Agree to Disagree in a Constructive Way

Seems likes it’s becoming increasingly more difficult in the current political climate to “agree to disagree.” But can we disagree in a way that’s not destructive? Can we at least try to not be downright contemptuous to those with opposing views?

That’s the question being discussed by economist Arthur Brooks, who says politicians, in particular, are creating the climate of contempt. And the damage is being hoisted upon the average American.

“We have leaders who are encouraging us as citizens to treat each other with contempt,” Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said during a recent Facebook Live discussion from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual event held by the Aspen Institute in Colorado. “That’s a really dangerous business, building power on the basis of contempt and division. …

“The most destructive way to disagree is to treat your interlocutor with contempt. We have to get out of that particular habit. We have to demand leaders aren’t going to do that,” he said.

Sociologists describe contempt as a phenomenon in which individuals hold the conviction that other people are utterly worthless. It’s more insidious than disagreement or even anger, Brooks says.

“Anger you get over … contempt you don’t. If I treat you as a worthless human you’re never going to forget that,” he said, citing the work of marriage counselor John Gottman, who can watch a couple on a video for five seconds without the sound on and predict with 94 percent accuracy whether they will stay together or divorce based on physical expressions of contempt.

Nationally, 86 percent of Americans say they believe the country is more politically divided than in the past, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s the highest percentage ever to give that response since the question was first asked in 2004. At the same time, A CBS poll said a majority are optimistic that Americans of different political views can come together and work out their differences.

Brooks said that Americans in general have long been able to hold political disagreements and still treat each other respectfully.

“We all love somebody who doesn’t agree with us politically,” he said.

The obsession with national politics not only is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned, but also is to blame for the cult-like partitioning of Americans into political tribes. Fortunately, many political leaders at the state and local level on both sides of the aisle are solving problems without the distraction of creating heroes and villains.

Brooks says it comes down to being able to “disagree better.”

“The positive change starts with us.”

Do you think that Brooks is correct, and can anything be done to improve the divide?

Watch the video to hear more of Brooks’ views on the political climate and free enterprise as well as how he went from a classical musician to a world-renowned economist and researcher on happiness.

Farewell, Thomas Sowell, Thanks for the Memories

Thomas Sowell is retiring his column from Creators Syndicate. If you’re unfamiliar with the man, you’ve been missing out, probably while hiding under a rock.

Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, holding Rose and Milton Friedman chair. He is a National Humanities Medal and Bradley Prize for Intellectual Thought recipient.

Born in North Carolina, and raised in Harlem, N.Y., Sowell is an American economist who has written dozens and dozens of books on economics, education, and race, including two autobiographies reflecting on his life in the Jim Crow South and his travels from poverty to the military to the Ivy League to the Labor Department. He has taught at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis, UCLA, Stanford, and Amherst. His books have been translated into at least a dozen languages.

As a black conservative, he has faced a barrage of hateful criticism, yet, even at age 86, he remains pithy, resigned, and thoughtful.

To appreciate fully the man’s intellect would take intensive study of him, but to enjoy Sowell wit takes merely a review of some classic commentary. Gathered here are a few of his quotes, some recent, some decades old.


There are words that were once common, but which are seldom heard any more. The phrase “none of your business” is one of these.

Being old-fashioned, I liked to know what the facts were before writing.

It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.

Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.

People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.

There are so many substitutes used in our society — substitutes for eggs, substitutes for wood, substitutes for diamonds — that perhaps we should not be too surprised to find substitutes for morality as well.  One of the most widespread substitutes for morality, especially among intellectuals, is sanctimoniousness.

The first rule of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first rule of politics is to forget the first rule of economics.

The primary purpose of mascots is to symbolize something that makes others feel good.  The well-being of the mascot himself is seldom a major consideration.

This is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’, what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?

One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.

If naval-gazing, hand-wringing, or self-dramatization helped with racial issues, we would have achieved Utopia long ago.

