Calling All “Pākehā Priority Learners”!

I really loved the full consciousness with which this post was written. Awesome!


Recently I’ve been marinating on the idea of “priority learners”. Over the last few years the term has been popping up in NZ education lingo.

dialog3 From what I’ve read, priority learners are Māori, Pasifika, those from materially poor households/communities and ‘disabled’ young people ( Education Review Office, 2012 ).

The aim of focussing on these young people is to ensure that they are not underserved by the education system. Moreover, that they can make a economic and social contribution when they’re adults (Prime Minister John Key, 2012).

I think the whole notion of a “priority learner” is kind of odd, and a little misguided. In NZ we seem to have a knack on focusing on “people with the problems”. This is commendable – we need to look at who isn’t doing well. But I reckon it misses a deeper, and more nuanced appreciation of the problem. I think we need to critically look at why…

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An equal playing field?

Great blog Sophie 🙂

On Life and Such

I have worked my arse off to get to where I am now. Ok, so I’m still studying, but I have a well-earned, well-paid career in secondary teaching ahead of me. I studied hard in school, paying attention in class and diligently doing my homework on weeknights whilst others were wagging and going to booze-ridden parties. I continued to work hard at uni, yes, living at home, but working 20 hours a week to afford to have a life because ‘sorry’ my parents ‘earned too much’ for me to get the government handout.

Now, you could say: ‘damn those people who get free money and didn’t have to work a 10 hour shift the day before the exam’

You could say ‘damn those people who complain about not being paid enough because they didn’t pay attention in school and haven’t worked the hard yards’

And I would agree with you…

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Repost of Noam Chomsky re- Charlie Hebdo outrage

Noam Chomsky Slams West’s Charlie Hebdo Outrage: ‘Many Journalists Were Killed by Israel in Gaza Too’

Chomsky claims that “terrorist” attacks perpetrated by the West did not spark outrage such as the Hebdo attack.

Millions of people demonstrated in condemnation of the atrocities, amplified by a chorus of horror under the banner “I am Charlie.” There were eloquent pronouncements of outrage, captured well by the head of Israel’s Labor Party and the main challenger for the upcoming elections, Isaac Herzog, who declared that “Terrorism is terrorism. There’s no two ways about it,” and that “All the nations that seek peace and freedom [face] an enormous challenge” from brutal violence.

The crimes also elicited a flood of commentary, inquiring into the roots of these shocking assaults in Islamic culture and exploring ways to counter the murderous wave of Islamic terrorism without sacrificing our values. The New York Times described the assault as a “clash of civilizations,” but was corrected by Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, who tweeted that it was “Not & never a war of civilizations or between them. But a war FOR civilization against groups on the other side of that line. #CharlieHebdo.”

The scene in Paris was described vividly in the New York Times by veteran Europe correspondent Steven Erlanger: “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.”

Erlanger also quoted a surviving journalist who said that “Everything crashed. There was no way out. There was smoke everywhere. It was terrible. People were screaming. It was like a nightmare.” Another reported a “huge detonation, and everything went completely dark.” The scene, Erlanger reported, “was an increasingly familiar one of smashed glass, broken walls, twisted timbers, scorched paint and emotional devastation.”These last quotes, however — as independent journalist David Peterson reminds us — are not from January 2015. Rather, they are from a report by Erlanger on April 24 1999, which received far less attention. Erlanger was reporting on the NATO “missile attack on Serbian state television headquarters” that “knocked Radio Television Serbia off the air,” killing 16 journalists.”NATO and American officials defended the attack,” Erlanger reported, “as an effort to undermine the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told a briefing in Washington that “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is,” hence a legitimate target of attack.

There were no demonstrations or cries of outrage, no chants of “We are RTV,” no inquiries into the roots of the attack in Christian culture and history. On the contrary, the attack on the press was lauded. The highly regarded U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, then envoy to Yugoslavia, described the successful attack on RTV as “an enormously important and, I think, positive development,” a sentiment echoed by others.

There are many other events that call for no inquiry into western culture and history — for example, the worst single terrorist atrocity in Europe in recent years, in July 2011, when Anders Breivik, a Christian ultra-Zionist extremist and Islamophobe, slaughtered 77 people, mostly teenagers.

Also ignored in the “war against terrorism” is the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times — Barack Obama’s global assassination campaign targeting people suspected of perhaps intending to harm us some day, and any unfortunates who happen to be nearby. Other unfortunates are also not lacking, such as the 50 civilians reportedly killed in a U.S.-led bombing raid in Syria in December, which was barely reported.

One person was indeed punished in connection with the NATO attack on RTV — Dragoljub Milanović, the general manager of the station, who was sentenced by the European Court of Human Rights to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate the building, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. TheInternational Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia considered the NATO attack, concluding that it was not a crime, and although civilian casualties were “unfortunately high, they do not appear to be clearly disproportionate.”

The comparison between these cases helps us understand the condemnation of the New York Times by civil rights lawyer Floyd Abrams, famous for his forceful defense of freedom of expression. “There are times for self-restraint,”Abrams wrote, “but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, [the Times editors] would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging in it” by publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons ridiculing Mohammed that elicited the assault.

