Half Past the Month: Adam Smith Meets Jane Austin Meets Benito Mussolini

December 17, 2014

“I may have lost my heart, but not my self-control.” — Jane Austen in Emma

“Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.” — Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments

CERTAIN MEMBERS of this foundation gather every year to survey the political landscape and to enjoy each other’s company. The landscape being what it is, the latter motivation has driven attendance in recent years.

Sometimes, though, we learn something. That was the case this year on the topic of self-control, both of the individual and governmental variety. Mostly we were reminded that self-control is hard work, not a given.

Cecil Bohanon, a professor of economics, walked us through the writings of Adam Smith and Jane Austin, noting parallels in their respect for this critical and most difficult habit of character, one that the experts tell us may be learned (or not) in the first few months or even weeks of school.

Two centuries after the sterling examples of Austin and Smith, it should be obvious that self-control in the adult citizenry is integral to a civilization in which freedom is conditioned on responsibility. But it is not obvious. Indeed, the trending of our democratic representation treats it as irrelevant.

That may be predictable. It is easy to win 51 percent of your neighbors’ favor by promising them that somebody will care for them. Rare is the consultant who can make a living advising that voters be told they are on their own.

Thus, the politically machined and simplistic Common Core curriculum, while promising to lift all children above average by fiat, methodically diminishes textbook examples of how individual instances of self-control produce our civilization’s art, poetry, literature and national security.

A hero to those in this office is a policeman, identity unknown, whom CNN cameras found walking through the streets of San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake. He was stopping dazed residents emerging from the rubble to say that in such a catastrophe nobody was coming to help them any time soon, that they were going to have to find their own water, splint their own bones and bind their own wounds. He no doubt saved lives.

In contrast, Indiana legislators yield to scattered complaints that there is not enough sunlight in a day or that it is inconveniently scheduled. They are lobbied to provide what the astrological arrangement cannot. Their solution, instead of asking those so motivated to exercise the self-control to rise earlier or retire later, is the institution of Daylight-Saving Time (DST).

Our John Gaski, a professor of marketing and another seminar attendee, has made a decade-long study of this folly. He concludes that across an expected 40-year working lifetime, assuming constant income, Indiana’s DST-induced earnings loss is more than $51 billion while arguably causing an increase in traffic accidents and lowering student scores on the spring Scholastic Aptitude Test (disruption of the delicate teenage circadian rhythm).

Why are politicians drawn to such intractable problems? Are they fools? Does the Devil make them do it?

Or maybe they just missed the point of an early childhood education. By bad luck, good luck or choice, they never mastered the art of self-command. They go through life misjudging the difficulty and uncertainty of commanding others by mere decree. “It looked like it would work on paper,” MIT economist and ObamaCare adviser Jonathan Gruber might say, or “That’s not the way it ended in the movie.”

Along those lines, Benito Mussolini, who could misjudge with the best of them, was asked if governing the Italians were difficult. “Not particularly difficult,” replied Il Duce, “merely useless.”

Well, it would explain a lot.

— Craig Ladwig



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