Wednesday, March 14, in the McDonnell Conference Room, located in the Social Sciences Building on the University of Missouri – St. Louis campus, a small group attended a presentation by James R. Otteson, joint professor of philosophy and economics and chair of the philosophy department, Yeshiva University, New York. He is also a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC and is said to be the premiere scholar of Adam Smith’s works, quite an impressive distinction.
Prior to his position in New York, Otteson taught at Georgetown University and at the University of Alabama. He received his bachelor’s degree from the liberal studies program at the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has recently turned his attention to his third book, titled “The End of Socialism.”
Otteson thinks that capitalism is quite unnatural. Society sees capitalism as a way of getting what we need or what we want, but in itself, could socialism be morally superior to capitalism? Every time capitalism has been attempted, it has succeeded. Every time socialism has been tried, it has failed.
Yet Otteson still believes that people want socialism. He believes that society’s indecision explains why we have an instinctive suspicion of the system. “And the reason for [our suspicion] is because I think it is contrary to some of our deeply held and fundamentally natural ways of thinking. In fact, I think it is so strange and unnatural that when it succeeds at its goal of increasing material prosperity, it still faces an instinctive distrust. What I would like to suggest is that the [feelings] we have toward capitalism [are] at least partly a result of it being contrary to some of our deeply held natural information,” Otteson said.
Otteson believes there is a missing piece to the puzzle. He raises the question of whether or not legal institutions are enough. There have been institutions in history that were very similar, but we did not see the industrial revolution then, or an explosion of wealth.
“If you were alive in the year 1000, surveying the world, and someone said to you [that] there is a place in the world that in 1000 years will have unprecedented levels of wealth, what would you have guessed it would be? You would not have said the tiny little island of England or Scotland. That would not have even been on the radar. It would have been China,” Otteson said.
He went on to say that China already had a sophisticated culture in many ways. They had extensive trade routes, inventions and technological innovations, yet the average level of wealth did not really budge. It did not push the needle and that had surprised him. So there must be something else going on.
Otteson talked a little about the Occupy movement. He believes this is an instance of people worrying because some people are getting wealthy at significantly different rates than others. “We live in something like a capitalistic society, with enormous wealth, but the comparisons of wealth are not the same. All aspects of our lives are different than what they were in revolutionary times. Nevertheless, when we see someone who has a lot more than us, the first thought is that there is something wrong,” Otteson said.
Some of the students who attended the lecture received extra credit in their classes, but students Natalie Kavanaugh, junior, marketing, and Maria Del Rio, junior, marketing, were certain that they would take something more than extra credit away from this event.
by Angela Acton, staff writer for The Current.