Student Reactions to This Year’s Ethics and Economics Challenge

We ask students to write response paragraphs after our weekly discussions. Here are some selections from those comments on the readings for this year, organized by thinker. The text has not been changed in any way from the originals except for formatting.

On Frederic Bastiat’s “Parable of the Broken Window”

“In this week’s discussion we built upon the concept of opportunity cost, by analyzing the opportunities forgone when certain protectionist trade policies are implemented. Protectionists claim that protecting certain industries from outside (international) competition will be beneficial to the nation, as a whole. They claim that to allow foreign competition with a domestic industry would amount to a loss of domestic jobs, leaving many people without a source of income.

“This claim, insofar as it goes, is a very superficial analysis and is insufficient. We can refer back to Bastiat’s idea of ‘that which is seen and that which is not seen.’ Most often, ‘protecting’ X industry amounts to levying tariffs on the imports of Foreign X good, making the domestic option cheaper than the formerly cheaper international options. The jobs preserved by this policy are what is seen, but what is not seen is what the consumer could have done with the extra money they had to spend on a protected good.

“This is just another ‘broken window’, as Bastiat put it. And living standards aren’t raised by making people repeatedly pay to fix broken windows.”

On Bastiat’s “Petition of the Candle-Makers”

“Bastiat takes the idea of protectionism to its logical extreme. He plays the part of a candle maker who wishes to protect his business from the cheapest of competition… the Sun. He satirically proposes that everyone be forced, by law, to close all openings to their house through which light may enter. Funny as it may be, the ‘Petition of the Cancle Makers’ strikes a very important point, exposing the unnecessary burden taken on by consumers when they are not allowed to obtain goods in the least costly way possible.

“It is of utmost importance in economics to look far beyond the superficial, and as far into the secondary effects of a given action as possible. “

On Comparative Advantage

“Comparative advantage is when one individual or group carries out an activity more efficiently than other activities. In simpler terms, people do the job that they are best at doing. This is a primal idea that has allowed for the division of labor to keep humans surviving on this planet. Technology is a large aspect of comparative advantage, because t can make a job more efficient, meaning fewer workers are needed. While, yes, this lays off some workers, these unemployed can now find a job elsewhere and boost a new industry. This can be applied in larger areas such as immigrants having an abundance of low-wage jobs. Many Americans are quick to say that this takes jobs away from Americans, but in fact, due to these workers holding these jobs, American consumers save money and Americans can find more job opportunities that will arise.”

On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, chapters 1 and 2

“Adam Smith’s theory on the division of labor is based on the idea of productivity, which is also the core of economics. Naturally, humans are driven to want to improve themselves. For most, this comes in the form of wanting to be more productive and can be best seen in manufacturing.

“If one person had to make nails for a living, by himself, the process would be tedious and would result in low productivity, at the maximum, two nails per day. However, using division of labor, if this person were to hire ten people to make nails and gave each person a specialized task in sequence of making the nail, productivity would be far greater, and thousands of nails could be made. This is the type of clear thinking Smith uses in the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations” to explain the need for the division of labor, and division of labor happens worldwide, including across oceans, and must continue if the world hopes to continue to improve, which, by human nature, we all appear to want to do.”

On Smith’s Explanation of the Division of Labor and Comparative Advantage

“The greater the division of labor, the better living standards people have. The greater the division of labor, the more complex an economy can become…

“Economics is built upon the idea that when people recognize comparative advantage — which is when one individual or group carries out a task more efficiently than another — they divide their labor.

“The greater the division of labor, the better utilized and organized it is, which then leads to better living standards for all, as well as the fact that with greater productivity, a surplus of the actual product can be created. With a surplus comes the idea of trade, as things can be given away in exchange for another desirable product. Trade begins as bartering of a commonly or widely valued commodity, which then becomes simplified by a common currency. Money and trade are both examples of ‘non-physical machines’ that help society run efficiently. In order for trade to work, natural rights – another form of ‘non-physical machine’ — must be respected by all parties involved, because when power is taken from the consumer or producer, the system falters. In Chapter three of Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith gives various examples of early civilizations that thrived due to their ability to trade to other parts of the globe, as well as those that progressed slower due to lack of transportation to trade, proving how important trade is in a progressive society.”

