Economics, Academic Philosophy

Baboons Build Their Own Cages, Don’t They?

I wasn’t much of a student in HS and before — my attentions were directed elsewhere — but I had a few highlight moments where the material and ideas being discussed excited my imagination: freshman biology, sophomore geometry, senior history and senior english.  In that english seminar we read Albert Camus, The Stranger, and during the discussion of the book and the idea of alienation and despair (a subject just right for those experiencing teenage angst), the teacher declared — “Baboons build their own cages, don’t they?”  As the conversation continued, the teacher stressed how our destiny is of our own making, not the result of some forces outside of our control.  We should embrace, she told us, the challenge of building out life as we see fit.  We are not to be trapped by our circumstances, by our family traditions and beliefs of our parents, and we are not to be defined by the expectations of others.  We weren’t victims or slaves to our past.  We are the architects of our own lives, and we should dream big and build lives that turn those dreams into a reality.

This lesson really hit home for me for a variety of reasons.  My transition to college was a tough one, and those first 2 years (in which I repeated my freshman year after transferring from my first college) was one of intense personal learning as my self-identity took one shot after another of home sickness, family loss, and dashed dreams.  I had to reconstruct myself; to envision a alternative future for myself.  In the middle of this process of I was introduced to economics and to philosophy.  I would study both as best as I could at the time given my background and the courses offered at my college.  I also started reading a lot more outside of class, and in particular classic works in economics and libertarian social philosophy.  Two books from the 1970s had a significant impact on my thinking about individualism and crafting a life — David Norton’s Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1977), and Roger Williams, Free and Unequal: The Biological Basis of Individual Liberty (Liberty Fund, 1979).  I read both somewhere around 1979-80, and the way I read them reinforced that lecture from my HS english teacher, and it made me think not only was my life in my own hands, but that any legal barriers to my choosing how to construct my life was not just a nuisance but morally wrong and had to be opposed on principle.  The link between free market economic efficiency and the freedom of the individual to be the author of their own life was obvious to me from that moment.

In 1984 I was sitting in James Buchanan’s graduate seminar when he asks us to write a paper on “Who is the Individual in Economics?”  By that time I was a strategic enough student to realize that in answering questions from a professor perhaps I should read what that professor had to say on the subject and perhaps even read what their professors had to say on the subject before writing up my essay.  This lead to read a few essays by Frank Knight, and then eventually to an essay by Buchanan himself, “Natural and Artifactual Man.”  Buchanan’s essay blew me away then, and it still does to this day.  I would also recommend his essay “Afraid to Be Free” to readers of BHL.  In “Natural and Artifactual Man” Buchanan makes the statement that “Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.”

During graduate school most of my philosophical reading and formal study was in the philosophy of science and phenomenology/hermeneutic philosophy.  Rawls, Nozick, Walzer, Dworkin, Espstein, etc. were part of of my reading and study, but not the primary focus of my philosophical inquiry at that time.  Popper, Lakatos, Polanyi, Quine, Hausman, Rosenberg, Caldwell, Maki, McCloskey were, along with Schutz, Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur, Gadamer, and Bernstein.  But I read these philosophers with the intent of carving out intellectual space in the formalistic and postivistic discipline of economics for an economics that focused on human agency, institutional analysis, and spontaneous order theory.  The entrepreneurial theory of the market process made so much sense to me, but the theory was pushed to the margins of the profession due to a preoccupation with model and measure methodology.

This focus redirected my earlier fascination with the individual’s freedom and ability to construct their own lives through their own plans and efforts.  But then I read Loren Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (Oxford University Press, 1987), and in particular his discussion of persons and projects.  On that first reading back in my last year of graduate school I termed Lomasky’s perspective as “Kirznerian” — or an entrepreneurial understanding of the individual constructing their own lives through their projects.  Lomasky’s book made me go back and look at David Norton’s and Roger Williams’s book, which were sitting on my shelves untouched since 1980.  Every time I read Lomasky’s book, which I now teach from, I get that jolt of youthful enthusiasm for an argument about how we as human beings are capable of constructing our own destinies and being creatures capable of true self-government.  We are the entrepreneurs of our own existence.  This is what gives us agency; this is what gives us dignity.  This is what it means to live a meaningful life.  To me, Lomasky’s book does not get discussed enough, nor does the concept of our entrepreneurial selves.

  • TeeJaw

    I take from this that when we construct out own destiny by our own honest endeavors we are not taking anything from anyone else, we are not interfering with anyone else’s right or ability to do the same for themselves,  so there should not be any issue of “fairness”   or “social justice.”  Nor should notions of “equality” arise since everyone is equally entitled to employ whatever talents they possess in building their own future.

