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The Handmaiden of Entrepreneurship

Philosophy in the time of Charles Koch

When you hear the phrase “Philosophy 101,” what comes to mind? Like me, you might think of skepticism, the Socratic method, the law of non-contradiction, the mind-body problem, the categorical imperative, the problem of induction, the social contract, the trolley problem—in other words, the classic quandaries and ideas from the history of philosophy useful for an introductory overview of the subject.

One word that probably doesn’t come to mind is “entrepreneurship.” The University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom would like to change that.

Funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the institute synergizes the intellectual heft of one of the leading philosophy departments in the country, especially thanks to its political theorists, with the advancement of libertarian and free-market ideals in higher education and beyond. The Center’s director, David Schmidtz, embodies this marriage: a notable political philosopher and expert on Adam Smith, he is also a libertarian who is using Koch money and donations from other conservative businessmen to fund free-market-oriented research and public outreach.

Narrowly construed, none of this is obviously objectionable: Many initiatives in higher education nowadays are funded by philanthropy, and libertarian ideas have their place in free and open academic debate. Critics of such initiatives have to be careful, lest they condemn other forms of funding for ideas and research that they like.

The center offers a course called “Philosophy 101: Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship” for Arizona high school students “interested in going beyond the basic state standards for economics,” the center’s website says. “Students will come away better prepared for college, and for the ethical challenges that go with careers in business, or in law, politics, education, or journalism.” The center also offers workshops to train teachers to bring the course to their high schools.

The textbook offers up about as alarming a display of Koch-inspired free-market propaganda as I have ever come across.

Although the course is typically taught with digital materials, Schmidtz and University of Arizona colleagues Cathleen Johnson and Robert Lusch published a textbook named after the course, Ethics, Economy & Entrepreneurship, for those high school and college professors who want to teach Philosophy 101—i.e. an introduction to entrepreneurship—to their charges. A student and former professor of philosophy myself, I eagerly ordered a copy via Amazon Prime and dove in. What I found was a peculiar mixture of the utterly banal and the frighteningly ideological. The best introductory philosophy books avoid both, the less successful tend toward the former; but until now, no professionally produced introductory textbook in philosophy I’ve read leaned toward the latter.

First, the banal: The body of the book is largely a competent introduction to economics, business, and finance. Readers learn the basics about supply and demand, price, monopoly and monopsony, money, GDP, marginal value, and so on. It also explains some of the elementary philosophical concepts that ground a market economy, such as value, knowledge, trust, and property. Finally, it also offers some useful guidance on credit, accounting, and budgeting to those many high school students who aspire to start their own small businesses. (I don’t know about you, but in my experience, the few high schoolers who had this desire were the ones who sold pot—which, to be fair, has become a perfectly respectable business of late.) If these chapters of the book were used in Economics 101 or Business 101 for high schoolers, I would find little problem.

But the “ethics” portion of the Philosophy 101 textbook—the only part that is nominally philosophy—recasts the entire course. The bread holding this econ-and-business sandwich together at both ends is a libertarian ideological framework that blurs the distinction between the market and community, and identifies market values as fully determinative of ethical, social, and cooperative value. In so doing, the textbook offers up about as alarming a display of Koch-inspired free-market propaganda as I have ever come across.

Consider page one, from the introduction, which poses the fundamental nature of human existence in the following way:

The human condition is that we each arrive as newborn babies to a world that does not need us. The greatest and most joyful challenge of adult life is to develop skills that make the people around you better off with you than without you. It is within your power to show up at the marketplace with something to offer that will make others glad to know you.

It would certainly be news to evolutionary anthropologists that human parents, and indeed the larger tribal groups of which they are members, have no need of their offspring. It would also be surprising to the many philosophers, such as Aristotle, who see the building blocks of human society in families, households, and other basic social groupings, rather than individuals. But in the authors’ entrepreneurial hermeneutics, all of us are born orphans, claiming true love and respect only when we create something of value in the marketplace that other people need. Here Heidegger’s concept of geworfenheit (thrownness)—the idea that our existence consists of feeling thrown into circumstances not of our choosing—is spun into a social-Darwinist tale worthy of Herbert Spencer.