Abrams is right in describing the Charlie Hebdo attack as “the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory.” The reason has to do with the concept “living memory,” a category carefully constructed to include Theircrimes against us while scrupulously excluding Our crimes against them — the latter not crimes but noble defense of the highest values, sometimes inadvertently flawed.

This is not the place to inquire into just what was being “defended” when RTV was attacked, but such an inquiry is quite informative (see my A New Generation Draws the Line).There are many other illustrations of the interesting category “living memory.” One is provided by the Marine assault against Fallujah in November 2004, one of the worst crimes of the U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq.

The assault opened with occupation of Fallujah General Hospital, a major war crime quite apart from how it was carried out. The crime was reported prominently on the front page of the New York Times, accompanied with a photograph depicting how “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The occupation of the hospital was considered meritorious and justified: it “shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.”

Evidently, this is no assault on free expression, and does not qualify for entry into “living memory.”

There are other questions. One would naturally ask how France upholds freedom of expression and the sacred principles of “fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” For example, is it through the Gayssot Law, repeatedly implemented, which effectively grants the state the right to determine Historical Truth and punish deviation from its edicts? By expelling miserable descendants of Holocaust survivors (Roma) to bitter persecution in Eastern Europe? By the deplorable treatment of North African immigrants in the banlieues of Paris where the Charlie Hebdo terrorists became jihadis? When the courageous journal Charlie Hebdo fired the cartoonist Siné on grounds that a comment of his was deemed to have anti-Semitic connotations? Many more questions quickly arise.

Anyone with eyes open will quickly notice other rather striking omissions. Thus, prominent among those who face an “enormous challenge” from brutal violence are Palestinians, once again during Israel’s vicious assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, in which many journalists were murdered, sometimes in well-marked press cars, along with thousands of others, while the Israeli-run outdoor prison was again reduced to rubble on pretexts that collapse instantly on examination.

Also ignored was the assassination of three more journalists in Latin America in December, bringing the number for the year to 31. There have been more than a dozen journalists killed in Honduras alone since the military coup of 2009 that was effectively recognized by the U.S. (but few others), probably according post-coup Honduras the per capita championship for murder of journalists. But again, not an assault on freedom of press within living memory.

It is not difficult to elaborate. These few examples illustrate a very general principle that is observed with impressive dedication and consistency: The more we can blame some crimes on enemies, the greater the outrage; the greater our responsibility for crimes — and hence the more we can do to end them — the less the concern, tending to oblivion or even denial.

Contrary to the eloquent pronouncements, it is not the case that “Terrorism is terrorism. There’s no two ways about it.” There definitely are two ways about it: theirs versus ours. And not just terrorism.

“The Emptiness of Modern Economics: Why the Dismal Science Needs a Richer Moral Anthropology” (McRorie, C. The Hedgehog Review, Vol 16, No.3, Fall 2014)


The Emptiness of Modern Economics: Why the Dismal Science Needs a Richer Moral Anthropology

Christina McRorie

Not long after its publication last spring, a treatise on economic inequality by a respected but hardly celebrated professor at the Paris School of Economics became the most unlikely bestseller of 2014. The public appetite for Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and the lively debate it occasioned, were nothing short of astonishing. Having received reviews and other treatments (including profiles of its author) in media outlets as varied as The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Colbert Report, the book also earned the distinction of being the only tome on economic theory ever to sell out on Amazon. No doubt, much of Piketty’s appeal lay in his intent to restore the kind of grand, sweeping theorizing not seen since the classic works of political economists like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. That ambition was linked to his openly expressed dissatisfaction with the increasingly sterile and fragmented focus on econometrics that characterizes so much of his field today. “To put it bluntly,” Piketty writes in his introduction

the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.1

Piketty clearly sees himself bucking this trend by attending to real data: No more armchair theorizing for economists! seems to be one of the rallying cries of his work. It’s time for economists to get their hands dirty with real numbers that describe real places, in real time. And the reading public appears to love him for doing just that. The debate over the future of capitalism prompted by Piketty’s claims about increasing economic inequality would not have been possible without his meticulously researched analysis of two centuries of economic history.

It’s tempting to conclude that Piketty understands and delivers what the public wants from economics: a return to classical political economy. More than a few reviews of his work make this exact claim; he’s been hailed as the Smith, Mill, or Marx the twenty-first century has been waiting for.

If only it were true. Or, to be fair, completely true. Piketty’s work is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, but it doesn’t make him the new Adam Smith. Empirical attention to the sweep of history was not the only thing that enabled the grand theorists of classical political economy to make sense of market life for their readers. The other half of what made political economy—the forerunner of economics—so compelling was its ability to take on “big questions” by connecting economic matters with moral and philosophical concerns, often by way of what might be called moral anthropology.

For those longing for a revival of political economy in the tradition of Smith, even Piketty’s remarkable turn to richer data doesn’t fully satisfy their hunger for a fully worked out exploration of the connection between economics and larger philosophical and moral questions. These questions are about more than mere markets and politics; they pertain directly to the moral dimensions of economic life.

Because early economists such as Smith (1723–90) were also moral philosophers, they took up such questions naturally. They assumed that theories of justice and normative reflections on society were inseparable from their theories about pricing, the distribution of resources, and national wealth. They assumed that their field could advance only if all such concerns were part of a seamless whole.

