The Applause at Davos for Milei’s Defense of Free Market Capitalism “Was More Than Polite”

(p. A17) There were no marches for Adam Smith or posters of Milton Friedman at Davos this year, but the applause for the combative defense of free markets by Argentina’s new libertarian President Javier Milei was more than polite. Citing the contrast between ages of stagnation and the miracle of accelerating progress in the modern era, Mr. Milei reminded his audience that “far from being the cause of our problems, free-trade capitalism as an economic system is the only instrument we have to end hunger, poverty and extreme poverty across our planet.”

His words resonated because, as one heard in panel after panel, the empirical foundations of the fashionable statist view appear to be crumbling. For now at least, the China miracle seems to be over. Beijing isn’t only suffering one economic shock after another. Its worst problems—demographic decline, a property bubble, overinvestment in manufacturing, and fear of arbitrary state actions against both foreign and domestic businesses—are the result of government planning gone wrong. As China doubles down on repression, its economic problems get worse.

Fifteen years after the financial crisis, meanwhile, tightly regulated Europe has fallen behind the U.S. Using chained 2015 dollars to minimize the effect of currency fluctuations, total European Union gross domestic product in 2008 was 81% that of the U.S. In 2022 it was 73%, hardly an argument for the European way.

For the full commentary, see:

Walter Russell Mead. “GLOBAL VIEW; Davos Turns Gently to the Right.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 22, 2024, and has the same title as the print version.)

Will Humans Flourish if Easements Restrict How Inherited Property Is Used?

My mentor at Wabash College, Ben Rogge, was a friend of Pierre Goodrich, the founder of Liberty Fund. They both were great admirers of Adam Smith. Adam Smith believed that inherited property should not be encumbered with restrictions on how future generations used the property. The practice is sometimes called ‘ruling with a dead hand.’ When Liberty Fund was proposed, Rogge suggested that it be set up so that all of the funds would be exhausted at some pre-established time after Goodrich’s death. On this one proposal, Rogge failed to convince Goodrich of the wisdom of Adam Smith’s advice.

Rogge was a supporter of Schumpeter’s idea that we flourish through creative destruction. Progress through creative destruction is harder to accomplish if inherited property is encumbered by ‘ruling with a dead hand.’ Rogge feared that as the decades passed, the inheritors of Liberty Fund would eventually, and substantially, diverge from Goodrich’s original values and hopes. Liberty Fund money helped Rogge make a movie on Adam Smith. Rogge sadly joked that eventually the inheritors of Liberty Fund would probably support making a movie on a famous socialist.

(I can’t remember the name of the socialist who Rogge jokingly mentioned, but I vaguely, vaguely think it might have been Ethel Rosenberg.)

(I base the lines above on my memories of comments by Ben Rogge in conversations and lectures.)

(p. M1) “After me, there won’t be any others,” says Roland Reisley, absorbing what it means to be the last original occupant of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Reisley is sitting in his hexagonal living room on a rocky hill near Pleasantville, N.Y.

. . .

(p. M4) Despite the house’s pristine condition, the one thing he can’t do is turn it into a museum. It is part of a Westchester County neighborhood laid out by Wright himself in the late 1940s. The community, which Wright named Usonia, never achieved its founders’ ambitions—to become a kind of exurban co-op where everything was owned in common—but it is still a tightly knit community of 47 homes with shared amenities such as a pool and tennis courts. “The residents would not agree to a museum,” Reisley says.

. . .

But if he can’t turn it into a museum, he can execute a preservation easement, a legal document that will prevent future owners from making changes to the house.

. . .

Asked why he hasn’t executed an easement yet, after talking about doing so for years, Reisley says he is “trying to find language that protects what’s important but allows for some reasonable changes to be made. I am going to do it,” Reisley says. “I just haven’t gotten around to doing it. I’m a procrastinator.”

Then, too, his only living child has expressed concerns. Robert Reisley, a 65-year-old entrepreneur and private-equity investor in Philadelphia, says, “I don’t have an issue with a preservation easement on the exterior of the house.” But he says it’s possible he and his wife, or one of their adult children, might want to live in the house. “We might need to make a few necessary changes to the interior. And we might not be able to get permission. That’s my hesitation.”