And how do we advance from our infant worthlessness? By getting our hustle on:

Homo sapiens became the wisest of primates around forty thousand years ago when we learned to make deals with strangers. . . . That’s humanity’s super-power: not wings, fins, or fangs but our ability to make deals. 

Yes, at the apex of that famous series of photographs from knuckle-dragging primates, to coarse Neanderthal, to upright homo sapiens, is Donald J. Trump, the deal maker.

Paired with this appallingly narrow vision of human life is an emaciated concept of ethics and human community, in which the market is elevated for all its communal aspects and non-market communal values are ignored or dismissed. In its introductory discussion of ethics, it defines the subject as “how people have to live in order for the world to be a better place with them than without them.” On its face, this definition sounds innocuous. But as we read how the authors make use of it, we see why it avoids talking more straightforwardly about ethics in terms of one’s obligations to other people. The entrepreneur who can claim to have made the world a better place through his business savvy can’t be said to owe anything more to others or to the community beyond the good he has already provided as an entrepreneur. Assuming he has followed the law and acted with integrity (i.e., not cheated or defrauded other market actors), he has done all that can be expected of him.

Behold the lynchpin of the book’s introductory thoughts on the point of ethics:

Imagine that 70 years from now, you are lying in bed, and you have done just about everything you are going to do in this life. Whatever time you have left, you will spend that time wondering what your life was all about. . . .

If you can say, I made a pile of money, that is good. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But you already know that there is something better than making a pile of money. Better is being able to say: I made the world a better place. It is good that I was here. I showed up. I believed in something. 

The deathbed fantasy is certainly a common way to introduce the importance of ethics to people who can’t be assumed to understand its importance. But it’s also a peculiarly narcissistic way to introduce it. Sure, it’s important to come to the end of life, ideally a time of honesty where there are no temptations and incentives to cloud one’s judgment, and believe that we have lived ethically. The real question is what it even is to live ethically, day by day in the middle of life, so that one isn’t deluded on that death bed. But the authors make no mention of the prevailing theories on this (e.g. Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Virtue Ethics, let alone Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments), instead settling for a system “that encourages agents in the market place to be on the lookout for opportunities to make Pareto-superior moves.” 

Yes, at the apex of that famous series of photographs from knuckle-dragging primates, to coarse Neanderthal, to upright homo sapiens, is Donald J. Trump, the deal maker.

Admittedly, the ways in which trade has led to the formation of cooperative relationships that undergird a community or society has been the subject of an enormous body of thought and research going back to ancient philosophy. But no fair and reasonable discussion of such arguments—certainly not in an introductory textbook for high schoolers—can conclude that the market alone suffices to explain social cooperation and norms. One cannot simply conclude from F.A. Hayek’s discussion of how market agents settle on the price of tin that “what emerges from the haggling is not only a deal but something larger: a community.” One cannot state flatly, as a basic principle, that, “A society where people are free to trade will be a cooperative venture for mutual benefit,” because there is more that goes into cooperation than market rationality.

This free-market ideology plagues the textbook’s thoughts not only on ethics but also on more mundane matters. Taxes, for example, are a straightforward necessity for a market society that requires institutions to enforce rules and protect market actors, yet libertarians always seem to sputter over such an obvious and ethical requirement. This textbook is no different, entreating its students to consider the circle game, a thought experiment from libertarian economist David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom, which it claims illustrates the unseen consequences of taxes:

Imagine a circle of a hundred taxpayers. You are the tax collector. You go round the circle, taking a penny from each and then you pick one out of the hundred for a fifty-cent windfall. That person is now delighted and thinks taxes are a good thing on balance.

Now do the same thing another hundred times, picking a different person each time for a fifty-cent windfall. In end, we’ve taken a hundred from each taxpayer, we have given back fifty to each, and everyone is happy and thinks taxes are a good thing on balance.

Why are they happy? Because they see the fifty-cent windfall, and may even come to depend on it.

They do not see the hundred cents they paid for that fifty-cent windfall, because that was taken from them one cent at a time. The way the pennies add up is unseen. 

(Emphasis added.)

Yes, where do those unseen fifty cents from each round of taking go? It’s as if they disappear into a black hole—just like taxes! Of course, if the value of tax withholdings is unseen to you, it’s perhaps because you have a very narrow, market-oriented view of society—one that acknowledges (begrudgingly) how taxes pay for functioning markets in the first place, but cannot bear that even a penny of their value creation go to any communal purpose beyond the market. (You know, there is a technical phrase for this I picked up from my deep reading of abstruse philosophy texts: “blinded by greed.”)

