When I was still an undergraduate at Grove City College (1979-1983), I read David Norton's Personal Destinies (1977) and it had a big impact on me and in my reading of the argument made me realize I was the author of my own life story. But I was prepared to read these arguments this way from my experience in sports and the consistent message I always heard from my father since I was a little kid playing sports. My love of sports always exceeded my ability to play, but I learned early on that to compete in sports you had to put in long hours of hard work. From the time I was little I was always dealing with mixed messages -- great successes followed by crushing defeats, not just in terms of wins and losses, but assessment of my talents by various coaches. My father's message from
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When I was still an undergraduate at Grove City College (1979-1983), I read David Norton's Personal Destinies (1977) and it had a big impact on me and in my reading of the argument made me realize I was the author of my own life story. But I was prepared to read these arguments this way from my experience in sports and the consistent message I always heard from my father since I was a little kid playing sports. My love of sports always exceeded my ability to play, but I learned early on that to compete in sports you had to put in long hours of hard work. From the time I was little I was always dealing with mixed messages -- great successes followed by crushing defeats, not just in terms of wins and losses, but assessment of my talents by various coaches. My father's message from the time I was 8 years old and starting to play Little League baseball was if you aren't getting selected, or you are getting to play as much as you want there is only one response, work harder at getting better so that no coach will not want to select you and play you. Not succeeding was nobody's fault other than your own.
Typical of my era, when I entered HS I played football, basketball and baseball. But by that time, my love of the game of basketball was solidified. And, starting in 8th grade I would spend my summers practicing basketball everyday up to 10 hours a day working on individual skills and playing pick up games at various playgrounds always seeking out the best competition that would let me play -- first by bicycle and then when older by car. I followed that path until I was 20 years of age. Along the way, I stopped playing football and baseball (though after my junior year of HS I missed playing baseball so I played on an American Legion team through the summer except when I was away at basketball camp). I did well enough at basketball camp to win awards and to get invited to be a camp counselor in-between HS and college. My HS team was the most successful team in the history of my school when we graduated. But between the age of 17 and 19, I repeatedly suffered severely sprained and even broke my ankle 3 times, and this probably impacted my confidence even more than my skills (which were limited to begin with). Anyway, my aspirations as an athlete were crushed during this time (though I would end up switching sports from basketball to tennis and finish out my college athletic career playing tennis and eventually working as a tennis pro). Reality had caught up to me -- I was not as athletic or as skilled as I had hoped to be, and my body and my mind were more fragile than required to achieve what I wanted as an athlete.* Thank god I had already found my soul-mate in Rosemary, because this experience devastated me at a very vulnerable age, and left me completely lost as to who I was and what I was going to do with my life. I almost quit college in the fall of 1979 after I got hurt again, but thankfully Rosemary talked me through that.
I mentioned Hidden Brain podcast in the last post, and I am drawing on it again (I promise I will not do so for a while now, though you should give it a listen). In December 2018, there is a great podcast discussing loss and renewal that really hit home and reminded me of my clumsy efforts to grapple with my 17-19 year old frustrations. My Aunt Lol, who had various stages in her own life, often said you need to learn to close one chapter and move to the next. What happened to me during that time is I got introduced to academic pursuits, including economics and philosophy. In many ways I really had no preparation for this, but it happened and my life went in a different direction than I had planned. Listening to this episode on a plane ride yesterday, fascinated me because we all must face down frustrations, disappointments, and dashed plans. In response, we must reinvent and renew our life purpose. We are in control of our personal destiny -- perhaps not 100% -- but it is the only variable that is under our control, so we should behave as if it is 100% under our control. We are entrepreneurs of our life.
As I entered graduate school (1984-88), I was completely enamoured with James Buchanan's essay "Natural and Artifactual Man" even more so than G. L. S. Shackle's presentation of the agony of choice because while I agree with Shackle's depiction of our choice situation in the face of radical uncertainty, Buchanan's depiction stresses our creativity and our aspirational hopes. We can, in essence, fake it until we make ourselves better than what we currently are. So when I read in 1987 Loren Lomasky's Persons, Rights and the Moral Community when it was first published, I interpreted in light of Norton's work and Buchanan's subjectivism, and to be honest, Kirzner's theory of entrepreneurship.* I didn't focus so much on "rights" speak, but on persons and their projects in Lomasky's presentation, and thus the idea that we must behave entrepreneurially in the construction of our own lives, and the political and legal and cultural background must give us space to be architect of our own destiny.
This is also how I read the recent book by Agnes Callard Aspiration -- a work that explores our volition and our efforts to be architects of our own destiny.
I realize that many parts of my interpretation are idiosyncratic and perhaps "forced", but it is how I make sense of these arguments in light of what I consider critical stage in our lives when we face down adversity and must bob and weave, adapt and adjust, and reinvent and renew. We must be creative architects and alert entrepreneurs throughout our lives. And critical to that, the political, legal and cultural background must give us space.
Anyway, I do think it is important to distinguish between methodological individualism (a scientific proposition) and epistemological individualism (a philosophical position) and normative individualism (a political/legal/moral theory). The position I have just laid out are in the area of normative individualism, though I am using tools of thinking I learned from the pursuit of a methodologically individualistic approach to social science.
*In a recent interview, my colleague Tyler Cowen was asked about his early chess career and he emphasized the discipline and focus he learned in pursuing that endeavor. I learned that same thing, I'd argue, through basketball. But my failures were great teachers. In basketball in retrospect, I would say I worked very hard, but not smart. In tennis, I would say I worked smart, but not hard. In economics, I hope I can say I worked very hard and did so with some smarts. I guess ultimately how smart will be an assessment others pass rather than one I can make.
**Lomasky was well known to my era of economics students because he had spent time at the Center for Study of Public Choice in the year right before the move to GMU, and Buchanan at that time (prior to Nobel) was very much pushing the ideas summed up in his New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics entry on Political Economy and Social Philosophy. So Lomasky's work was just part of the common knowledge of those of us trying to learn from Buchanan.