For example, he says, “The hallway to the bedrooms is very dark. Wright was practical. If we’d asked him, he would have said, ‘Put a skylight there.’ But Wright’s not around, and the conservancy might not allow it.”

. . .

In Minneapolis, the Olfelt house was on the market for two years before a local couple with grown children bought it for $1.2 million in the Spring of 2018. Several months later, they filed plans with the city to add a 1,500-square-foot, $2 million wing to the original 2,600-square-foot house and alter some of the original interiors.

. . .

The Juneks created a website,, to explain their intentions. “The impetus for the addition and the minimal interior renovations,” they wrote, “is to address the meager space allocated to the master bedroom, to expand the kitchen to accommodate a large multi-generation family, and to ensure that the home be comfortable, accessible, and safe for aging in place.” The renovation was designed by the New York architecture firm Thread Collective. Photos on the firm’s website show a dining room in a space that used to contain Wright’s tiny galley kitchen, and a spacious new kitchen in what used to be two children’s bedrooms. The addition, which contains a master-bedroom suite over a new garage, is visible mainly from the back of the house. “We have now been living in the house for three years, are very happy with the results of the project,” John Junek wrote in an email.

. . .

Robert and Mary Walton chose not to burden their six children with a preservation easement, the same choice made by Gerte Shavin, Bette Pappas, and the Olfelts. All of them died knowing they had no control over the future of their houses. “Its fate is entirely in the hands of the next owner,” Paul Olfelt told me in a phone message after vacating his house in 2017. Sounding emotional, he added, “I think we were good stewards of the house, and we assume that anyone who buys it will be the same.”

Reisley still has a chance to execute an easement. Will he? The easement would operate in perpetuity, and perpetuity, the 99-year-old homeowner says, “is a very long time.”

For the full story, see:

Fred A. Bernstein. “The Last Original Owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright House.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, June 30, 2023): M1 & M4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 27, 2023, and has the title “Frank Lloyd Wright Built 120 Homes Near the End of His Life. Just One Original Owner Remains.”)

“The Bad Boy of Silicon Valley” Advises We “Do Nothing and Let the Invisible Hand Fix the Problem Free of Charge”

The author of the comments quoted below was the founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation.

(p. A17) In the late 1970s cars became computerized. My first Silicon Valley employer, American Microsystems, once “lost the recipe” and cut off the supply of memory chips to a Lincoln Continental plant. Without our chips, cars couldn’t be started. Ford later dropped us as a vendor, the penalty for shutting down an auto plant.

Soon the automotive industry created an extensive repertoire of reliability and sourcing qualifications that prevented many such problems but also mired the industry in bureaucracy. Today, the qualification process for a new chip vendor takes 18 to 24 months or more. That’s why automotive companies can’t simply buy a scarce chip from another vendor in a crunch to keep the lines running.

. . .

Auto companies slashed their chip orders at the pandemic’s outset, and supply responded accordingly. But when auto demand surprised everybody by staying strong, and auto makers suddenly needed more chips, the semiconductor industry couldn’t respond quickly enough. Even with robotic factories, it takes 12 weeks on average to make a silicon wafer—longer if advanced processes are required—and that’s before back-end assembly and shipping around the world. President Biden says he is “studying” supply chains, but every knowledgeable person in the industry knows that politics and subsidies are irrelevant. The market players will fill this chip shortage before the Democrats and Republicans finish arguing about whose fault it is.

. . .

There is no need to give taxpayers’ money to some of the smartest and richest corporations in the world. Chip companies thrive in free markets and barely survive in controlled economies. This message shouldn’t be controversial, but in 1991 my distaste for pork-barrel spending got me labeled “The Bad Boy of Silicon Valley” on the cover of BusinessWeek. My proposed solution to the current chip problem? Do nothing and let the invisible hand fix the problem free of charge.

For the full commentary, see:

T.J. Rodgers. “Government Won’t Fix Chip Shortage.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 29, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 28, 2021, and has the title “Government Won’t Fix the Semiconductor Shortage.”)

