Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

“A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another,” Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations.  He was discussing the advantages of specialization — the cobbler who sticks to his last.

EconomicPrincipals is in sauntering mode, tying up loose ends, starting a new book, readjusting to an era when Harvard University will no longer be run by economists. Drew Gilpin Faust, 59, a historian of the US Civil War, who has been dean of the Radcliffe Institute since 2001, has been named to the job.

The topic for today, therefore, is one in which you do the heavy lifting — a Web-based enterprise, one click away, that is easy to overlook. For those with a taste for economics of a certain sort, especially an interest in the history of economics, the Library of Economics and Liberty, a.k.a. EconLib, is an unparalleled resource, and a pretty good source of news as well.

The website is a project of the Liberty Fund, which was founded by Indianapolis businessman and lawyer Pierre F. Goodrich in 1960.  For those of us of a certain age, “philanthropic Indianapolis businessman” is a code-phrase signifying a particular variety of affable lightweight Midwestern conservatism, former vice president Dan Quayle being the word made flesh.

Goodrich, on the other hand, had a collector’s eye for quality. An extremely canny investor, he was best known for cashing out of the stock market in 1929, then returning in the early ’30s to buy up local business at Depression prices, most conspicuously Indiana Telephone Corp., of which he served as president for many years. Goodrich died in 1973. Wabash College left an indelible mark on him.  All his life he read deeply in the Great Books tradition. He created a remarkable library-cum-shrine for the college.

For a long time, the Liberty Fund was best known for the conferences it arranged, and for making available in soft cover at bargain prices the seven volumes of the splendid Glasgow edition of the works and correspondence of Adam Smith, prepared for the 1976 bicentennial of the appearance of The Wealth of Nations and published by Oxford University Press.

(A special feature of those books and the many other titles published by the Fund is the “amagi” imprint on their endpapers, that cuneiform character, taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, being the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” or “liberty.” A shibboleth, perhaps, but a subtle one: a reminder that “conservative” and “liberal” views spring from a single source.)

A couple of years ago, Liberty put the full text of dozens of economics classics on line — books no longer covered by copyright, such as The Wealth of Nations, John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics, not to mention dozens of lesser-known works by first-rate figures  Then they hooked up a search-engine.

What this permits is astonishing. For example, go to the online Wealth of Nations, type “saunter” into the search field, and see how easy it is to locate a dimly-remembered passage. Then navigate back to the EconLib home page and look around.

There you will find an encyclopedia, the old Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, which appeared originally in 1993, edited by David Henderson, a scholar and frequent contributor to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Its 157 lively entries were written by the likes of George Stigler, Avinash Dixit & Barry Nalebuff and Paul Romer. There, too, appear articles about various economic topics contributed by readers.

Even better, you’ll find a lively blog presided over by a pair of public intellectuals, Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan.  Both are economists: Kling received his PhD from MIT in 1980; Caplan received his from Princeton in 1997. Both are libertarians: Kling an entrepreneur; Caplan of a more exotic variety that traces back to a youthful enthusiasm for Ayn Rand. Kling hangs his hat at the Cato Institute; Caplan teaches at George Mason University.  Together they keep up a steady stream of commentary, as good a specimen of the blogger’s art as that of N. Gregory Mankiw, Brad Delong or Tyler Cowen.

The most recent addition to the site is EconTalk, a series of radio interviews by features editor of the site, Russ Roberts. Recent interviews include Michael Lewis on the hidden economics of baseball and football, Peter Boettke on Katrina and the economics of disaster, Stanley Engerman on slavery, and Virginia Postrel on style.

A especially good interview with Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago reveals him to be as unconvinced as ever that a significant difference exists between what we call knowledge (meaning that which can be written down in books and computers) and human capital (meaning the know-how and character that individuals possess). The words are synonyms, he says. Probably he is going to lose that argument.

Still, for that and many other reasons, it would be more than worth your while to spend most of an hour listening to the man who picked up where Milton Friedman left off, as the most insightful macroeconomist of his day — one of the lucid and calm voices in the profession.

So take a look at EconLib. It is wonderful what a little well-spent money can do.