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Who Dare Say They Have Found A Free Market?

November 8, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.


At the 2018 Left Forum at John Jay College in New York City, the economist Michael Hudson made a bold claim. He proposed that when Adam Smith wrote of free markets in the his literary classic, The Wealth of Nations, he was not referring to a market free from government oversight, but rather his view of a free market was one that meant free from monopolies. I was left with the natural response of...."wait, really?" And I knew that I had to investigate more. Thus, we begin our examination of free markets and the vision of Adam Smith.

To begin, while Adam Smith is almost certainly more well-known for his work, The Wealth of Nations, he was also the author of a previous book, The Theory of Moral Sentiment. Through exploration of even the most simple biographies, it is evident that Smith wanted to be known not only for his insight into economics, but also as a moral philosopher. The Wealth of Nations is a particular work where Adam Smith attempted to find common ground between the uses of capitalism and the moral betterment of humanity. Thus, in short achieving a system where trade could occur freely but not conducted in an immoral way.

Michael Hudson is the celebrated author of J is for Junk Economics, and a self-proclaimed debt historian. In addition, to the claim he made regarding Adam Smith and the free markets, he expanded his statement by saying that since the time of the palace economies, the concept of a strong public sector is what moves a civilization forward. If the private sector becomes too large and too powerful, it can move the public sector to its advantage. This allows for oligarchy to propagate. While that statement comes at the issue from a strong perspective, Adam Smith addressed a similar issue in the first book of The Wealth of Nations, for it appears Smith's most pressing issue regarding markets was free trade. It would be impossible to have a system of free trade if a monopoly holds all the power to trade. The monopoly would dominate the market, and concepts such as price competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship would be impossible.

Noam Chomsky is also very critical of how Adam Smith is interpreted in the 21st Century. The term "free market" is used frequently in contemporary political discussions, but Chomsky also highlights a particular issue with one of Smith's more famous phrases: The Invisible Hand. It is true that Smith used the term invisible hand, but it does not refer to an outside power that can manipulate markets. Smith's statement on the invisible hand, which occurs about midway through the dense volume, is a prediction that home bias will occur in economic decision making. What it refers to is that when capital markets are conducting trade and activities, there will be a rather expected preference given to the traders and actors within one's home community. Perhaps a modern day example of this is "Buy Local" or "Support Local Farmers." Smith made the proposition that it would be as if they were protected by an invisible hand.

Chomsky highlights one other particular issue regarding Adam Smith and the free market. This revolves around Smith's interpretation of the division of labor. To illustrate, Smith was heavily opposed to the concept of unregulated and unrestricted access to business and corporate ability. If the private sector were ever to cross the line and institute practices that were harmful to human life, Smith believed that it was the responsibility of the government to step in and prevent such actions from becoming more heinous, tying into Hudson's statement that the private sector can move the public sector it its advantage. In short, Smith saw the need for government oversight and regulation, so that humans would not be exploited.

There is famous but casual expression, "economics is an art not a science." Some might challenge this by saying that it is a social science, and the writings of Adam Smith are somewhat in the middle. As previously mentioned, Adam Smith sought to apply the concept of moral philosophy to free trade. However, one of the most important things that Smith expresses in the early books of The Wealth of Nations appears to be that the human social element in economic thought must never be forgotten. In lighter terms, trade is a good thing. Unrestricted trade that causes a detriment to human life is not.

The term "free market" is used in the news on a frequent basis. After hearing Michael Hudson's presentation on markets, I knew that I wanted to explore this subject. It might sound strange, but I almost feel disappointed that I did not find too many areas of disagreement. However, to give some form of push back and after reading through Smith's (sometimes painfully) dense economic classic, it seems that the heart and soul of his focus was not on government regulation. Perhaps current political thinkers would jump at the chance to throw their hats behind Smith hearing that he was for regulation and against unrestricted capitalism, but it seems they will have to wait. From the writings of Adam Smith we can see that he was in favor of protecting human life and honoring the concept of community. His regard for the invisible hand is evidence of that and perhaps a sort of ideal that one could strive toward: trade and cooperation bringing people together, respect for one's own community, and a path to economic prosperity with a sense of fairness.

