I Trust You

Lesson in Freedom

By Jonathan B. Wight

Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and The Sunday Philosophy Club series among other things.

My current read is 44 Scotland Street, which was written on a whim as a newspaper serial.  The author’s interest in philosophy and ethics appears in various plots and twists.  Who owns the property rights to a potentially valuable painting that was mistakenly given away to a charity event and then bought by Ian Rankin?  I won’t give away the answer. 

Meanwhile, “Big Lou,” the proprietress of a local coffee bar in Edinburgh, finds herself having to teach a young university student a thing or two about ethics and freedom:

“The problem was that some people preached social philosophies that paid no attention to reality.…  It was perfectly possible to portray scientific knowledge as socially determined – and therefore not true in any real sense – when one was safe on the ground in Paris; but would you ask the same question in a jet aircraft at 35,000 feet, when that same knowledge underpinned the very engineering that was keeping one up in the air?  By the same token, French philosophers have been able to admire Mao and his works because they did not have to live in China at a time.  And they knew, too, that what they preached would never be put into effect.…

“But the young man had laughed and turned to the reading of a magazine.…  [Big Lou] had remained silent and merely gone to the door and locked it, discreetly.  Ten minutes or so later the young man got up to leave … and had tried the handle of the door.  When he realized it was locked, he had to turned her and demanded that she let him out, which she had done.

“He had looked indignant, as she had taken her time to walk to the door and unlock it.  So might the jailor in a prison swagger to his task.  And as she and opened the door for him she said: ‘You’re a university student, aren’t you?  I’ve never been that…. But don’t you think that I’ve just been able to teach you a lesson about freedom?’”

This is what's called "active teaching"!  It does get the attention of students.

In my own life as an undergraduate student I admired the writings of Mao and the bold vision for transformation.  In studying Latin American economic development, it was easy to revere (on paper) the gumption of Castro in overthrowing the corrupt Batista. My time of awakening came when doing field work in Brazil for my dissertation, and the intrusive corruption of big government was painfully oppressive and clearly destructive of productivity and economic justice.

There had to be a better way, which is not laissez faire and not command and control.  How to navigate that unhappy middle ground is best described by Dani Rodrik in his various works such as One Economics: Many Recipes.  It’s a messy world of politics and path-dependency.  Daylight is provided by the clear and brave theorizing of someone like Milton Friedman (advocating for a floating currency, for example, back in the mid-1960s) or John Maynard Keynes in the 1930. 

Policies are often adopted in the midst of crisis, and the ethical practicality of many proposals are overlooked in the political sound bites.  Trump’s “let’s ban all Muslims” proposal strikes me as one such proposal that pays no attention to reality.  We may see many more.  In the meantime, back to reading novels for inspiration and philosophy!


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Excellent, Jonathan!

This reminds me of my first week in undergraduate labor economics. When my instructor (Chicago PhD, 1976) drew a conventional demand-and-supply graph and said it would describe the market for labor, I knew we were in for a long semester. I wonder if he'd have done so if he'd ever participated in a real-world labor market...

Hi Jonas,
Yes, particularly labor markets! In standard theory a worker can determine the number of hours worked per week. But jobs come as discrete lumps of labor commitments. Cheers, Jonathan

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