The Never-Ending Battle Between Public Good and Private Property

In today’s American society, the battle between the public good vs. private rights manifests itself weekly, with reports of court cases and government regulations involving eminent domain, property rights, appropriate levels of taxation, and other disputes between individual freedom and society’s demands.

It’s no wonder. The argument over the exact balance between public and private has been going on for centuries.

In the second in a series of essays in the new volume, Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political PhilosophyPeter B. Josephson explains how philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, two kingpins of modern political thought, were in conflict over the tradeoffs between public good vs. private rights, though in the end they ended up coming to conclusions that were more alike than different.

As for the similarities, the two great philosophers spoke about the state of nature, and the notion of natural equality and liberty, wholly separate from the machinations of man, which created government and institutions. This natural world is where man is given his existence, his independence, which cannot be denied. Life is valued equally, and not to be decreed by one person or institution over another.

But is this state of nature good, or does it need to be contained? Josephson of Saint Anselm College explains how the two disagreed.

Hobbes famously explains that in the state of nature there is no ‘mine and thine,’ and ‘no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncer­tain, and consequently, no culture of the earth . . . no commodious building . . . no knowledge of the face of the earth.’ In Hobbes’ account, the condition of perfect liberty and equality—our natu­ral, ungoverned condition—is a state of war: a war of all against all that produces a condition that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ On the other hand, Locke describes a state of nature that includes natural rights to property and therefore an account of natural justice. Locke carefully distinguishes the state of nature from the state of war and describes the state of nature initially as a state of ‘perfect freedom’ and ‘equality,’ governed by a ‘law of nature’ that teaches anyone ‘who will but consult it’ that ‘no one ought to harm another.‘ In describing the ‘plain difference’ between the state of nature and a state of war, Locke writes that they are ‘as far distant, as a State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation, and a State of Enmity, Malice, Violence, and Mutual Destruction are from one another.’

As a result, Hobbes believes an absolute sovereign is needed to save us from ourselves while at the same time, our need for self-preservation means we must establish for ourselves a system to protect us from the haphazard or overbearing nature of a sovereign who would kill us to keep us from killing each other.

On the other side, for Locke, individuals agree to be guided by a common set of rules and leaders, but we submit to them out of convenience because we seek to work in harmony. No sovereign can remove our good from within us by telling us how or what to be. Political power is established according to a set of laws by which we consent to be governed.

Unlike our liberty, the philosophers disagree on man’s natural rights to property, though they eventually lead to the same place. On the one hand,

Hobbes insists that prop­erty is not natural, that it is rather a creation of the sovereign, sub­ject to consent and political authority, and so readers should expect extensive exercise of government authority over the private property it has created. …

In contrast, Locke insists that property rights are natural, and that each individual naturally holds a property right that is not at all dependent on the consent of others. In other words, we need no one’s permission to build our own property, not even the per­mission of the government.

So how is it possible that these two men, opposite sides of the coin, collectively have created the ground game on which so much of modern-day political society operates? They are in a constant battle between what is of the public concern, and what is private. It is that battle that we contest over and over again in the partisan realms of American governance.

For Hobbes, “political authority is necessary for the very creation and security of property; order precedes prosperity.” The sovereign basically hands out the property, and the rights to it, while at the same time the sovereign does not have total ownership in the first place, and the means of production cannot be centralized because if something goes wrong, everyone suffers. He suggests taxation as a means to make sure no one runs away with too much of a good thing.

For Locke, personal industry results in public good by its very nature. At the same time, while labor is the manifestation of our natural right, not all labor will be equal, and the overabundance of one man’s accumulation can result in scarcity for another. Since it is the natural right of everyone to exist, as a result, man needs to smooth over the unevenness, but Locke asserts that can only occur with the consent of the property, or labor, owner to contribute to the public good.

So how do we get to flourish as humans if we’re constantly being clipped and groomed and subject to the rule of law? Are we decent enough to contribute on our own, without a push from a central authority? Are we too unruly to be left alone? Can we have both personal success and achieve the summum bonum, the highest good?