To respond to the statement that was asked at the beginning, it seems that it is partially correct. While it appears true that Adam Smith was opposed to monopolies blocking the possibilities of free trade, he was more concerned with economics benefiting as many people as possible, and that served as the heart of his issue. While in our present day and age a world where capitalism is conducted on a fair and moral basis with respect to humanity and the Earth might be difficult for many to imagine, but perhaps it is also fair to say that someone such as Adam Smith would not be deterred by challengers. In life one often has to strive toward the ideal. It may seem difficult or nearly impossible, but through the strides one learns along the journey.

Works Cited:

Chomsky, Noam. (n.d.). “Noam Chomsky on Adam Smith.” New York.
Hudson, Michael. (2017). J is for Junk Economics: a Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception. Place of publication not identified: Islet.
Hudson, Michael. (n.d.). Left Forum 2018. Left Forum 2018. New York.
Smith, Adam. (1981). The Wealth of Nations. London: Dent.

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Comedy Hour

October 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In a 2014 interview with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld says that he was inspired to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to play with a new format, something that could be viewed on a phone. This occurred to him at a time when recent changes to technology have really disbanded old-school structures in media. No longer must a sitcom, for example, be 22 minutes long with breaks for commercials. Rather, on-demand and streaming devices leave the show length up to writers, directors, and artists. Seinfeld says, “The show happening at the time that it did, and the internet and being able to watch things streaming, a few years ago, I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted - that gave me the freedom to do it.” While Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not a sitcom, but rather an interview, Seinfeld completely upends stereotypes. Camera angles move, cars drive the scenes, and interviews are chopped from three hours down to fifteen minutes.

During this same interview, Seinfeld relates the story of the show’s development. He explains that most of the tech-gurus steered him away from longer formats. They claimed that five minutes was a social-media breaking point and that the majority of people would not watch programs longer than five minutes. Seinfeld disregarded this advice in order to include all of the elements that he wanted to address. The show has no consistent length, but generally runs twelve to eighteen minutes. These edited interviews move between cars and coffeeshops. Seinfeld believes that since the show has no plot or narrative, the action must be artificially introduced. He says, “I think part of what makes the show watchable is that it’s moving. There’s an energy. When you have no narrative drive, you’re not telling a story, no one’s waiting to see what happens - we know they’re gonna get coffee, that’s the only story - you need a kinetic energy. So it’s like, take a talk show and make it move and make it outside and then maybe you could sit through the eleven or twelve minutes that it takes.” This is done via the car as well as moving into different locations. The show usually begins with a focus feature of the car for the episode, picked to match the comedian. Then, Seinfeld includes a phone-call invitation to coffee. After Seinfeld picks up his guest, the conversation is taped and then edited. They may choose scenes from the car, while walking, and while ordering and eating.

One of the most important aspects of comedy, for me at least, is the way that it resonates with so many people at one time. While anyone can be funny within the confines of their family or friends, it is much more difficult to craft a joke that grabs the diversity of a crowd. When discussing his previous television hit show Seinfeld, he explains the amount of years and experience that it takes to get to the point where jokes can be universal. Of course, a joke can capitalize on contemporary rhetoric, but it mostly has to do with rhythm, pacing, grammar, brevity, and timing. In short, it has to do with language.

During his 2017 Netflix stand-up routine Jerry Before Seinfeld, Seinfeld stands on a city street among a series of notes written on yellow legal pads. These notes are actually jokes that he spent years writing and perfecting. He begins with an idea, sketches it on paper, and crosses out bits that may not (or did not) work. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, he explains why a joke about cereal is funny with Nietzsche’s name included, but in the end, he cut out the part about Nietzsche because it wasn’t universal enough. "You're always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock," says Seinfeld. "I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter." Seinfeld labors over the rhythm of the words, their sound, the delivery and their brevity. Furthermore, in the Letterman interview Seinfeld compares a stand-up routine to a machine built. While the act has been carefully crafted and structured, it often appeals more when it sounds off-the-cuff.

