« September 2016 | Main | November 2016 »

October 2016 posts

Discussion of Kant and classical liberalism at Cato Unbound

Mark D. White

KantUpon generous invitation, earlier this month I helped launch a conversation at Cato Unbound regarding whether or to what extent Immanuel Kant can or should be regarded as a classical liberal.

The entire discussion can be found here, starting with my lead article in defense of Kant as a classical liberal, followed by critical responses from Gregory Salmieri, Stephen R. C. Hicks, and Roderick T. Long, followed by my response to all three comments and further discussion (still continuing through the end of the month.

Paul Romer on Moral Culture

By Jonathan B. Wight

Paul Romer is the World Bank’s new Chief Economist.  Romer is noted for his work on economic growth and specifically endogenous growth theory—the idea that the factors shifting up a nation’s aggregate production function (yes, this concept is abstract fiction) can be identified and to some extent shaped by public policy.

Foremost among these policies are those affecting human capital, like education and health, which have been the mantra of the World Bank for a decade at least. 


Romer and the Bank president Jim Kim have an interesting video that outlines the Bank’s thinking and approach going forward.  Several points stick out.  First, the WB is continuing its push for interdisciplinary approaches, asking economists to work with anthropologists and psychologists and others to understand the world we live in.

Culture—and particularly moral culture (the social norms that dictate what we value and how we behave in specific settings)—are hugely important according to Romer.  This is something the members of the Association for Social Economics have been saying since 1941. 

Glad that some mainstream folks are catching on, but Romer now considers himself an outsider and heterodox after his recent blasting attack on macroeconomics

Economics is progressing, slowly and painfully, to a more respectable science.

Ethics of War and Wall Street

By Jonathan B. Wight

Nathaniel B. Davis has a provocative piece in the NY Times, “If War Can Have Ethics, Wall Street Can, Too.”

He observes that free market proponents argue that the market is amoral but this is an impossibility when you are dealing with human interaction.  In practice, Wall Street has drifted into immorality, most recently revealed by Wells Fargo. 

Davis is Director of Defense and Strategic Studies at West Point.  He notes that even in the ugliness of war, humanity has lifted itself by agreeing to standards of moral conduct, such as for the treatment of prisoners and the non-use of chemical weapons.  This may seem like a minor matter, and rogue nations may of course abuse these conventions. 

One example he does not raise is that of the United States, which through impunity holds prisoners at Guantanamo for decades without trial or without even charges brought.  The legal loopholes through which we dance look shallow and provide moral ammunition to our enemies, in my opinion.  But more to the point, the usefulness of the rules of engagement is overshadowed by their rightness in a Kantian sense.

Davis unfortunately repeats the canard that Smith’s invisible hand somehow meant everything would automatically work for the better, regardless of institutions or ethics. Readers of this blog know that Smith thought justice was the main pillar of society, and individuals would need to develop self-control as a means for creating a just society.  Moreover, people would need to develop an internal moral compass, exactly that described by Davis as necessary in war (where a soldier must resist orders that are immoral).

There’s a lot to ponder in this excellent essay.