Uneconomic Philosophizing


Welfare, Justice, and Freedom, by Scott Gordon, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, 232 pp., $17.50.

Gordon's political philosophizing shares a frustrating flaw with F.A. Hayek's: both men dismiss everyone they dislike by grouping them under a vague pejorative label—in Gordon, "Edenic philosophy"; in Hayek, "constructivist rationalism." For Gordon, Edenic philosophy includes religious faith, authoritarianism, utopianism, natural harmonism, and positivism. Among those in the fourth category, he explicitly includes Ayn Rand, Herbert Spencer, and Robert Nozick. Gordon's thesis is "that the problems which man faces as a social being cannot be solved, or even ameliorated, by Edenic thinking." Finding a common element among the diverse categories of Edenic thinking is not easy. Apparently what Gordon objects to in all of them is the belief that in some way human life can be improved. According to Gordon, man is "cursed"; "moral problems are insoluble by any method"; and "political activity" is the only way of "coping."

The book has small pages, generous margins, and large type. With so few words and such a broad thesis, only a highly disciplined pen, ruthlessly avoiding the irrelevant, could manage to go beyond banal generalities. Instead, Gordon allows himself the luxury of summarizing what Bentham thought about this or Knight thought about that. When he is not engaged in the sterile linguistic exercise of trying to find out what a word really means, he is name dropping from his list of leading intellectuals. The treatment he gives each thinker is so brief that at best it is superficial and at worst inaccurate (Rand, for example, is labeled an anarchist).

Gordon, you see, has yielded to a common temptation among prestigious academics—a temptation that it takes an uncommon man to resist. For several years he has taught a course at Indiana University on the political philosophy of economists. He has accumulated a large pile of lecture notes. When such a pile is seen by its creator late at night at just the right angle, it seems to resemble a book-length manuscript. The result is Welfare, Justice, and Freedom.

Occasionally Gordon presents a substantive argument, but more often his method is proof-by-assertion, lent authoritative force every page or two by a well-dropped name. An illustration of the characteristic proof method is Gordon's refutation of Nozick: "Most people would reject this, I think; at any rate I would." Bald assertion of this sort is unfortunately not the worst that Gordon has to offer. All too frequently the reader finds himself mired in a second species of assertion, the wishy-washy convolution. For example: "considered judgment suggests that such a statement would not be nonsensical." Indeed. After reading this book, considered judgment suggests that maybe we would be better off if trees really did have rights.

The review might well end here were it not for the fear that political philosophers who are already skeptical of the role of economics in policy disputes might take this book as one further bit of evidence that economists have nothing to say to political philosophers. Such an inference would be mistaken. In trying to do political philosophy the way political philosophers do it, economist Gordon has forgotten one of the first propositions of economics: specialization permits increased productivity. Those economists, such as Gary Becker, George Stigler, and Milton Friedman, who do have something to say to political philosophers have not forgotten the proposition.

The message of these economists is that policy disputes are not attributable to differences in values but rather to differences in constraints. Friedman emphasizes information constraints: if everyone understood the effects of socialism, few would support it. The bottom line is that progress, when possible, comes not through philosophizing about values but rather through loosening the constraints on universally held values. You do not need to tell people that they should want freedom, dignity, and bread. They already want them. Explain, instead, how such values can be achieved.

Arthur Diamond teaches economics at Ohio State University. He has degrees from the University of Chicago in philosophy and economics.