Josephson explains:

As a response to that natural state of war, so-called lib­eral government is asked to respect and secure private natural rights, and to moderate or regulate the assertion of those rights. That is, we demand liberty, and also a defense against the dominion of others. Property, broadly understood, grounds the rights of individuals to govern themselves, and those rights also help establish a limit on the claims of others or the authority of the government. …

Liberalism thus seems an instrumental political arrangement, one that makes possible the private pursuit of diverse good lives with­out imposing a particular telos on its citizens. An essential instru­ment of this liberty—and therefore of the opportunity for human flourishing—is protection of the rights of private property. Rights of private property can ensure a level of sustenance and even indepen­dence that is instrumentally necessary for any good life.

Though life in the liberal regime thus promises neutrality with respect to conceptions of the good, in practice the new liberal regime cannot help imposing its own conception of the good or the tolera­ble on its subjects. Liberalism is “not mere proceduralism, nor is it neutral with respect to ways of life or virtues.”95 While the regime permits private pursuits of diverse goods, it also largely consigns those pursuits to the private sphere. The public realm still insists on particular characteristic actions. The free individual who can make his own way or chart her own course in the world must have certain capacities. Such a person must be independent and hardworking. Because of the liberal foundation in natural equality and natural lib­erty, such a person must respect the independence and hard work of others. And so liberalism insists on certain modern virtues, includ­ing industriousness and self-reliance, and toleration and civility. It rewards innovation and pragmatism more than tradition and phil­osophic speculation. Goods of the soul may be pursued freely in private. Lives devoted to faith or philosophy, to heroic virtue, or to pleasure must be moderated in the service of peace, preservation, and prosperity.

No regime is truly neutral with respect to the good life. The instru­ments of liberal life become the ends in themselves, and these new good lives may lack the lofty allure or ambition of the old. 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. Without a teleological account of human flourishing the idea of the greatest good becomes, for the philosophers of modern liberty, nothing more than a matter of taste, and taste is so much a matter of private judgment that we find it increasingly difficult to consider ultimate goods—and the common good—seriously. Thus egalitar­ian liberalism has a tendency toward relativism. And yet liberalism properly understood is not neutral; it asserts its own particular claim to the good. Taking liberalism’s particular claim seriously would be the first step toward a serious reappraisal of the alternatives—and especially of the claims of faith, philosophy, and heroic virtue.

Read Peter B. Josephson’s entire essay on Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy.

Can Modern Economics Help Us Achieve Happiness?

Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University and Hoover Institution fame has contributed a most useful essay to the new edited volume, Economics and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, explaining how Aristotle applied economics to happiness, and how the study of economics has been twisted by today’s economists and political “scientists” to limit people in their ability to be virtuous.

Aristotle wrote comprehensively on both economics and the flourishing life. Modern economics makes its way without study of the ‘flourishing life,’ which is one translation of what Aristotle meant by happiness. For him, as for common sense, happiness is the goal of ethics and politics, and ultimately of economics. At present, however, economics contents itself with the ‘pursuit of happiness’ (to borrow from the Declaration of Independence), a catchall category that specifies at great length how to pursue but hardly at all what to pursue. …

Originally — and this is in Aristotle as well as in the founders of modern economics — economics supposed that it could define needs or necessities as opposed to surplus or superfluities. But necessities have a way of expanding from survival to comfort and from comfort to perfect assurance, so that it seems safer, and scientifically more exact, to consider them infinite and thus decline to define them.

Economics becomes the science of getting more without ever saying how much more. It is because of its exactness that science requires this vagueness. Economics must either be exact or fall silent; it disdains and rejects the possibility of an inexact statement that is merely probable and better than nothing. It may attempt to evade the difficulty by defining ‘probability’ exactly. The result would be either a vague definition of exact or an exact definition of vague— which leaves the common sense ‘probable’ in charge. So the science of more, of ‘growth,’ drops the utilitarian posture that requires a definition of utility—possibly contestable — and turns to ‘preferences’ that are admittedly quite subjective. Thus does the objectivity of economics require that it surrender totally to human subjectivity. And as the measuring of preferences becomes increasingly sophisticated, which means increasingly mathematical, economics becomes increasingly vague as to its end and continually further from defining the ‘flourishing life.’ …

Turning to Aristotle, we see him considering ways of life with a view to which is best rather than calculation of what brings in more. More what, he wants to know, and how much more? For him the ‘pursuit’ of happiness implies an end to the pursuit, since endless pursuit is futile and irrational. All human beings pursue happiness; everything else is instrumental to happiness and pursued because it brings happiness. Even virtue, though an end in itself and often involving sacrifice, is also pursued as the means to happiness. Virtue won’t, or at least shouldn’t, make you miserable, Aristotle says, somewhat optimistically. To be happy is to be at rest, as we say, ‘sitting pretty.’ Those who scramble without end don’t know how to stop, don’t know how to enjoy. ‘Enjoy!’ we say today in moments of respite; Aristotle would say that enjoyment (not relaxation) is the whole purpose of scrambling to get ahead. Relaxation is to gain respite from scrambling so that one can resume it refreshed, but enjoyment is satisfaction in an end attained. …

Reading from Aristotle’s Ethics as well as his Politics, we see he maintains that virtue is the core of happiness. He means this in both a normative and a descriptive sense. Descriptively, every society has a virtue or cluster of virtues that it promotes as characterizing its way of life and defining its notion of happiness, often in his day the virtue of courage or martial spirit. But as every society claims that its prized virtue is best, Aristotle feels bound to judge normatively whether this claim is correct. For him there is no unbridgeable distinction between fact and value. …

Now it is obvious that virtue cannot assure happiness. This is true not so much because we often witness the sad fact of virtue unrewarded—for virtue is its own reward (not always sufficient!)— but because we observe virtue thwarted for lack of means. Virtue stands in need of “equipment,” Aristotle says nicely. It needs good fortune or the gods’ blessing (implied in the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, well-blessed), and it needs wealth. One cannot be generous without wealth to give away. Here enters the need for economics as akin to a science of wealth-getting but distinct from it because economics needs to be limited. Aristotle does not hold to the purity of virtue understood as bringing no personal advantage (called “altruism”), but he does agree that wealth-getting is morally dangerous. It is essentially instrumental to virtue but can often become an end in itself regardless of virtue, Aristotle here in accord with Karl Marx. Money monetizes everything, as with the touch of King Midas, and thereby seems to dissolve all value except itself.

Virtue as the core of happiness is a habit, not a calculation. If you have to calculate the advantage from virtue, you are no longer being virtuous for the sake of virtue, which is no longer virtuous. You are merely behaving virtuously while others are watching, which is not enough. Virtue is in the intent as well as in the action. …

(W)hat makes virtue noble is doing it for its own sake rather than for your private advantage. Yet Aristotle, still eschewing moral purity, says that virtue is for your advantage as well. Virtue makes you a better person, and perhaps a still better person if you realize that your virtue makes you better. For virtue is enhanced when aware of itself as the best kind of enjoyment. Similarly, the virtuous person does not seek pleasure, but he gets pleasure as a by-product of his virtue, taking a moderate pleasure in doing good and avoiding too much self-congratulation or superiority. …

We need a return to reason, to 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. Aristotle’s reason, by contrast, admits human necessities, for he was one of the founders of economics. But, because it is more empirical than economics by itself on the basis of human experience, it also seeks, through the soul, to come to terms with human nobility and freedom. Aristotle’s reason does its best to define the flourishing life, at its peak as well as in average, and measure the ordinary and the common by what is best and rare.

Mind-blowing, right? That’s just part of the essay. The notion of virtue, necessity, and decision-making has been impacted by the operation of modern politics. Mansfield describes some of the implications of this evolution on American society.

You can read the whole essay here.