The elements of movement, of unknown length, comedic focus, attention to craft, and diverse personalities all remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (I am guessing that you didn’t see that coming.) In truth, Chaucer knew all of those pointers and learned them the way that Seinfeld did – by trial and error. Chaucer read poetry in a small, private salon for much of his life in London, but rarely read in public. We consider him one of the first English poets, but truthfully, he combined so many elements that I hate to pin him to a single genre. He lived at a time in England when language was a mix of Latin, English, and French. Chaucer collected tropes and rhetoric from all three of these cultures in a way that was unique and universally appealing. In The Canterbury Tales, he often repeats a joke throughout an entire narrative. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” (one of the more humorous in the collection), Chaucer alludes to a variety of flowers when describing Alisoun. An awareness of this seemingly small detail sets up the ironic ending when, instead of smelling like flowers, Alisoun offers her backside and a nasty smelling toot to Absolon’s kiss. A key to Chaucer’s success with The Canterbury Tales is his effectual buildup of symbols which overemphasizes the ironic or humorous – the same is true of stand-up. In other words, Chaucer was playing with these ideas of stand-up comedy way back in the 1380s and 90s. As Seinfeld explained, it also took Chaucer most of his life to compile these jokes and organize them into the very appealing Canterbury Tales.

While I traditionally study language and literature, I have become increasingly interested in humor. Luckily for me, humor can now be formally studied through the Ideas for Inquiry at Harrison Middleton University. Scroll through the list of Ideas on our website for a sampling of what we offer!


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Words from a Stoic

September 20, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

This post is dedicated to Michael Francis Troy (October 3, 1940-August 3, 2019).

The important role that teachers play in students’ lives is well documented. As children move through school, teachers’ responsibilities include instruction, comfort, and guidance to young students. I can name a number of teachers who greatly influenced my thoughts and ideas and I am grateful for them all. However, as students age, they spend less and less time with teachers. While elementary school places a student with a single teacher for a full day, middle school, high school, and university move the student toward one-hour classes. This evolution is meant to make the student more responsible and independent. Also at this time, children often increase participation in extracurricular hobbies, whether it be sports, music, volunteer opportunities, or group activities. Oftentimes, the child will spend a great deal of time in these extracurricular activities, which means that they will interact with a coach or leader with higher frequency than with a typical teacher. These people bear such an incredible responsibility during the students’ very formative years, often filling the role of mentor and/or counselor.

As a student and athlete, I often identified with a stoic-like mentality, probably due to my own mentor. For this reason, I have chosen quotes from Epictetus as a way to celebrate and underscore the importance of those extra-special mentors in our lives, many of whom are volunteers. A society grows great because of leaders who give back to the community in these very meaningful, but often dismissed, roles. Thanks to all the mentors, coaches, music instructors, group leaders, volunteers, and counselors who inspire our youth!

All quotes are from Epictetus’ Discourses, Book III, (translated by George Long).


~ “Adorn your will, take away bad opinions.”

~ “The only contest into which he enters is that about things which are within the power of his will; how then will he not be invincible?”

~ “Do not desire many things, and you will have what you want.”

~ “Examine a little at last, look around, stir yourself up, that you may know who you are.”

~ “God says, ‘Give me proof that you have duly practiced athletics, that you have eaten what you ought, that you have been exercised….’ Then do you show yourself weak when the time for action comes? Now is the time for the fever. Let it be borne well. Now is the time for thirst, bear it well; now is the time for hunger, bear it well. Is it not in your power? Who shall hinder you? The physician will hinder you from drinking; but he cannot prevent you from bearing thirst well: and he will hinder you from eating; but he cannot prevent you from bearing hunger well.”

~ “Practice sometimes a way of living like a person out of health that you may at some time live like a man in health.”

~ “[I]t is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without being partaker of the soot himself.”

~ “[F]ix your opinions and exercise yourselves in them.”

~ “Correct the child, improve him. In this way even when we are grown up we are like children. For he who is unmusical is a child in music; he who is without letters is a child in learning; he who is untaught, is a child in life.”


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Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

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