Readings and roving thoughts

1. Can Virtuous Habits be Cultivated? The short answer is “yes.” The secret is to not rely on willpower, but on purposely cultivated habits. It was the Duke of Wellington who said “Habit is ten times nature.” Wellington was referring to how powerful habit is in shaping our character over our innate willpower, or nature, in doing the job. The research on this only confirms what Aristotle said two centuries ago: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle asked us to pay careful attention to the habits we are unconsciously forming each day. Be careful, Aristotle would say, about the daily choices you make, because those choices make you.

2. Too Big to Fail and Too Risky to Exist. Even Adam Smith would have been dismayed at the lack of regulation and government oversight that existed in the financial sector prior to 2008. Smith did not believe, contrary to some of the twisted rhetoric from libertarians and libertarian conservatives, in unregulated financial markets. The “invisible hand” doesn’t operate so well in this market (as we’re finding out in the health care market also). Total freedom for wolves (the rich and powerful) is death for the lambs (the rest of us). Smith understood this very well. His basic argument can be seen as saying that markets don’t make men free, but free men will favor markets. And that favoring of free markets is facilitated and ensured by law and order AND government action, where needed.

Smith thought unregulated, unfettered competition in the banking sector a bad idea. It poses a systemic risk to the entire economy. On top of that Smith’s philosophy, being of the 18th century, didn’t account for Externality, Tragedy of the Commons, and Informational Asymmetry. So Smith’s ideas have clear limitations in a modern world. Limitations that were, and still are, ignored by the wolves of unfettered capitalism.

3. Who Killed the Liberal Arts? The Liberal Arts aren’t actually dead, but certainly options are becoming more limited at colleges and universities. Joseph Epstein nicely sums it up:

The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

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