Defending the Enlightenment

(p. C7) The dishonoring of Hume, and attacks on other Enlightenment luminaries such as Jefferson and Kant, indicate that the case against the Enlightenment has escaped the faculty lounge and is now in the streets. This turbulent context will inevitably frame any modern history of the Enlightenment, and so it is with Ritchie Robertson’s “The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790.” Mr. Robertson’s study is part of a growing rearguard action. He is determined, alongside colleagues such as Jonathan Israel and Anthony Pagden, both to defend the Enlightenment on its own terms and to promote its “particularly urgent message for our time.”

. . .

What the Enlighteners offered was reason alloyed with sentiment. “In this book,” writes Mr. Robertson, “I try to present the Enlightenment not only as an intellectual movement, but also as a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings, and more concerned for what we would call humane, or humanitarian values.”

. . .

He uses the sentimental revolution to explain important reformist causes, such as the suppression of cruelty to animals, penal reform and new models of education. A “feeling” for humanity in all its diversity, among figures such as Diderot and Burke, informed powerful critiques of European empire. Even Adam Smith—(p. C8)often misremembered as a pitiless capitalist—made feeling central to sociability in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). According to Smith, as Mr. Robertson puts it, social and economic life was not powered by “cold calculations” but by “desire, which had to be properly channelled in order to produce happiness.”

The postmodernist attacks on the Enlightenment as coercive, disciplinarian and hierarchical, Mr. Robertson claims, ignore its softer dimension, its humane sympathy and its concern to ameliorate suffering.

For the full review, see:

Jeffrey Collins. “Let’s Be Reasonable, and Humane.” The New York Times Book Review (Saturday, March 13, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 12, 2021, and has the title “‘The Enlightenment’ Review: Daring to Feel.”)

The book under review is:

Robertson, Ritchie. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York: Harper, 2021.

Nader Enlists Mises, Hayek, Friedman and Stigler in Critique of Crony Capitalism

(p. A9) Mr. Nader, the consumer crusader who ran for president to the left of Al Gore, is perhaps the last person one would expect to admire a libertarian critique of the corporate state. But in “Unstoppable” he respectfully describes the views of Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler and other free-market economists. He praises their distrust of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen who seek to put government power in the service of corporate profit.
Not that the Republican Party is always guided by such thinkers. Mr. Nader neatly describes how corporatist RINOs (Republican In Name Only) co-opt the party’s anti-statist crusaders. “The corporatist Republicans,” he writes, “let the libertarians and conservatives have the paper platforms . . . and then move into office, where they are quick to throw out a welcome mat for Big Business lobbyists with their slush funds.” He cites Adam Smith’s suspicion of regulations that benefit special interests: “Such restraints favor the privileged interests that want to entrench their economic advantages through the force of law.”
These are profound observations and ones that I saw play out while editing the Americas column for this newspaper in the 1980s and ’90s. Mercantilist Latin American businessmen who claimed to cheer market forces often thrived only because of their contacts in government. They reached out to the Journal’s editorial page as allies but were more socialist in practice than some of their left-wing enemies. Little did I suspect that a similar form of mercantilism, or corporate statism, would take root in the U.S. It is a pleasure to see Mr. Nader doing battle against such cozy arrangements.

For the full review, see:
DAVID ASMAN. “BOOKSHELF; Let’s Make a Deal; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 18, 2014): A9.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 17, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Unstoppable’ by Ralph Nader; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.”)

Book under review:
Nader, Ralph. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books, 2014.

