Boudreaux On Scottish Enlightenment

Two snippets here are a good reminder that the fundamental engine of the economy is the human dynamo reacting with his fellows and some how creating wealth. Attempting to construct an economic framework on those foundations is a little like laying foundations on the beach. It looks pretty, but everyone soon discovers you are out of your mind.

A conservative is a person who has made economic plans, organized great manipulations and the like and lo, has discovered it was all founded on the sands of human dynamics over which control is impossible.

A liberal is one who has eschewed great plans and manipulations and retains a childlike faith in economic edifices peddled by soothsayers. He is merely in need of experience, and fairly, this is exactly why it is unusual for a true liberal ever to be given access to power. All sense the simple lack of experience.

It is nice to be reminded of the impact of the Scottish enlightenment which still echoes today. For those who do not know, a bunch of Scottish Calvinists about 1700 took it in their minds that every plowboy needed to learn to read and write so as to participate fully in the study of the bible. This created a wave of demand for knowledge that caused a blossoming of the Scottish Universities and inspired the creation of the modern curriculum. Out of all this came Adam Smith and and David Hume and James Watt and all that. Now you know who to blame for lifting our ancestors out of peonage and creating the process that is obviously continuing to this day.

More Enlightement from Adam Smith (by Don Boudreaux)

Posted: 13 Apr 2009 11:33 AM PDT

Here's a letter that I sent yesterday to the Times of London:

American conservatives have their own reasons for opposing Barack Obama's gigantic agenda ("
Right's rage at overbearing Obama," April 12). Some of these reasons are more sensible than others. But I offer here a deeper reason to worry about Mr. Obama's hyperactivity; it is a reason identified exactly 250 years ago by Adam Smith in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections, as well as that of every other part of nature, seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding.*

No person, regardless of I.Q. or office, can possibly possess more than an infinitesimal amount of the knowledge of reality necessary for the successful carrying out of 'plans' such as those offered by Mr. Obama. Society best advances when each of us is free to pursue our own individual goals in our own ways, with government doing no more than protecting each of us from the predations and officious ambitions of others.It is preposterous to suppose that Mr. Obama (or anyone else) can know enough to oversee the automobile industry and the banking industry, to lead the creation of "green jobs," to remake medical-care provision, and to do any of the other ambitious tasks on his agenda. Each of those matters is light years outside of "the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding."

Sincerely,Donald J. Boudreaux

* Adam Smith,
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1976 [1759]), p. 375.

On the Scottish Enlightenment (by Don Boudreaux)

Posted: 13 Apr 2009 09:43 AM PDT

Here's a letter that I sent recently to the Wall Street Journal:

Bravo to the letter writers who challenge Thomas Frank's denigration of "eighteenth-century man" (
Letters, April 11). The 18th century gave us history's most momentous advance in the social sciences. I speak here of the Scottish Enlightenment, led by David Hume and Adam Smith. These thinkers were the first fully to grasp the fact that complex and productive social order emerges from - and can emerge only from - millions upon millions of individual actions of countless persons, each of whom aims to achieve only very localized goals. These Enlightened Scots taught us not only that a peaceful and productive society requires no great planner or overseer, but also that efforts to enthrone any such planner or overseer inevitably lead to poverty and tyranny.

Alas, far too many twenty-first century men, such as Mr. Frank, remain insufficiently astute to learn this lesson.

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