There is a technical phrase for this I picked up from my deep reading of abstruse philosophy texts: “blinded by greed.”

Taxes not only go to the taxpayer’s immediate community but to the community enterprise as a going concern. On this matter the textbook hawks a line worthy of Ayn Rand’s worship of railroad barons. The authors target Senator Elizabeth Warren’s famous comments on fair taxation, that those who become wealthy have a social obligation to “take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along,” because no one becomes wealthy without myriad benefits that society provides. Sensible enough, and the textbook’s authors—to their immense credit—acknowledge that the wealthy are obligated to pay what they legally owe to other parties, such as their employees, contractors, the IRS, et al. But they are troubled by Warren’s idea that they also owe future generations. Did Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, have such an obligation, they ask? Suppose for the sake of argument that he did.

Then the question becomes, did Edison, in fact, pay it forward? Did he help the next kid who comes along? And the answer is this: yes, of course, he gave something to the next kid who comes along. He gave that kid the light bulb. 

Here again the only so-called philosophy driven home in this decidedly unphilosophical book is that there are no communal values, no ethical obligations to other people; there is only what you owe, and what you provide to, the market.

Of course, even the authors have to acknowledge that not everything is governed by the market. There are public goods and the commons, about which the book offers some reasonable discussion. And then there are social groupings, great and small, that eschew the market in favor of communal schemes. But, the authors argue, such doomed-to-failure experiments hardly deserve to be called communities at all:

In practice, communal regimes can lead to careless dumping of wastes, ranging from piles of unwashed dishes to ecological disasters that threaten whole continents. People get lazy and just don’t care enough about the sorts of basic courtesy—simply cleaning up after yourself—that good neighbors care about. You have been around long enough to know what we are talking about. 

Here I am reminded of the late Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen’s way of cashing out the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” in terms of how people cooperate on a camping trip. Whether you ultimately agree with Cohen or not, I’m left wondering whether any of the textbook’s authors have been on a camping trip or lived in a co-op or engaged in any communal activity that does not dangle financial incentives.

The book concludes with a chapter titled “The Entrepreneur and Self-Assessment” in which the lessons for leading “a rewarding entrepreneurial life” are hammered home. Here again we get the same narcissism-spun-as-life-ethics, in which what the true entrepreneur really cares about is the respect from his community for making it better off thanks to his self-enriching efforts:

Some entrepreneurs may appear to be arrogant, but consistently successful entrepreneurs are not over-confident, and they are not self-absorbed. They understand the basic value proposition. That is, they are political animals, and being successful in life involves building a place for themselves in a community of other political animals. They want something from other people. A big part of what they want is for other people to know and appreciate what they do to be of service.

And what happens when the community at large comes to realize, perhaps by taking Philosophy 101 in high school, the immense value that entrepreneurs provide? Maybe the community will then stop making claims on the entrepreneur, based on such silly notions as “justice” and “fairness,” that he owes it more than simply his light bulb idea. This is what these “political animals” want from other people: to be freed from community ties and what they morally demand. This isn’t ethics; it’s indoctrination into the libertarian outlook on social relations.

The chapter ends with a rousing exhortation to the aspiring student-entrepreneurs worthy of the coal walks at a Tony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within” seminars:

What does it take for you to be able to get up in the morning wanting to give thanks for the fact that you have this day—this incredible gift of one more day of not-to-be-wasted life on this earth? What does it take for you to know in your bones that this is your day?

We told you that there would be a test.

“Now go out there and create value!” I can hear the textbook authors yell to their students.

The question for us is what test this textbook and this course present to us. The very libertarian-friendly state of Arizona has a public university with a center funded by the Charles Koch Foundation that provides free-market ideology courses to high school students under the rubric of philosophy. The point here is not to oppose the research and discussion of libertarian ideas in higher education, nor is it to dismiss the salutary idea of introducing philosophy to high school students. This is not what is going on here. This so-called “Philosophy 101” is about shaping the minds of high school students to adopt a radical free-market outlook, and its so-called textbook is propaganda, plain and simple.