Locke and Smith Showed How Economic Life Has Moral Value

(p. 241) Andrzej Rapaczynski discusses “The Moral Significance of Economic Life” in the most recent issue of Capitalism and Society. His abstract summarizes the argument (p. 242) compactly: “Much of the modern perception of the role of economic production in human life–whether on the Left or on the Right of the political spectrum–views it as an inferior, instrumental activity oriented toward self-preservation, self-interest, or profit, and thus as essentially distinct from the truly human action concerned with moral values, justice, and various forms of self-fulfillment. This widely shared worldview is rooted, on the one hand, in the Aristotelian tradition that sees labor as a badge of slavery, and freedom as lying in the domain of politics and pure (not technical) knowledge, and, on the other hand, in the aristocratic medieval Christian outlook, which–partly under Aristotle’s influence–sees nature as always already adapted (by divine design) to serving human bodily needs, and the purpose of life as directed toward higher, spiritual reality. . . . As against this, liberal thinkers, above all Locke, have developed an elaborate alternative to the Aristotelian worldview, reinterpreting the production process as a moral activity par excellence consisting in a gradual transformation of the alien nature into a genuinely human environment reflecting human design and providing the basis of human autonomy. Adam Smith completed Locke’s thought by explaining how production is essentially a form of cooperation among free individuals whose self-interested labor serves the best interest of all. The greatest “culture war” in history is to re-establish the moral significance of economic activity in the consciousness of modern political and cultural elites.” Capitalism and Society, December 2013, vol. 8, no. 2,

Taylor, Timothy. “Recommendations for Further Reading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.
(Note: italics, and ellipses, in original.)

Wittgenstein Heirs Lost Family Wealth and “Found Little Happiness”


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. W10) As he lay dying during Christmas 1912 — from a gruesome throat cancer — the Viennese industrialist Karl Wittgenstein no doubt took some comfort in the fact that he was leaving to his heirs one of the largest fortunes in Europe. He had acquired his wealth in just 30 years, the period during which Wittgenstein, an engineer, transformed a small steel mill into Europe’s largest steel cartel through a combination of hard work, luck and ruthlessness. As der österreichische Eisenkönig (the “Austrian iron king”), he was the chief executive, principal shareholder or director of dozens of industrial companies and banks that provided the ore, manufacturing and financing for most of the steel products of the Habsburg Empire.

In his spare time, Wittgenstein acquired a spectacular house in Vienna, grandly styled as the family’s Palais Wittgenstein.
. . .
Today, though, the Wittgenstein millions are gone and the Palais replaced by a hideous concrete apartment block. “Riches,” Adam Smith wrote, “. . . very seldom remain long in the same family.” Alexander Waugh’s grimly amusing “The House of Wittgenstein” shows how the family fortune was lost and how the family members themselves, despite instances of prodigious talent and accomplishment, found little happiness in their own lives or pleasure in their sibling relations.

For the full review, see:
JAMES F. PENROSE. “BOOKS; A Viennese Blend: Riches and Rancor; Blessed by Musical and Intellectual Gifts, and Lots of Money, a Family Still Struggled to Find Harmony.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2009): W10.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 28, 2009.)

The book under review is:
Waugh, Alexander. The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

In the England of the Late 1600s, Coffeehouses Were “Crucibles of Creativity”


Source of book image:

(p. 8) Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world.
. . .
Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, “gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”
. . .
. . . , coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities.” It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his “Principia Mathematica,” one of the foundational works of modern science.
Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan’s, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd’s.
And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece “The Wealth of Nations” in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.

For the full commentary, see:
TOM STANDAGE. “OPINION; Social Networking in the 1600s.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 23, 2013): 8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 22, 2013.)

The author of the commentary is also the author of a related book:
Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

Office Workers Switch Tasks Every 11 Minutes and Take 25 Minutes to Return to Original Task

(p. 12) As economics students know, switching involves costs. But how much? When a consumer switches banks, or a company switches suppliers, it’s relatively easy to count the added expense of the hassle of change. When your brain is switching tasks, the cost is harder to quantify.
There have been a few efforts to do so: Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. But there has been scant research on the quality of work done during these periods of rapid toggling.

For the full commentary, see:
BOB SULLIVAN and HUGH THOMPSON. “GRAY MATTER; Brain, Interrupted.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., May 5, 2013): 12.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 3, 2013.)

The Gloria Mark paper referred to in the commentary is:
Mark, Gloria, Victor M. Gonzalez, and Justin Harris. “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work.” Proceedings of ACM CHI’05, Portland, OR, (April 2-7, 2005): 321-30.

Another relevant Gloria Mark paper is:
Mark, Gloria, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Kloecke. “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress.” Proceeding of the Twenty-sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’08), Florence, Italy, ACM Press (2008): 107-10.