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Hayek Lecture Series

Author: Duke University Department of Political Science and the Center for the History of Political Economy

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The Hayek Lecture Series is hosted by the History of Political Economy, and co-sponsored by the Philosophy, Politics, and Education Program at Duke. It is financed by a generous grant from the Thomas W Smith Foundation. The series brings in speakers from across the disciplines who are interested in political economy, broadly construed. Topics covered include the moral foundations of markets, the nature and consequences of trade, and the relationship between political institutions and economic outcomes.
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On March 21, Tyler Cowen visited Duke to give a Hayek Lecture on why economic growth hasn't reduced the average number of hours Americans work. Professor Cowen's talk was prompted by an essay by John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in 1930 that in about a century steady economic growth would lead people to work less and spend more time on personal projects. According to Keynes, "the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that...for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem--how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."Cowen argues that although work hours have remained fairly constant, there has been real progress, especially for women and the elderly, and that working more is not necessarily a sign that we are running on a treadmill without going anywhere. Sometimes work, he argues, can give our lives meaning, and can help us enjoy more of the activities and technologies that economic growth makes available.
In this lecture, Professor Matt Zwolinski discusses how price-gougers and sweatshop owners may benefit consumers and workers, even when the benefits they bestow would be described as "exploitation" by some observers. Zwolinski briefly discusses how and under what conditions these relationships can be mutually beneficial, and then asks why so many people think that price-gougers and sweatshop owners who provide opportunities to the poor that would otherwise be unavailable are worse than people who do nothing at all to help the poor. Zwolinski argues that our intuitions about these cases are misleading, and that we should revise them if we discover that people who protest sweatshops and price-gouging make the poor worse off than they would be without them.
On Thursday, November 12, Wake Forest Professor James Otteson gave a spirited defense of capitalism, but argued that we should take seriously some of the moral concerns that lead people to embrace socialism. Otteson conceded that most people today do not embrace full-blown socialism, but he did say that many support “socialist-inclined” policy, which advocates centralized economic decision making over individual autonomy and choice.Professor Otteson began by emphasizing the enormous diversity of human preferences, and the complexity of information government agents would need to gather and process in order to understand how to satisfy their preferences. This is especially true, he argued, because our preferences are often opaque even to ourselves: individual preferences change as new experiences occur and new technology creates new kinds of goods, resources, and opportunities.To demonstrate how powerful decentralized decision-making is at increasing human welfare through market exchange, Otteson presented data that correlates economic freedom and human prosperity. The graphs suggested that across nearly all countries for which we have data, there is a strong positive correlation between economic freedom and length of life, quality of life, and many other things people care about.Finally, Professor Otteson argued that although capitalism inevitably produces economic inequality – because people have different abilities and ambitions, and to some extent simply because of luck – the benefits it produces tend to be so large that the poor are better off in capitalist countries than they are in socialist countries. Thus, Otteson concluded, sometimes we have to choose between reducing inequality and alleviating poverty, and in these cases, he argued, the answer is clear: poverty, not inequality, is the source of most human misery.Some in the audience questioned whether we should compare these theories in their most extreme form. Otteson answered that while most people do not sit on the extreme ends of socialist and capitalist spectrum, it’s worth comparing the moral values and empirical consequences of each system of political economy.
Jerry Gaus is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona where he works on public reason and ideological diversity. Many liberal political philosophers have claimed that moral and political life rests on a principle of “natural liberty” — a general presumption in favor of freedom of action. A number of political philosophers have rejected this principle. In this talk, Jerry Gaus tries to clarify the principle of natural liberty, and consider how a principle of natural liberty figures into our moral learning. Along the way, Gaus presents empirical research investigating the conditions under which moral learners conclude that their system is, or is not, based on a default of liberty. Finally, he argues that systems of moral rules premised on a principle of natural liberty have decisive advantages in helping us to navigate, and to expand, the constant novelty that confronts diverse, open, societies.
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