Friday, June 12, 2009

Personal econ--natural law--Adam Smith

Personal economics--Natural law--Adam Smith
Newton convinced us forever that the interactions between particles are governed by natural law. The man most responsible for convincing intellectuals, at least, that there is a possibility that interactions between individuals is also governed by natural law is Adam Smith. Of course, scripture has always told us that interactions between people is governed by law, but many do not believe in scripture; therefore, Adam Smith’s contribution is mighty.
Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy in Scotland. Effectively that meant that his job was to teach young men, many, if not most, of whom were planning for careers in the ministry, that living by the Christian moral code is not only the good thing to do, but also that it is also the smart thing to do. He wrote a book outlining his ideas on the subject that was an enormous "hit" with the intellectuals of Europe. People rather liked books on morality and ethics in those days.
His book made such a big impression that an English noble decided that he, Adam Smith, was the best man he could hire to take his son and his ward on what was then called "The grand tour" of Europe. So Adam Smith went all over Europe with his young students in tow. And everywhere they went, they met with intellectuals who were eager to meet the author of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". For his part, Adam Smith became convinced that there were good people in every country and, therefore, the precepts of Christian morality should be applied across national boundaries. Of course, he knew that if he wrote a book expressing this idea in the same way that it was expressed in his first book, that it would be so much waste paper. So he decided, I believe, to write a book rather like Newton’s, that is, one relying heavily on data and mathematical analysis.
In doing this, Adam Smith effectively founded the social science of economics. Most economists essentially follow his method, that is, they collect data and analyze it using logic and mathematics, and from that analysis draw conclusions. But while most economists follow his methods, most also disagree radically with his conclusions, something we will explore in coming blogs.
His achievement was remarkable. He showed that gold and wealth are not synonymous. He demonstrated that a free economy is not a "zero sum" society, i. e. one man’s gain is not another man’s expense. He made clear that "getting along" is a major key to wealth, because it allows each man to do what he does best and, depend on others to do likewise. This is in fact a major key to wealth. The other key is that thrift and saving allow men to get better and better tools; hence, increasing their productivity and ultimately, their material well-being.
He concluded from all this that men’s long term interests are in harmony. He believed in a system of natural liberty for all men and that such a system would greatly multiply their wealth. Finally, he believed that ordinary individuals could be trusted to manage their own affairs as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others.
The first famous person to use Adam Smith’s methods and quote his work, but who disagreed radically with his conclusions, was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton believed strongly that ordinary men are incapable of being trusted with their own affairs and hence, must be directed, even controlled, by their superiors.
I believe that Adam Smith’s insights and those who followed him with similar beliefs can be very helpful to us as individuals to understand and even to live by the natural law. We will explore some of the ways in future blogs.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Personal econ--Natural law, Newton

Personal Econ--Natural Law, Newton
Isaac Newton gave us modern science. He took the work of his forerunners, Galileo and Kepler, stripped them of their sarcasm and mysticism, respectively, added his own remarkable insight, and gave us the book that launched modern science. At the end of his book, he adds a postscript in which he explains his motivation. There were problems with the theory of vortices--the theory with which Des Carte had attempted to explain the universe. The problems, Newton claimed, stemmed more from Des Carte’s philosophy than from his science or his mathematics. He failed to recognize that God is a governor and, as such is interested in the affairs of those over whom he has governance.
The French, predictably, did not care for Newton’s explanation. After all, the French and the English did not get along. Rather than admit that their objections were political, they attempted, as is so often the case, to show that Newton’s work was unscientific. Newton, they claimed had the universe held together by a "perpetual miracle". The "miracle" was the "action at a distant" force, gravity. We no longer consider "action at a distance" miraculous, because, it is necessary to our understanding of science. Einstein was able, in a way, to eliminate the Newtonian miracle, but his efforts to do so with the similar miracle of Gauss, Faraday, and Maxwell was not so successful.
In my history of science class, our teacher referred to Des Cartes theory, admittedly, somewhat derisively as "the whirlpool theory". It is my conviction that when we attempt to eliminate God as a governor, we wind up with a lot of "whirlpool-like" theories, i. e. theories that sound plausible enough but when applied the results are most unsatisfactory. This is particularly true in the field of economics.
It was, in my opinion, Adam Smith’s belief that interpersonal relationships between men was subject to law, what we call natural law, in the same way that the relationship of physical matter is subject to law. In writing "the Wealth of Nations" , he attempted to explicate some of those laws.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Personal Economics--Natural Law--I

Personal Economics--Natural Law
I have decided that for the next little while, I will explore the uses of economics in our personal lives, beginning with a discussion of natural law.
My boss often says that he hates stupid people. When exploring his meaning I have discovered that what he really means is that he is annoyed when people who do things that are important to him differently than he would do them. This leads to an intriguing question, "Is there always one right way to do things?" More important, "Is there a best way to behave?" The answer to both questions touches, I believe, on the question of natural law.
Of course, most men believe in natural law governing physical phenomena, that is, they acknowledge the absolute "law governing thing", but as soon as we seek out the "law governing man" there is a wide spread divergence.
Our fore-fathers believed that in the Scripture they had found the rule book of life, i. e. the natural laws governing conduct were laid out. For the most part those rules are rather strict and have never been particularly popular. As Jesus said, the way is strait and only a few bother to travel it. Those who choose self-indulgence, can usually find an excuse in the fact that many of those who profess belief do not follow the rules themselves. Or they may choose to be disbelievers. With the exceptions outlined later, disbelief itself is a form of self-indulgence, since it allows the disbeliever to pick and choose his rules, since there is no way that rules of human conduct can be derived from those governing physical phenomena.
It is a personal conviction that all understanding of real law, helps us as individuals to overcome the temptation to self-indulgence. So I will be exploring the ideas of how an understanding of economics can help us in that way. But I begin, in the next installment by looking first at a natural law philosopher who, I believe, was an important inspiration to the father of economics, Adam Smith, namely Isaac Newton.