I'm not fond of Chomsky and I have no idea why PS brought him up, but Chomsky is definitely not the only person to have pointed out that Smith would be highly suspicious of today's world economic system. And if PS is too dense to understand the glaring contradiction between public subsidies and strictly private means in areas such as education, that is his problem.

Posted by: andres on February 12, 2003 08:27 AM

As usual, I first have to pick myself up off the floor, and then wait until my ribs stop hurting, after reading the comments of the usual suspects.

Can't understand how Chomsky got into this thread? Gee, how about that I explained how he was guilty of something that Prof. DeLong had written in creating the thread? I even quoted the specific line for everyone.

As for: "the glaring contradiction between public subsidies and strictly private means", duh! That was my point, fellas. Even d square got it the first time.

Then, we have: "the two of them are more interested in discussing the views of Smith, aka someone relevant to the thread.".

Which is pretty amusing since the thread is about Machiavelli, not Adam Smith. The only way to get Smith into the discussion, is the way I did, by relating someone (with a verrry odd take on WoN) to this, actually taken from the DeLong essay:

>>there is the danger that one will read texts one has placed high on a pedestal and discover in them a secret message, a crucial form of knowledge that is desperately important and that only you have the wit to decode as it exists in hidden form beneath the surface of the "apparent meaning" of the text.

Which is exactly what Chomsky was doing in his remarks.

But to satisfy, achilles (who elsewhere deplores name-calling)and andres, when Adam Smith speaks of "corporations" he's usually talking of some conspiracy in restraint of trade, such as a guild. Which we would call a labor union. Smith realizes that only government can create and protect such monopolies. That left without government protection, they will be destroyed by market forces. Are you guys comfortable with that?

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on February 12, 2003 09:04 AM

A little personal history. When I was an undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, the ME college had the crazy idea that engineers ought to take a few humanities--or at least, non-engineering--courses.

I took things like economics (Money and Banking...that'll broaden an engineer's mind!), astrophysics, and the one true humanities area, history.

But one of my history courses was "The History of Science." Since that was over 20 years ago, I've forgotten just about all I learned. But I thought it was an absolutely sensational course.

It was really fascinating to learn about how early scientists formed the bedrock on which we now rest. For example, how do you know that air is a mixture of gases, not a single gas? Because you read it in a book? Well, that's not really KNOWING anything. One learns air is a mixture by seeing that fire uses up one component of air (oxygen), but not other components (nitrogen). Really slick!

So that History of Science course really helped me appreciate the important insights--as well as the important mistakes--of the early scientists.

"If I have seen farther than others, it is because I've stood on the shoulders of giants." Right on, Sir Isaac!

I think The History of Economics is a swell idea. :-) Probably ought to be taught at every university. I'll bet Dr. DeLong teaches it well, too. Let me know when you get a telecourse set up, Doc! :-) (Preferably, under $100. ;-)) (It can be "no credit." :-))

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 13, 2003 03:03 PM

One good reason to study the history of economics is to prevent the "history of economics" from being imposed upon you. As example, the quickest way to see whether a textbook is serious about the
subject is to look up the context of the
"dismal science" tag. If it says "Malthus's wage theory", welcome to the information cascade.

Another good reason to see alternatives to modern practice. a) Adam Smith and other classics seemed to work what what Galton would call a median -- not a mean -- for welfare considerations. b) Smith argued that trade requires something which looks a lot like language. a&b would make
Smith attractive to Chomsky. I learned to see b
from Stigler.

Posted by: David Levy on February 15, 2003 05:11 PM

I have up in my room a quote from the end of Issac Newton's book De Moto, where he concludes that all the planets attract one another, but that to figure out how they attract one another, and to devise a simple way of measuring the strength of the attraction, is probably beyond the ability of all Humankind. Within 2 years, Newton himself was to give us the Law of Gravity.

A friend (whom I like, but whose intelligence I disrespect) asked me about the quote and I explained Newton's struggle to understand the motion of the planets, his moment of despair at the end of De Moto, his triumph 2 years later, and my own imaginings of what must have changed in his head during those two years.

I swear to god, after he thought about it a moment, my friend remarked, "They really weren't stupid back then, they were just as smart as us. They just didn't know as much as we do."

They're as smart as us! Rather, I would say, Newton was a good bit smarter than I'll ever be!

Apparently for my friend the thought that those people, from way back then, could be as smart as us, was a new idea. Meanwhile Newton said "If it seems like I've come far, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants," which was his praise for Copernicus and Galileo.

I don't know of any formal study that has established a connection between intelligence and an interest in history, but it seems to me that those people whose thinking I really respect tend also to respect the intellectual giants of the past.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on February 19, 2003 06:21 PM

I had a craving for books and magazines and news of any kind in the 80s when I was growing up, and it lasted into the early 90s. Like my folks, I was happy to subscribe to certain magazines (Scientific American, Harvard Business Review) and save every copy, just as they had saved every copy of National Geographic. They had a complete library of every issue of the Geograpic from 1952 to 2002. I thought I'd build a similar library. I also had a rule to never sell or get rid of any book.

Around 1995 I changed my mind. Most of my friends had personal libraries full of interesting stuff, and there were the public libraries where I could go and look stuff up. Also, the World Wide Web was taking off. So I decided to give away all of my books. I guess I had about a thousand. I gave away a bunch that year, and more in 1996, and the last of them in 1997. Books weigh a lot and I prefer to live light.

I've found I have not missed them. When I need to look up a quote, I go to the library. And having a rule that says that I must give away every book that I buy has, I've found, made me more self-disciplined about writing down all the quotes that I want to keep. Which is really what one should do. As Machiavelli says, "And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work ..."

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on February 19, 2003 06:58 PM

As far as the history of thought goes, I would start with Aquinas, and then work my way forward - remember that the Summa Theologica is online, and has a search function ;)

As far as Machiavelli goes, remember that he wrote The Prince to get a job. The Discourses is probably a better assessment of what he actually thought (although his letter to the Pope on how to stuff the ballot box in Florence is a hoot).

Do not neglect old thinkers ; you can often get useful perspective.

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on April 30, 2003 05:21 AM

PM:
The guy you're looking for is Samuel Johnson. I can't get you the citation because I'm at work, but it's in one of his essays.

Posted by: C.J. Colucci on May 23, 2003 09:11 AM

Brad - In your "History of Economic Thought" you say that in because of Marxism "more than a billion people were doomed to even deeper poverty for more than a generation". Deeper than whom? Not El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia and the rest of the capitalist periphery. The Soviet bloc had a far higher standard of living than most capitalist countries in the 60s to 80s. The Marxist Soviet Union subsidized its colonies; the capitalists exploit theirs.

Posted by: Mike Fahey on May 31, 2003 12:07 PM
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