Acton Institute PowerBlog

6 thought-provoking quotes from AEI’s ‘Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing’

In considering issues of political economy today, it is always prudent to refer to wisdom from the past.  The American Enterprise Institute’s recent publication “Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy” is a collection of essays that analyzes the thought of several prominent philosophers on the connection between the title’s two subjects. Many of the quotes below, pulled from six of the nine essays, challenge foundational aspects of classical liberalism and the value of the free market. As Yuval Levin comments at the end of his essay on Edmund Burke, markets can enable human flourishing, but they do not do so perfectly, “And it is precisely the friends of markets who should be most willing to acknowledge that, and to seek for ways to address it…for the sake of liberty and human flourishing.”

On problems with the liberal economic philosophy of Hobbes and Locke:

Modern liberalism secures a realm of privacy that makes some human flourishing possible, but that may not incline us toward teleological conceptions of the good. In its elevation of the instruments of the good life, liberalism may even close our minds to conceptions of ultimate goods.

From “Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy” by Peter B. Josephson

On Adam Smith’s deeper reasons for supporting the free market:

Smith of course values the utility of the free pursuit of self-interest. But freedom to pursue self-interest alone neither defines a flourishing society nor justifies a market order. As made clear here, what defines the flourishing society is not the condition of the few but the condition of the majority; indeed, only when the “far greater part” of a society no longer lives in a state of indigence can a society be said to flourish.

The measure of the good society is thus at least as much the state of the worst-off as that of the well-off.

From “Adam Smith and Human Flourishing” by Ryan Patrick Hanley

On Alexis de Tocqueville’s consideration of the positives and negatives of capitalism:

Economic liberty is essential to political freedom, but also a threat to political liberty… Insofar as economic liberty reinforces political liberty and the mores of self-government, it is of great value. Insofar as the elements of a commercial society and free-market capitalism are affirmed to immoderate extremes—and particularly insofar as they produce the depoliticization of the self and society—they should be criticized and checked.

From “Capitalism as a Road to Serfdom? Tocqueville on Economic Liberty and Human Flourishing” by Steven Bilakovics

On the foundation of Edmund Burke’s support for the free market and its relevancy today:

The advantages [the market economy] has provided us are those that Burke had hoped it might: immense wealth and with it immense freedom. But the challenges it has posed for us are actually often those that Burke had thought it would prevent: social dislocation, insecurity, and breakdown.

From “Edmund Burke’s Economics of Flourishing” by Yuval Levin

On the limits of economics in light of Aristotelian reason:

The reason of economics is not empirical as it claims. It is based on the dubious presumption that human beings suffer in a condition of scarcity or necessity that will oblige them with their “preferences” (really, their necessities) to choose in ways that economists can predict and then control. This sort of reason begins in a dubious presumption that denies human freedom, and it dissolves, we have seen, in vagueness that fails to specify a reasonable goal of human life.

From “Aristotle on Economics and the Flourishing Life” by Harvey C. Mansfield

On Rousseau’s importance of shaping ‘self-interest’:

Given the incongruity of human nature and the necessities of citizenship, therefore, Rousseau gives much of his attention in the essay [“On Political Economy”] to how citizens must be educated in such a way to learn to love their fatherland and thereby learn to identify their own self-interest with the common interest.

From “Rousseau on Economic Liberty and Human Flourishing” by John T. Scott

Read the full report, including the essays mentioned above and additional essays on Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant, here.