On John Locke’s Second Treatise and the Concept of Property Acquisition

“Locke’s argument supporting the foundation of private property and individuals being able to acquire it begins with his belief that God gave men the Earth in common. But, according to Locke, God also made man, and vested him with certain rights to self-ownership and his labor. When a single man mixes his labor with the land, he is vesting a part of that God gave to him into that land, and, if he is the first to do so, he stakes a workable and recognizable claim to the land and the fruits of his labor on the land.

“According to Locke, as long as he leaves enough for the next man, and as long as he does not waste it, that land and the fruits of it morally belong to him.”

On Locke’s Proviso on Acquisition

“As influential as it has been on American traditions, Locke’s position on Private property is not exactly consistent. For example, Professor Sorens noted that Locke’s idea that one man can acquire land as long as he leaves enough for the next was dissected by Robert Nozick, who observed that if one were to imagine twenty-six men, A through Z, with A acquiring first and Z many years, months, or days, later, person Y might not leave enough for the hypothetical Z. Likewise, that means that person X might not leave enough for Y or Z to split, which carries logically back to person A even being able to take any land at all. Later, in the next session, we discussed how Locke’s of ‘leaving enough’ is even less workable. From the time one began reading this paragraph, to the time one reads this sentence, there is a differet number of people on the planet. Locke’s property ‘for all’ makes it impossible to know how many for whom one should reserve a bit of land. We also discussed how Locke also did not account for the fact that resources are discovered by men and women, people who use their minds to take formerly unusable things from nature and make them valuable for humans. As a result, person Z actually has more ‘resources’ from which to choose to use specifically because all the people before him were able to acquire property and retain the fruits of their labor.”

On Locke’s Idea of the Right to Self-Defense and Revolution

“In Chapter 16 of The Second Treatise, Locke makes it abundantly clear that he believes in civil disobedience when natural rights are not being respected. Essentially, just as an aggressive conquering nation would have no valid moral/ethical claim over people, a government established by a majority rule also doesn’t have the ethical power to arbitrarily take property or destroy life.

“With this comes Locke’s argument that if a nation is attacked, it has a right, if it wins, to take property to be made ‘whole’, which is known as restitution, and this can be applied person-to-person. You have a right, if stolen from, to take what you need from your attacker to restore what you lost, but no more.”

On Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority

“In the first chapter of Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, the message is clear. Political authority has five basic precepts: generality, particularity, content independence, comprehensiveness, and supremacy.

“Generality means that authority applies to citizens in the greater majority.

“Particularity is seemingly just as simple; authority applies only to citizens in their specific territories. But this is far more complex. How does this apply to non-representative governments? This is truly all about the idea of written constitutions, because in the end, this is the emergent consequence of the assumption of state authority.

“Content independence stresses that the state’s authority is not dependent upon the content of its specific edicts, and, even if the state’s laws are bad or wrong, subjects are obliged to obey.

“Comprehensiveness explains that the state is empowered (somehow) to rule over a wide range of activities. We see this today with the myriad federal and state regulations and licensing laws. Supremacy. The state is the highest human authority.”

On Huemer’s Analysis of Social Contract Theory

“Chapter Two of The Problem of Political Authority sees a slight shift, to the discussion of the ‘social contract’, outlining that, of course, there is no explicit social contract, and because assuming implicit consent is not ethical and can be denied by the person said to be ‘consenting’, the ethics of the ‘social contract’ are questionable. It seems clear that the state is never voluntary, regardless of the arguments made on behalf of the ‘social contract’. In fact, if a real contract existed, the state would not be a state, but would be a private business engaged in free and voluntary exchange with willing participants.”