This may seem a surprising history for a discipline that has long been known as the “dismal science,” on the grounds that its business is to make gloomy statistical predictions backed with the authority of science. The little-known origin of the phrase, however, had to do precisely with philosophical arguments over anthropology, and nothing at all to do with statistics. Nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle used the term in a pro-slavery essay to attack the profession of political economists such as John Stuart Mill, who supported slave emancipation on the basis of their egalitarian beliefs about human nature.2 It’s a mark of how much economics has changed that—rather than serving as a badge of honor—the title now generally conveys a sarcastic commentary on the discipline’s total lack of philosophical, or humanistic, aspirations.

The Dismal Science Today

If Piketty falls short of connecting economic theory with this broader kind of moral philosophy, he is not alone among his fellow economists, as I learned firsthand as a participant in the 2013 Summer Institute at Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy. For three weeks I was part of a group of economists, philosophers of economics, and fellow humanists who had gathered with the stated purpose of learning about the history of political economy. Though I am a scholar of religious studies, I frequently felt more like an anthropologist, observing the economists in their natural habitats, watching how they thought and communicated with each other in their native language. For the most part, this ethnographic snooping was entertaining and even useful. I learned a lot about the discipline. But at times, such as the week we spent on Adam Smith, I found it curiously disappointing.

As those who have dipped into it know, the ocean of Smith scholarship is broad and deep. There’s no shortage of work on the man and his thought in a variety of fields, including economics, political theory, intellectual history, psychology, and theology. Surprisingly, though, economists—the very people who claim Smith as the founding father of their discipline—appear to have read very little of his work beyond that which deals strictly with economics.

While we were covering Smith’s work, especially his 1759 treatise on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I repeatedly thought that what I was reading was fairly transparent, only to find that others in the room didn’t agree. We had exceptional visiting faculty as our guides, and I don’t want to give the impression that my colleagues and I walked away with a flat reading of Smith. Nonetheless, I was struck by the difficulty the economists among us seemed to have in reading his work. Even after our time together, they seemed unable to overcome a certain insensibility toward the moral dimensions of Smith’s political economy, and to the depth of the connections between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his other major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776).

After a while, I began to compile a list of complaints about these peculiarly incomplete readings of Smith. Their gist was that the economists failed or refused to approach Smith in his own context, that of a moral philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, and so missed the full-orbed moral sense of his economic writing, particularly the role of his moral philosophy and moral psychology in making his political economic observations plausible. Because of my own academic orientation, I began casting about for works of theology and religious ethics that might provide a corrective to this stunted reading of Smith. To my surprise, I didn’t find what I had hoped to find. Instead, I learned that Smith is only infrequently addressed in religious ethics, and even then largely in the narrow terms used by most economists—that is to say, in language that I think misses or obscures critical parts of what Smith was doing.

I couldn’t say why we scholars of religion turn to economists such as George Stigler and Tony Aspromourgos more than to other humanists such as Emma Rothschild (or even Amartya Sen, the outstanding example of an economist who avoids the pitfalls of a narrow, economic reading of Smith), but we do. As a result, we proceed along unbalanced lines, even when we have the tools that could help us be more attentive to the moral complexity of his work. The unfortunate consequence of this is that scholars of religion, along with many economists, largely accept the view that the real Smith is the hardheaded proto-economist of The Wealth of Nations—and that even if Smith’s theory is at all theological or ethical, it is only sloppily and nefariously so, perhaps because it seems to advance a kind of theodicy in which the market confirms the justness of God’s order. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find theological engagements with Smith in which he is summarily indicted as a conspirator in the illegitimate secularization of modern life or as the scourge of charity, banishing it from the public sphere in favor of self-interest. All of which is a shame.

So while I started out feeling frustrated with economists, I ended up being equally nonplussed by religious ethicists. Smith’s political economy, as I saw it, was firmly grounded in a consistent moral psychology. Why hadn’t more scholars of religion discovered that he is a natural conversation partner for religious ethicists? Why do we accept this parochialism, especially when deeper engagement with Smith’s moral anthropology across disciplinary lines stands to yield so many benefits? Not least, such engagement would relieve some interpretive difficulty in Smith scholarship by underscoring that his ambivalence about what he called “commercial society” was moral as well as practical. Such engagement could also improve the ability of religion scholars to contribute to wider conversations about the moral dimensions of economic life.

Even more important, the time is right for renewed philosophical engagement with economic conversations more generally, and for the sake of these conversations themselves. The recent excitement over Piketty’s break with “economics as usual” attests to the public sense that something substantive has been missing for some time from economics. Revisiting the theories of the discipline’s founder can advance the quest to find out what exactly this missing element is. Moreover, revisiting Smith offers one way to begin moving beyond our current disciplinary impasse, which undoubtedly would have appeared quite strange to Smith himself.

Smith’s Moral Anthropology

Consider, first, what I call Smith’s moral anthropology, the particular way in which he invited his readers to understand the moral dimensions of human nature. For Smith, this anthropology centered on a particular psychology enabled by the faculty of sympathy. Although the word sympathy usually indicates benevolence, pity, or some other altruistic feeling, Smith repurposed it to signify a design, something like humanity’s operating system. In this usage, sympathy describes the instinctual cognitive and affective ability individuals have that enables them to understand the motivations and feelings of others by imaginatively identifying with them. In the absence of immediate experience of what others suffer, for example, he surmised that we put this capacity into action by “conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation…[and] by changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”3 A virtuous person can hone this faculty, to be sure, but its presence doesn’t depend on virtue. According to Smith, even “the greatest ruffian” feels at least traces of the sentiments and emotions that sympathy enables.4 Sympathy is a load-bearing concept in Smith’s moral anthropology. First, it enables moral judgment. When judging others, he thought, we evaluate the propriety of their actions by imaginatively identifying with them, and deciding whether we would act and feel the same way if we were in their shoes.5 It follows that we apply this mode of examination when judging ourselves, in that we “place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view [our conduct and motives], as it were, with his eyes.”6 In addition to imagining the gaze of an actual other, we also use sympathy to imagine the gaze of an “impartial spectator,” whose reason serves as our conscience, and can counter our excesses of self-love, should we choose to heed its voice.7 The voice of this spectator is not perfect—by both lack of perspective and actual self-deception, we may delude ourselves regarding its impartiality.8 Even so, the voice remains audible in even the most hardened criminal, issuing judgments on conduct, motivation, and sentiments.

For Smith, the faculty of sympathy is also the font of both virtue and vice, given that humans naturally desire the approval of others.9 He noted that it is natural to desire to be worthy of this approval. We want “to be respectable” as well as “to be respected.”10 The virtuous person builds on this hunger for approbation by moderating her conduct and sentiments so as to earn the respect of others and to satisfy her impartial spectator. The mere fact of this desire for approval does not guarantee moral rectitude, of course. Ever the moral realist, Smith admitted that the desire for respect is always tainted by self-love, and that it is easy to mistake the conditions for respect, and to both seek and bestow it inappropriately.

Susceptible to misuse as it may be, the presence of this impartial spectator, alongside the natural human desire for moral approval, is the loving design of the ultimate impartial spectator: God. It was the plan of the “Author of our nature,” according to Smith, that moral norms exert themselves on the human psyche both cognitively and affectively, and that all humans be constituted so as to be aware of these norms.11 Given this, it is appropriate that humans discern moral rules with reference to each other, and to their own sentiments.12 This is a design with which humans can cooperate in varying degrees; it facilitates moral action, without commanding it.

In blending reason and sentiment in this way in his ethics, Smith joined his contemporaries in developing what can be called a “moral sense theory,” or “ethical intuitionism.” It is possible to see in Smith’s own version of this the influence of both Stoicism and his Scottish Calvinist context, including his sense that Providence has planned human nature in a particular way, and that this design participates in a natural ordering of creation. Neither of these influences, however, led Smith to the conclusion that such an ordering always produces agreeable outcomes, either at the level of individual behavior or at that of the social whole. First, such an idealistic picture is inconsistent with Smith’s acknowledgment that individuals regularly reject the judgment offered by the voice of the impartial spectator, and accordingly fail to act with propriety and virtue. Moreover, Smith disagreed vociferously with the provocative claim of his contemporary, Bernard Mandeville, who, in his half-verse, half-prose commentary on economic relations in eighteenth-century England, The Fable of the Bees, asserted that “private vices are public benefits.”13 Indeed, Smith had a deep and, at times, pessimistic awareness of unresolved injustice.14

Set alongside the more sanguine alternatives of the time (such as those offered by Mandeville and by Smith’s mentor, Francis Hutcheson, who proposed a theory of moral senses in which benevolence was the root of most actions), the moral psychology Smith sketched appears fairly modest, realistic, and even ambivalent: By his reading, humans are designed to be moral persons—that is, both aware of and capable of meeting moral norms—and this design has both cognitive and affective dimensions having to do with our ability to imaginatively identify with others.

More Than Selfishness

Smith’s moral psychology is decisively operative in The Wealth of Nations, and approaching his economic treatise with that in mind can helpfully challenge the tendency to read it, as Chicago school economist George Stigler does, as “a stupendous palace erected upon the granite of self-interest.”15 Although a growing number of intellectual histories now bring into question this once dominant interpretation of Smith’s work, Stigler is hardly alone in his interpretation. In fact, this misreading remains the single greatest reason for Smith’s popular reputation as a conservative neoclassical economist whose pessimism about governments, regulation, and human nature was matched only by his optimism about market outcomes, and who accordingly proclaimed that free markets tidily channel individual selfishness toward the greater public good, as if by an “invisible hand.” Although the heyday of the conservative sartorial phenomenon of “Adam Smith neckties”16 has passed, most invocations of his name in contemporary politics still focus on his alleged discovery that free markets lead to the greater good by shaping selfishness through some unseen force.

Connecting Smith’s philosophy with his economics militates against this caricature by helping us see the moral ambivalence in his evaluation of commercial society. Take, for example, his claims regarding that “certain propensity in human nature…to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Pointing out that no one has ever seen two dogs make a “fair and deliberate exchange,” he noted that this uniquely human ability rests on the art of making contracts that are advantageous to both parties: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”17

With all due respect to George Stigler, I find that reading these famous lines with Smith’s moral psychology in mind reveals that it is the faculty of sympathy on which exchange is built, not self-interest. Understanding another’s advantage through sympathy is what allows bargaining in the first place. Why talk about engaging the butcher’s self-love at all, unless we can imagine and therefore anticipate it? Along with reason and rationality, it is this imaginative capacity that distinguishes humans from animals, and allows us to bargain with each other toward mutual advantage. The two dogs certainly have self-interest, but they don’t have this.

Given that this account of exchange is fundamentally morally neutral, much like the faculty enabling it, the actors in any given exchange may possess varying proportions of benevolence and self-interest. Indeed, Smith was already alert to the fact that even exchanges that are freely entered into may result in one party taking advantage of the other, due to situational constraints.

So far, then, exchange appears to be as much about sympathy as self-interest. But what about self-interest? What is it, exactly? And what are we to make of the “desire of bettering our condition” that Smith mentions so frequently in The Wealth of Nations, which “comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave”?18 Here as well, we find the faculty of sympathy popping up, since for Smith the pursuit of wealth is grounded in the desire for approval that accompanies the faculty of sympathy.

As early as The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he had connected the two: “What are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation.”19 Smith thus linked the drive to gain wealth with the foundation of moral behavior itself. The connection is not straightforward, of course; he had also observed that humans have a tendency to sympathize more readily with the wealthy, and to ease standards of moral judgment when regarding them in relation to the agreeableness of their estate in life. At the same time, Smith used the cautionary tale of a poor man’s ambitious son whose material success failed to bring him happiness to illustrate that “wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.”20 So in Smith’s evaluation, the desire to better one’s condition is ultimately a morally complicated admixture of the shallow search for mere status with the more commendable striving for deserved respect.

Among things that are morally complicated, Smith viewed the outcomes of a market order with clear ambivalence. The invisible hand metaphor in The Wealth of Nations (which, it should be noted, Smith does not use to make a general philosophical point, but to argue against mercantilist policies banning exports), though it is used only once in that book, is often invoked as support for the idea that Smith believed that the market always redirects self-interest toward the common good, whether providentially or in accord with some proto-Hayekian account of spontaneous order.21 If the hand was providential, however, then Providence only planned so far. In addition to many injustices perpetrated by self-interested actors, Smith assiduously chronicled numerous instances of unavoidable divergence between public and private interest. Indeed, a stark illustration of the inevitability of certain negative market outcomes is provided by his analysis of the division of labor: Smith feared that it produced mental and moral enfeeblement in the class of laborers engaged in menial and repetitive tasks (for which he suggested public education as a partial remedy).22 His lengthy discourse in The Theory of Moral Sentiments on the character and behavior of the prudent man may have been his acknowledgment that it was going to be difficult to simultaneously cultivate industry, virtue, and happiness in an emerging commercial society that held as many opportunities for corruption and social disharmony as it did for the amelioration of the general welfare.23

In sum, these two levels—the individual and the social—are linked in Smith’s analysis: It is exactly Smith’s measured ability to navigate between the more sanguine and cynical accounts of human nature of his time, which we first see in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that allows him, later, in The Wealth of Nations, to assess commercial society more broadly, and with a level of realism, and to laud the market’s good and practical effects without neglecting to lament its corrupting tendencies and negative outcomes.

Restoring Humane Breadth

Why does it matter whether we acknowledge the moral dimension of Adam Smith’s economics? Is this just about setting the record straight on Smith? While that would be helpful—and I do hope that a more nuanced interpretation of his work will one day prevail over his clichéd public image as a patron saint of self-interest—I hope I have made the beginning of a case for restoring the conversation between moral philosophy and economics. Today, the two certainly seem like completely divorced disciplines, with little to say to each other, in light of the fact that the former claims to be value based and philosophical, while the latter sees itself as an empirical, fact-based science akin to Newtonian physics.

Oddly, by many accounts this rupture between the fields was Smith’s own doing. Many seemed to agree thirty years ago when George Stigler claimed that neoclassical economics is premised upon Smith’s “Newtonian” discovery “of the self-interest–seeking individual in a competitive environment.”24 In the more recent words of Tony Aspromourgos, it was Smith who bequeathed to the “newly emerging intellectual discipline” its “conceptual universe.”25 It might appear, then, that conversations between these disciplines are both impossible and unnecessary precisely because Smith’s seminal work liberated economics to become the science it now is.

But if the moral psychology I’ve sketched is a plausible reading of Smith, to claim that his Newtonian bequest to economics was the self-interested model of the individual is to seriously misunderstand him. This is true with regard to both content and genre, given that Smith was engaged in something more than a purely proto-economic investigation. He was still firmly situated at the nexus of multiple disciplines, habituated to the disciplinary hedge-jumping one might expect in an era when sociology and economics were still twinkles in the eye of moral philosophy. As a result, his economic observations were grounded in a normatively encoded account of the human person. Separating his theory from this foundation creates the risk not simply of misapprehending Smith, but of preempting the argument before it even starts. Even sloppy Smith scholarship that repurposes him to rather un-Smithian ends, to the extent that it remains within his worldview, cannot help but be premised upon moral anthropologies. (For example, readers who find Smith to be a champion of libertarian “free-market” economics may find within his work a moral account of human nature that is unduly, even monomaniacally focused on self-interest—but they find a moral account of human nature nonetheless.)

More important, given the central importance of Smith to the discipline of economics, we should not be surprised to find that this pattern extends beyond the confines of intellectual history. What modern mainstream economics fails to recognize is that the conceptual universe of political economy—the universe supplied by Smith and, arguably, inhabited by economists ever since—is riddled with presuppositions about moral anthropology. Even those later economists who did not intend to extend Smith’s moral philosophy worked within the universe established by his theory, which cannot be wholly or productively emptied of anthropological questions. Moral philosophy is woven into the DNA of economics itself. To fail to recognize this is to remain ignorant of what is fully at stake in economic debates.

Are humans intrinsically self-interested or selfish? And if so, does this nature participate in some larger order—either spontaneous or divinely planned—in which self-interest invariably redounds to public benefit? Can we be described, without remainder, as rational utility-maximizing actors? Or does this characterization fail to capture, in some real manner, the complicated way in which our selves are morally constructed, and the complicated ways in which our behavior develops? And, inching toward more modern issues, is it really the case that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible to make, and fruitless besides?

We can’t push these questions aside. Nor should we. They float around, behind, and beneath most of our conversations about market orders, wealth inequality, and the future of capitalism. And this is so precisely because the discipline of economics cannot avoid being about human nature and human behavior. As much as a century after Adam Smith, economists still took this for granted. In 1890, economist-philosopher Alfred Marshall opened his famous textbook,Principles of Economics, with the claim that

Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing. Thus it is on the one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man.26

The fact that economics today has largely set aside the big questions proper to this study—both empirical and normative—has left it with a gaping hole of meaning at its center. Piketty’s remarkable work begins to fill the void by returning attention to big-picture questions about real peoples’ lives. But even Capital in the Twenty-First Century fails to restore fully the humane breadth of the earliest discussions of political economy. Surely, such breadth is called for as we try to talk together about the common good and the future of our economic arrangements.


  1. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 32.
  2. Although it is generally supposed that Carlyle coined the phrase in response to Thomas Malthus’s prediction that mass starvation would follow population growth, the term did not appear until Carlyle’s 1849 essay Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question. In it, Carlyle argued for the continuation of slavery; his use of the phrase “dismal science” was meant to imply that the emancipatory policies proposed by political economists would come to naught. It is interesting to note that John Stuart Mill and his nineteenth-century contemporaries were not the first political economists to adopt an egalitarian view of human nature; such claims can be seen at least as early as Adam Smith, who began a section on equality in The Wealth of Nations with the claim that “the difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of.” Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2., R. H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner eds. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1979), I.ii., 4, 28–29 (first published 1776).
  3. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith,vol. 1., D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie eds. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1982), I.i.1, 9–10. First published 1759.
  4. Ibid., I.i.1, 9.
  5. Ibid., I.i., 3–4, 16–23.
  6. Ibid., III.i.1, 109–110.
  7. Ibid., III.iii., 4, 137.
  8. Ibid., III.iii., 38, 153, and III.iv., 5–6, 158–9.
  9. Ibid., I.i., 5, 23–25.
  10. Ibid., I.iii., 3.2, 62.
  11. Ibid., III.v., 5–6, 165.
  12. Ibid., III.ii., 32, 130.
  13. Smith regularly repeats his objections to Mandeville’s position throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments,addressing Mandeville’s moral philosophy at length in VII.ii., 4, 306–14.
  14. Smith’s acute awareness of unresolved injustice in this life serves as the foundation for his argument that the moral life inevitably requires belief in the ultimate judgment of a divine arbiter. See The Theory of Moral Sentiments,III.ii., 32–33, 131–32, and III.v., 10, 169.
  15. George Stigler, The Economist as Preacher and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 136.
  16. Adorned with tiny portraits of Adam Smith and popularized by Milton Friedman and members of the Reagan administration’s economic team, these ties were once dubbed by The New York Times “an essential part of a well-dressed Republican’s wardrobe.” Clyde Farnsworth, “Neckties with an Economics Lesson,” The New York Times, July 7, 1982.
  17. Smith, Wealth of Nations, I.ii., 2, 26–27.
  18. Ibid., II.iii., 28, 341.
  19. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.iii., 2.1, 50.
  20. Ibid., IV., i.8–10, 181.
  21. Smith, Wealth of Nations, IV.ii., 9, 455–56. “Invisible hand” also appears, again just once, in Theory of Moral Sentiments, IV.i., 10, 184.
  22. Ibid., V.i.f., 50, 782.
  23. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.i., 212–17.
  24. Stigler, The Economist as Preacher, 158.
  25. Tony Aspromourgos, The Science of Wealth: Adam Smith and the Framing of Political Economy (New York: Routledge, 2009), 6.
  26. Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics: An Introductory Volume, 8th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1920), 1 (first published 1890).

For further elaboration of many points developed in this essay, see Christina McRorie, “Adam Smith, Ethicist: A Case for Reading Political Economy as Moral Anthropology,” forthcoming in the Journal of Religious Ethics.

Christina McRorie is a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on ethical issues raised by the global economy and consumer society.

I don’t know what to call this but I do know that things need to change!

I almost don’t know where to start for this post, so I’ll just write.  I’m only thirty-one, so I know I’m young.  I know I still have loads to learn.  To be honest, the more I learn about anything in the world, the more I realise I know nothing at all. And I’m not being sarcastic or cheesy; I’m being completely serious.

But while I might be young with loads of things still to learn, I know enough to say that things just don’t seem to be right with New Zealand’s state of democracy.  It seems dead compared to France, where protests have been happening around the country on a daily basis for various reasons ranging from: a local guy being killed by a police grenade while protesting against a dam project (which is in the process of being constructed in a protected ecological zone); a proposed airport which residents don’t want; an industrial size farm project; farmers angry at cheap exports undermining their local produce.

So while I might spend a lot of time whinging about France and the French, I must say that I am damn proud to live in a country with a healthy, well-functioning democracy – one where the people will bloody well hold the Government to account when it’s necessary.  In fact, right at this moment I am zoning out from a televised Q&A session where President Francois Hollande is justifying his mid-term progress by answering the critical and often damning questions of average French citizens (I’m quite shocked at the tone of voice these average Joe’ are using with him, one of the most powerful men on earth!).

So anyway, I’m pretty livid with the state of our democracy in NZ.  The fact that our Government just recently removed the statutory right to a lunch break would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.  When I explain this situation to French people they look at me as if I haven’t quite understood that removing the right to a lunch break is not just ludicrous, but it’s completely unthinkable. They assume I must have misunderstood the situation. They just can’t fathom that a whole nation would allow their Government to remove something the French consider a human right! But that’s the thing, our democracy is in such an unhealthy state that New Zealand citizens don’t actually realise that they hold any power. More importantly, they don’t seem to realise that it is our role to hold the Government to account.  This is an integral part of a healthy democracy, and it is something Kiwis have let slide to the wayside.

I’m a little bit angry that people will happily spend their time queueing for a bottle of chocolate milk but they won’t even consider walking in solidarity against issues like child poverty, worker rights or against the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (see the Lewis Road Creamery shortage).  But at the same time, I know deep down that it’s not their fault.

It is the intended result of 3 decades of neoliberalism, where economic growth and profit are worshipped to an almost religious degree, and where critical thinking is shunned. It’s pretty simple really.  The only way to ensure the economy continues to grow is to make sure people buy stuff.   The best way to make people buy stuff is to provide them with credit and let the marketing and PR machine do what they do best: convince people to buy the next best thing since sliced bread.  Oh and don’t forget to give people more credit.  This will guarantee there’s always a labour force, given that there will always be someone who needs to pay off their debt.

The problem is after 30 years, the marketing machine has become so successful at portraying neoliberal values as ‘the norm’,  that people don’t stop long enough to reflect nor question whether buying all this stuff is even necessary.  They don’t really seem to stop and question whether these values are aligned with our own personal values and whether or not they’re even desirable. Our subconscious measures of success are boiled down to whether or not we’re keeping up with the latest trends.  While the priorities might be different, being on the bones of your butt doesn’t change these assumptions either. In the backblocks of town people strive even harder to prove their worth. They sport labelled clothes, big cars, expensive pairs of shoes and a fancy coffee habit to match. There will always be a goal in sight: that new lounge suite; that latest flat screen TV; the new generation iPhone.  All the while they’re up to their eyeballs in debt.  But they look cool and people are envious of how successful they appear to be, so that’s all that matters. Consumption is such a normal part of our lives that we just don’t question any of this stuff.  And this is precisely what (a neoliberal) Government wants, because if everyone stopped buying stuff, economic growth would slow down and then we’d have a problem.

Personally, I don’t believe a high GDP/capita and constant economic growth are the most important measures of how well a society is doing, particularly when we have a ‘rock star’ economy at the same time that 250,000 New Zealand children are living in poverty. GDP doesn’t matter to those children who go to school with an empty tummy. So if that is a measure of success, then I just can’t accept its validity. I believe the Human Development Index – developed by Nobel Prize winning economist Armatya Sen – is a more useful tool for measuring the all-round health and wellbeing of a nation. Of course it doesn’t place profit at the centre of the world.

By the way, I’m not trying to be holier than thou or anything. I was neither conscious nor aware of our consumer culture or neoliberal values until my trip to South America (Bolivia in particular). But I wasn’t able to articulate my  feelings until I graduated from uni much more recently.  I’ve slowly come to replace the neoliberal measures of happiness and success with my own measures. But it’s still a struggle (I would die for a triple shot mocha with marshmallows and chocolate sprinkles but thats way too complicated to ask for in France!). I still get sucked into feeling like I should have this or that (stylish clothes, a house, fancy gadgets to furnish the house) but then I remind myself of my own personal successes and what I have gained instead. Now that I am aware of how our economy functions it is much easier to overcome these feelings  (while we’re on the topic, I hate marketing which targets children and tweens. It’s crazy that companies are given permission to prey on the insecurities of children, grooming them to be good consumers).

So anyway, it works in the Government’s favour to have a passive citizenry who are pumped to the hilt with credit (or debt). It’s hard not to sound cynical. I’m just so concerned for our future and wish people would just get angry about stuff, for once I wish Kiwis would act more like the French! I’m particularly scared of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement being signed. Once that document is signed…… pffft. I don’t even want to imagine how bad things could get.  It’s not just the things that are obvious and evident that concern me (worker rights; investor state disputes; economic sovereignty; environmental protection; the cost of medicine; intellectual property; access to services and information; privacy issues; saying goodbye to public services; freedom of expression ). It’s the things that aren’t at all evident that worry me more.  For instance, the neoliberal ideology shapes the agenda, which means that everything is framed as if neoliberalism is unquestionable or natural.  Anyone who dares to challenge neoliberalism is bullied, threatened or publically humiliated (read Dirty Politics). And if they are invited to a debate or political panel, they’re often mocked or their ideas laughed at. But if you listen carefully to experts who are concerned about the sustainability of the global economy, they will tell you that the way we are living is completely unsustainable. It’s especially important to consider that climate change WILL force us to re-model our economy, whether the neoliberals like it or not.

It’s not just due to climate change that we’ll have to re-think our economy. We need to tackle inequality, the existence of which is a natural part of our current system.  Inequality is something that neoliberals accept as natural, which is why the Government isn’t genuinely interested in alleviating it.  They’re simply paying lip service to calm people down. But if you check out their policies, it’s clear they’re not bothered by it.  Pick up any neoliberal textbook and you’ll see their central belief is that individuals will work their way out of poverty if they truly want (and those who don’t are just lazy).  They also believe in the trickle-down effect where wealthy individuals will be charitable enough to invest in services, which relieves the Government of its duty to fund those services (this theory remains unproven).

We also need to realise that infinite economic growth is impossible.  We were fairly lucky in NZ, in that we were somewhat insulated from the completely dire effects of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).  But we mustn’t kid ourselves into thinking that we are safe from further shocks.  We are far from safe. Anyone who knows anything about economics will tell you that we (the globe/NZ) are going to experience bigger busts and shorter time frames between economic crises. And when we find ourselves in the midst of those crises, there’s no point in asking ‘what went wrong’.  People need to understand that contrary to something having gone wrong, it is simply behaving as expected.  Unrestrained inequality and financial crises are embedded in our current economic system. Neoliberals accept these facts.  They just pretend they don’t because they benefit from the short term economic gains that come from denying these facts (check out the insurance pay outs, pay rises and golden handshakes that all the big Wall Street firms  – aka Key’s mates – received after the GFC).

If we are fortunate to have had a progressive Government by the time we need to shift our mind-set, we’ll hopefully be well prepared. But what Kiwis need to start realising is that the Government of the day doesn’t care about climate change, they don’t give a crap about the impending failure of our current economic system, nor do they give a crap about the mess left over from a possible TPP agreement.  By the time we normal people are left to deal with the day to day consequences of these issues, Key and his lot will be retired and living off the millions accumulated through their economic policies. Their immediate concern is short term management of the economy according to neoliberal values – less regulation, less taxation, minimal public services, maximised profits and economic growth.

So unless you are mega wealthy (which still isn’t an excuse), it just doesn’t make sense to support National policies.  While some average income Kiwis might like the idea of individualism and the ‘I’ll do it myself’ school of thought, I doubt they’ve thought long enough about how they’ll cope in a post-climate change, post- TPPA affected society whose economic busts are gonna be pretty ugly (don’t be too quick to assume your investments are safe!).

Shouldn’t our primary concerns be about the long term sustainability of our economy and the wellbeing of our communities? If you can secure those things, then you guarantee your own security. I am hoping that people will come to realise this, but I am worried that it will take a cold, hard reality check, by which stage it will be too late (i.e. post TPPA, at which stage our democracy and economic sovereignty will be gutted).   So I would prefer that people are given the tools to realise it for themselves sooner, rather than later.

But this is the clincher: our National led Government, the mainstream media and the PR and marketing machines make a joke out of decent critical analysis, expert advice, academics and activists – basically anyone who dares to challenge their agenda.  So it’s incredibly difficult to be taken seriously and to have an honest and respectful discussion in the public domain.   So given that we can’t rely on the Government nor mainstream media to provide any decent level of critical analysis, it’s got me thinking about how we can engage Kiwis with these issues.

How can we help people have faith and confidence in their ability to engage with these issues? How do we get them to participate in the democratic processes?  How do we help people realise that standing in solidarity, like the French do all the time, has the power to shape society? The French (in general) understand the power they have in holding their Government to account.  They understand how democracy works. If something smells foul, they will get out onto the street and they will make their voices heard – they will literally hold the economy to ransom by going on nationwide strikes! (check out this link, published 6 Nov, by Alan Taylor of The Atlantic

We Kiwis used to be like this.  We were the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, we had the waterfront strikes, we were the first country in the world to introduce benefits and state housing, we pushed for Maori rights to be recognised, we campaigned against nuclear testing in the Pacific, we protested against the Springbok tour of “81.  It’s in our genes to get out there and make our voices heard.  So we can do this.  But we have to make people realise the seriousness of these problems. Then we have to get them excited about finding solutions – of which there are plenty, and why I remain optimistic.

First of all, people need to realise that instead of providing any meaningful solutions, our current Government is sticking their head in the sand. As such, they are a big part of the problem.

We need to engage New Zealand people in the political process. Without them, democracy is just an empty, soulless word (demos – people; kratia – rule).

p.s.I am about to post this while watching a tv political debate where French people are discussing EXACTLY what I’ve just posted – the need to reflect on our values, the crisis of capitalism, the power of multinational corporations, the politics of the right.  If the French can do it, why can’t we????