A Question for the Economists
Is the overly predicted life worth living?
Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Now, the main consequence of living the over-confident life is to believe that virtue is not necessary. Perhaps this is the main cause as well as consequence of that life. Virtue is a chancy quality because you may not have it or live up to it. It seems less reliable than self-interest with its allies, fear and greed. Everybody has self-interest, which is not true of virtue. But at least virtue does not depend on predicting the future. On the contrary, virtue is a resource for everyone when bad times come--something to fall back on, to give cheer, to restore. On top of that, virtue will save you from being corrupted by good fortune as well. This is the great truth taught by the Stoics.
Virtue is a habit, not a calculation. It reflects the fact that human beings live in an overall way of life, in diverse ways of life; it is not possible for us, or most of us, to live perfectly flexibly, always ready to calculate anew in fresh circumstances what it is in our interest to do. Thus the ideal of calculated self-interest posited by economics is not a human possibility. We will get in the habit of being spenders or savers and will not be able to turn on a dime, changing our behavior when our interest changes. Indeed our selves are not independent of our ways of life, and it is not possible to calculate your self-interest without knowing your way of life.
Economics needs to stop trying to duck responsibility for what it recommends. It needs to examine the whole of life and to focus on the virtue or virtues of different ways of life. It should give over talk about "preferences," as if human desires were given facts unaffected by the science of economics. It should abandon the crude positivism that claims that one can study facts without giving advice, or that one can confidently predict without causing people to believe in one's predictions. It needs to replace its false modesty with true moderation.
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a member of the Hoover Institution's task force on liberty and virtue.