Edmund Burke on Learning from Past Errors

Perhaps more than any great thinker, Edmund Burke is associated with history— especially the traditions and institutions it hands down. But he also recognized the value of history as a teacher by example:

Michael Oakeshott on Individualized Reason

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was a political philosopher who was known both for his general theorizing and for his interpretations of other thinkers, especially Thomas Hobbes. The quotation below comes from a book of essays on Hobbes (Hobbes on Civil Association) first published in 1975 and again by Liberty Fund Inc. in 2000.

Thomas Jefferson on Slavery and the Wrath of God

In the lines of this quotation, Thomas Jefferson touches on certain core ideas about what the best life for the individual is, and what the moral order of nature demands ethically. It was these aspects of his thinking that never allowed him to make peace with the institution of slavery.

Edmund Burke on Scarcity, Wage Subsidies, and the Abuse of Power

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity represents Burke’s most developed commentary on economics and the role of the state in the economic realm. His broad agreement with Adam Smith on such matters has often been noted, including by Burke himself. Written as a response to a proposal for wage subsidies for agricultural workers, Thoughts and Details prompted Burke to consider the broader problems that arise when the state ceases to be content with broadly managing the “truly and properly public” affairs of the nation, and inserts itself into the mundane and daily lives of the people.

Alexander Hamilton on the Civil Balance of Power

This quotation from Alexander Hamilton at the Federal Convention—where amid the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation the Framers drafted and debated the U.S. Constitution—speaks to the difficulty of forming a national government that can adequately defend the interests of all parts of civil society.

Adam Ferguson on Democracy

In Part 1, Sect. 2, of An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Adam Ferguson reflects on Democracy:

John Calhoun and the Unchecked Majority

The most recognizable element of John Calhoun’s political theory is its anti-majoritarianism. But he did not simply articulate the obvious possibility of a majority dominating a minority. He also explained how unchecked majority rule disfigures political life.

Hugo Grotius on civil right being derived from civil power

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch scholar and jurist whose legal masterpiece, De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the law of war and peace) (1625), contributed significantly to our understanding of natural law, rights, and to the formation of international law as a distinct discipline.

Israel Kirzner on the Individual and the Market

For most of history, in most places, individual human beings lived under undignified circumstances measured by the standards of modern Western societies. Not only have they lived in the most abject poverty, but also under oppressive social norms, again, if measured by today’s Western perspective. The development of a free society (in opposition to the existence of freedom for some classes of individuals in a still oppressive regime) is a modern phenomenon. Arguably, a free society may be distinguished from its opposite when its predominant form of human collaboration happens in the market, or as Israel Kirzner puts it:

Hayek on Spontaneous Order and the Division of Labor

The application of the method of natural sciences to social sciences has been fraught with errors since the scientific method was first made explicit about half a millennia ago. The impossibility of an objective observation of social phenomena such as “justice,” for example, has led many to conclude that it does not exist. Similar epistemological limitations of positivism have led many to identify a market economy as “chaotic,” since they fail to observe the existing (social) order generated by the price mechanism by making possible the complex collaboration among the individuals in society. F. A. Hayek puts it as following:

Buddha on Wandering Rightly in the World

Many of the Buddha’s sermons emphasized clear vision, as in this quotation from The Gospel of Buddha (1915 edition):

George Washington on the Whiskey Rebellion and the Pardon Power

Few writers today consider the disturbances around the imposition of the 1791 excise tax on Whiskey to have been a serious challenge to the authority of the newly constituted government under the US Constitution, but that was not the impression of the first President’s Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The resistance to and noncompliance with the excise arose early in the failure of excise officers to collect from far flung distillers in the west located for the most part in the Appalachian backcountry, and here, mostly in Pennsylvania’s western counties where nearly a fourth of the country’s whiskey distilleries were situated.

Shaftesbury on Truth as the Most Powerful Thing in the World

The quotation that follows comes from a letter written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury to Lord Sommers, a leading Whig jurist and statesman. The quotation appears at the beginning of the letter to Lord Sommers which is generally a defense of enthusiasm:

Adam Smith on Admiration of the Rich and Powerful

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments lays out the way Smith believes we learn (and build) systems of morality. For Smith, people learn to be moral through the development of a moral sense. Beginning in childhood and through repeated experience, we develop rules for how to behave based on our reactions to each other. Over time, these rules form guidelines for proper conduct and morality. Smith says that we want others to react with sympathy to our actions, and that we enjoy sympathizing with the reactions of others. Because our moral system is based on observation of others, says Smith, it encourages a preference for observable traits. Because “it is agreeable to sympathize with joy” (TMS I.iii.1.5), people tend to look favourably on those whose lives seem pleasant. Because they look favourably on such circumstances, they seek them for themselves so that others will look favourably upon them, too. In contrast, it’s unpleasant to sympathize with sorrow, and for strangers, who cannot offer the comfort of friendship, to witness our pain or misfortune. Smith believes that this encourages us to look with undue approbation on those whose success and status are obvious to the world, and to hide in shame when we are in poverty or misfortune. In Part 1, section 3, chapter 3 of Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith writes:

Adam Ferguson on Factional Quarrels

In Part 1, Sect. 4, of An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Adam Ferguson reflects on the persistence of factions and divisions within society:

Adam Smith on Inequality Between the Rich and the Poor

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In the opening of his discussion Of the Expence of Justice in Book V of Wealth of Nations, Smith discusses the requirements for the administration of justice in the different levels of societal development, defined by Smith as hunter-gatherer, shepherd/pastoral, agricultural, and commercial societies. Most people are not violent towards one another, says Smith, since there’s little benefit to violence against another person unless you’ve been seized by violent passions. Most people, most of the time, aren’t governed by violent passions. Violence against property is a different matter: when a thief steals, they gain the stolen property as well as injuring the person who loses it. In a hunter-gatherer society or a society of shepherds, there is little property to defend. And so, once property starts to be established, more resources are required to administer justice. He writes, in Book 5, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations,

Adam Smith, Selfishness, and Sympathy

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments with this famous opening paragraph:

Adam Smith on Happiness, Tranquility, and Enjoyment

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In Part III, chapter 3 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses how people deal with misfortune and hardship. It is part of human nature, claims Smith, that when someone experiences a permanent misfortune—for example, the loss of a leg—it does not follow that the suffering they experience at the time of that misfortune is also permanent. People tend to adjust to their “new normal”, assuming it can’t be changed.

Milton Friedman and the Free Society

In 1845, the Great Famine began in Ireland. It lasted until 1852. As a consequence of that natural disaster, it is estimated that about one million Irish died and another million immigrated during those years. The British government, which was the sovereign of Ireland at that time, did too little, too late to prevent that human tragedy. Its inaction was influenced, allegedly, by a Malthusian worldview. The following generations would sap support for laissez-faire policies and the individualist conceptions of human flourishing justifying them. As noted by Milton Friedman quoting AV Dicey**:

Vera Smith on Central Banking and the Scottish System

Vera Smith, in her 1936 book, The Rationale of Central Banking and the Free Banking Alternative, not only discussed the historical and intellectual evolution of the idea of central banking in the economies of England, USA, France, and Germany, she also explored the alternatives. In her book, she proposes the idea of free banking as an alternative to the increasing centralization in banking in those countries. Furthermore, Smith highlighted the case of the Scottish banking system for good part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1716-1845) as an actual historical example of free banking:

John Calhoun on Unchecked Majorities

The most recognizable element of John Calhoun’s political theory is its anti-majoritarianism. But he did not simply articulate the obvious possibility of a majority dominating a minority. He also explained how unchecked majority rule disfigures political life.

Adam Smith on money as an instrument of commerce as well as a measure of value

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith opens his discussion of the mercantile system, which takes up most of Book IV of Wealth of Nations, with the following paragraph:

Adam Smith on Religion and the Rules of Morality

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses the development of moral rules. In Smith’s account, moral rules result from a “habitual reverence” (III.5.2), a deep feeling of respect learned and strengthened over time by seeing and feeling the socially appropriate moral reactions to behaviour and misbehaviour in a given society.

Vera Smith on How the Civil War Changed the US Banking System

Vera Smith wrote her doctoral dissertation under the supervision of F.A. Hayek, at the London School of Economics, and that became the basis for her 1936 book on the rationale for central banking and the free banking alternative. Her work describes the historical and intellectual landmarks along the paths by which the banking systems of major economies (England, the USA, France, and Germany) evolved from the late eighteenth century on into the direction of greater centralization. She also discusses the path not taken, that is, the free banking alternative as evidenced by the Scottish experience. A common theme in her accounts of the event leading to greater centralization in finances is the relevance of fiscal necessities in order to explain that trend. A good example of that is the case of the United States during the Civil War:

Adam Smith on consumption as the only end and purpose of production

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In Book IV of Wealth of Nations, Smith explores two different systems of political economy, beginning with the mercantile system. Mercantilism was the reigning political ideology of Smith’s day, and the one against which he argues in this book. (When Smith refers to “the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain” (26 October 1780, Letter from Adam Smith to Andreas Holt), the attack is Wealth of Nations and the commercial system in question is mercantilism.) In Smith’s conclusion of the Book IV discussion of the mercantile system, he explains why it is so wrongheaded: