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Smith, Sen and Becker — an aside

Taking a bit of a breather from writing projects to comment on some of the more esoteric stuff I am learning as I explore the world of Adam Smith for a paper I hope will be ready for presentation in a month. The problem I have when engaging in this kind of research is that I get distracted by the material I stumble on while seeking more background. I’ve never been one to avoid diving into a subject I know very little about, and as a result I am constantly finding it necessary to take ten steps back into the literature in order to move one or two steps forward.

In this case, working on Smith has been leading back to studies of 18th century thought, and especially that period we find in all our basic history books: the Enlightenment. It is not that I come at this without any knowledge at all — after all, any US political scientist, especially if they’ve studied or written about the Constitution, has developed at least a superficial sense of Enlightenment thought. But learning more about the political and intellectual atmospherics of the day is really eye-opening.

Two current reads that have me pleasantly distracted, one very recent and the other a work from the 1930s.

The newbie is Amartya Sen’s recently published “The Idea of Justice.” What attracted me to this was the fact that last year Sen wrote articles and gave speeches that celebrated or drew attention to the fact that 2009 was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. (I actually got to attend Sen’s presentation in Glasgow last April, but my hearing was so bad by then that I could not really enjoy it; fortunately, his comments are about to be published in some online journal and the major points are in the book.) When the Idea of Justice came out late in 2009, I grabbed a copy — which then sat until a month ago when I found time to dig in. Well worth the read, especially for a distinction he makes between two approaches to justice that emerge from the Enlightenment. One approach, essentially rooted in Hobbesian social contract theory, he terms “transcendental” for its emphasis on perfecting justice through institutional arrangements, has been the more prominent perspective given its adoption by the likes of Rousseau, Kant and (today) Rawls. The alternative, for which he gives Smith significant credit, he terms the “comparative approach,” and he offers it as the perspective he favors for fostering justice through “realizations”.

As Sen points out, the distinction between the two threads of the Enlightenment has been there for all to see, but never really highlighted — a task he performs effectively in this book.

The older book throws a different light on the Enlightenment: Carl Becker’s 1932 Yale lectures published under the not so sexy title of “The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers.” I came across this book initially because of Becker’s concept of “magic words”, which was similar to the concept of “keywords” used by cultural studies folks — but when I started to read for context to see how he was using that phrase, I was hooked. What a brilliantly written book, and one that offers a distinctive view of the Enlightenment that challenges our textbook notions and throws an entirely different light on the writings of the period. Bottom line: the Enlightenment is best regarded as the last gasps of Medieval thought rather than as the first breaths of modern thought. What we have here, perhaps, is the beginning of the critical theory/postmodern perspective — coming from a scholar whose best known work has been on American intellectual history.

My task now is to somehow make a viable point of all this as it relates to Adam Smith…. Back to work. ?

March 27th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

A major regret…

When I attended graduate school at Colorado-Boulder from 1968-1974, Kenneth Boulding was in the economics department and associated with some institute on campus. Although I did take a seminar in development economics, I now regret not having reached out to him or taken a course form him — his work on The Image played a major role in my dissertation research. But at the time there was only one seminar he offered regularly — I cannot recall its subject or title, but it had one text: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. I suspect I might have avoided that course because reading Smith did not seem relevant at the time….

Fast forward a quarter century (plus) later and I find myself undetaking a “close reading” of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). I had given it a superficial read years ago, and more recently have focused on certain sections and the secondary literature; but this close reading exercise is really deepening my appreciation of Smith as a significant social theorist whose contributions in that role are little known or appreciated.

I have to admit that, were I given the opportunity to teach a doctoral level course on the theory of accountability and governance (can’t do that now since we have no PhD students at UNH) I would emulate Boulding by working off of a single Smith text, but my selection would be TMS…

June 11th, 2009 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Indignation and politics — Obama’s tone….

Maureen Dowd‘s column this AM is an interesting dialogue in which she (with assist from Aaron Sorokin) is able to give advice via a rant by fictional “The West Wing” President Josiah Bartlet. I think they have it half right — what Obama needs to do, they imply, is to ratchet up the current, more angry tone of his campaign rhetoric. But I think they are misreading that tone….

In recent weeks Obama has shifted from inspirational orator to a classroom lecturer and, most recently, to a lecturer with the capacity to toss in some good one-liners that are certainly designed for the sound-bite hungry mass media. The “tonal” nature of these presentations is not (as Dowd/Sorokin think) anger, but rather indignation — a much more suitable approach for a person who cannot afford to be seen as angry if he is to succeed in this campaign.

The line between anger and indignation is often a very thin one. (Wikipedia, in fact, treats the two as synonymous.) McCain crossed that line to (I think) good effect for his campaign in his “I’d fire him” (in reference to SEC chair Cox) speech this past week. This is the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” approach made famous in Paddy Chayefsky‘s “Network” (listen here), and it is a real crowd pleaser when coming from McCain.

But Obama can’t really cross that line without seeming to fall off the perch he constructed that differentiated him from the widely held image of the “Raised Fist” angry black American (thanks to friend Domonic for highlighting that image…). Nor can he become too steeped in the image of the stand-up comic who can deliver a zinger and get a laugh — another image that knocks him off the elevated platform as the “leader (change) we need” that he has been able to construct over the months. Rather, he has to maintain a tone of serious indignation about what’s being said about him (something he is doing well at the moment with the well crafted one-liners) as well as what is happening in the country (“enough is enough” seems to have done the trick there).

The power of indignation and similar “reactive attitudes” is of serious consequence in our social and political lives — a view implied in 18th century Scottish Enlightenment examination of “moral sentiments” [David Hume (see here)Adam Smith (see here) and all that) and articulated most effectively by 20th century British philosopher PF Strawson (read here). It is central to our sense of being accountable — and drives the central role of accountability in politics, governance and all sorts of others social endeavors. For present purposes, it can be used to sharpen a campaign that needs to keep moving forward….

September 21st, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Choosing accountability….

I have been so focused on various papers recently that blogging is something I have not even considered a third level priority. But the most challenging of my recent efforts is now over — and I am pretty comfortable with the next two or three projects. So I will at least give some thought to blogging intermittently.

The recent paper started as one thing and ended up another. The task was to explore the use of accountability mechanisms in response to global financial problems (of which there are plenty); but the task quickly turned into a paper on why accountability tends to emerge as the reform-of-choice in almost every policy choice situation. Having become convinced that the concept of accountability is today more a rhetorical (rather than functional) policy artifact — more an icon designed to generate acquiescence than to bring about some useful ends — I started to wonder why it is the first (almost knee-jerk) option mentioned whenever someone discusses a governance problem to be solved. It just makes no sense — at least if you assume we are rational animals (which, of course, I do not).

July 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments