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Enlighten Us, Please


We’ve just gone through the era of “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) in which any social question was put through a test against scripture, as interpreted by the likes of Pat Roberts and Jerry Falwell. Now, after a spectacular collapse of financial institutions, followed by spiraling debt and rising unemployment, we’ve evidently arrived at the need to refer to icons with better credentials in political economics. In today’s press, Messrs. Adam Smith, David Hume, and Jeremy Bentham make appearances.

David Brooks’s New York Times column this morning is entitled “Bentham vs. Hume.” Brooks asks us to view the controversy surrounding healthcare and global warming, among other issues, in different terms. “The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism,” Brooks writes. “But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.” Brooks asks us to look at this question as an extension of the age-old debate between Jeremy Bentham and David Hume about the role of government.

The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.) The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.

Brooks gives us a somewhat idiosyncratic read on the spirit of Bentham versus the spirit of Hume. I’m not convinced that Bentham would embrace the Waxman-Markey Bill, nor that Hume would be an opponent of healthcare reform. Nevertheless, Brooks is right to frame the issues as he does, and it would be a pleasure if political leaders followed his lead. Then we might have an intelligent debate instead of the childish mudfight that characterizes Washington today, where initiatives are met with hysteria in lieu of sober criticism.

Adam Smith makes an appearance at Salon.com to answer a series of questions ripped from the headlines by Michael Lind, starting with his views on tariffs on Chinese tires. Smith’s answers are not imagined, however: all are taken straight from The Wealth of Nations (1776). How does Smith react to Reagan’s famous claim that “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”? Quite convincingly:

The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy. But the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected may very easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquility of anybody but themselves.

We should not allow the healthcare industry to drive the debate about the reform of healthcare, he seems to be saying.

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