Our friend Charlotte Allen has a wonderful piece in the new Weekly Standard calling for “More Adam Smith, Please…and less Barbara Ehrenreich.” As the Other Charlotte points out, Ehrenreich , author of such annoyingly simplistic books as Nickled and Dimed, is the main source on the nature of capitalism for most recent college grads. By contrast, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), the seminal work on capitalism, is rarely read. No wonder the rising generation has such warped ideas!
Instead of works by leading 18th- and 19th-century thinkers, college students got the adventures of Ehrenreich, a self-proclaimed socialist, dabbling in minimum-wage blue-collar employment such as waitressing, cleaning houses, and clerking for Walmart. Her modus operandi was to put in a few weeks on the job, quit in a huff over such indignities as having to scrub toilets or be nice to customers, and then complain about employee drug-testing at Walmart and the impossibility of surviving on $7 an hour (impossible for Ehrenreich, that is, since she lived by herself in relatively costly motel rooms instead of with family like most of the real-life working poor).
Instead of wondering whether some people stay poor and live in poverty because they make lousy lifestyle choices such as dropping out of high school and bearing children out of wedlock, Ehrenreich made the zero-sum argument that people are poor because the rich systematically steal from them, for example by buying up all convenient residential land for “condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like,” thereby forcing those at the bottom of the ladder into shabby trailer parks from which they commute to their “junk” jobs.
Economic literacy, especially about the history of the field, is abysmal. Worse, there is resistance to improving the situation:
In 2006 Robert Paquette, a history professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., tried to set up a campus program, to be called the “Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization,” that would offer lectures, colloquia, conferences, fellowships, and internships, all focusing on such historical, philosophical, and political themes as property rights, slavery, and the meaning of freedom. Funding would be supplied by a $3.6 million grant from a longtime Hamilton trustee, Carl Menges, and smaller gifts from institutional donors. The center won the signed approval of Hamilton’s president, and all seemed to go well-until Hamilton’s faculty voted by a margin of more than 80 percent to demand that the college rescind its support.
Charlotte’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. Once again, it reminded me that some of those who pose as intellectuals are opposed to free trade not only in economics but in the realm of ideas.