    In fact, the only issue of fairness or social justice must be limited to whether there are any legal barriers to one’s right to construct their own destiny.  For example, when those who lack skills or ambition lobby government to forcefully redistribute the bounty of others to them, to serve some distorted view of “fairness” and “social justice.”

    • Jay_Z

      In nature, if a pride of lions makes a kill, and a second pride of lions follows the first pack and takes their kill away from them and eats it, which is the more successful pride?  The second.  Not only did they expend less energy in merely following the first pride rather than hunting, but they ate the meal.  First pride went hungry because they couldn’t hold their kill.

      You are owed nothing from your bounty.  It’s survival of the fittest, and you’d better be able to apply the resources towards securing whatever you want to consider your property.

      A society that treats property as sacrosant is going to be a society where the people who own everything are going to be the descendants of someone who may have been productive 1,000 years ago.  Every society that doesn’t have a method of taking will turn into an inheritance scheme.  Many libertarians claim to hate inheritance, but they hate taking more, so inheritance wins.  Viva feudalism.

      • TeeJaw

        It’s survival of the fittest, and you’d better be able to apply the resources towards securing whatever you want to consider your property.

        I do have the resources to do what you suggest.  But since we now live under governments instead of in caves, one goes to prison for using deadly force to protect property.  I have to rely on my government for that, because my government holds a monopoly on force except when I am threatened with serious bodily injury or death.  It is legal for me to use non-deadly force to stop overt theft and keep my property from being taken away, but to recover property after it has been taken from me I have to rely on the legal system.  

        Sometimes I feel as you apparently do and would be willing to go back to a tribal system.  That’s just a fantasy, of course.

        I’m still a little confused by what you said.  First you say it’s survival of the fittest and then you want some overpowering force, government I guess, to confiscate our property when we die.  That is if you don’t steal it first. Which is it?

  • Kevin Vallier

    I entirely agree with respect to Lomasky. Tomasi and I taught his book in our seminar on libertarianism and neo-classical liberalism last fall. Its full of gems. He’s got a partially evolutionary account of basic rights with polymorphic equilibrium as filling out the indeterminacy in our conception of impartiality, prefiguring Gaus’s dramatic expansion of this idea. Plus, he has a dissection of natural rights libertarianism that, to my mind, still holds great power. Oh, and his critique of purely agent-neutral theories of value like consequentialism as fundamentally incompatible with individualism is great.

  • I’d recommend adding Frederick Turner, J.T. Fraser, and Randall Collins to this list.

    And of course our work at

  •  that is, Frederick Turner the poet (which includes two epic sci fi poems) and philosopher (The Culture of Hope, Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics, Natural Classicism, Beauty, Natural Religion, etc.), not the historian.

  • Jessica Flanigan

    What a fun post! I wondered about this line:

     We are the entrepreneurs of our own existence…This is what it means to live a meaningful life. 
    Do you think that meaning in life requires that we develop our capacities as project pursuers. That is, imagine a pothead who does a bunch of drugs and undermines her capacity to pursue projects, and doesnt even think of drug use as a project in itself, but rather as a nice way to pass the time. It still seems like her life can have meaning even if she lacks both the capacity and desire to pursue projects, or in any case, her life is no less meaningful.So yeah, um.. I guess this comment is really just to say- what’s the meaning of life? No pressure to reply though!

    • The meaning of life? That’s easy (just kidding). The framers called it the “pursuit of happiness,” but many psychologists say it’s the right and power to “individuate” (a term that doesn’t include being a pothead):

      •  I know a guy (not me! I drive a semi for a living.) that has been a pot-head for at least 40, probably 50 years, now. He has had a career as an educator that whole time and raised a family. He has friends and family that love him and in all ways that count has successfully “pursued happiness”, even in the classical sense. Absent the legal issues I see marijuana use as totally irrelevant to living a “good” life either way.

        • Rod, no argument with you there. We all deal with the current hypocrisy in various ways, whether the “drugs” are over-the-counter or not.

          But your comment, I think, is more important to show how everybody’s perception is so different in defining words. When Jessica said “pothead,” I’m thinking of a totally dysfunctional high school drop out, and you come in with something completely different.

          • Jessica Flanigan

            Exactly, I brought this up because drug policy is one of the areas where this kind of project pursuers line tends to lead to paternalism as a way of promoting autonomous capacities rather than respecting autonomous choice. This view, that it’s important for us to have the ability to pursue our projects, then risks being either too strong (paternalism) or too weak (prisoners have the capacity to pursue projects) and in any case, is (I think) potentially objectionably perfectionistic because it takes a stand on the right way for people to value and the right things for them to value (project pursuit, agency) when that needn’t be so. 

    • TeeJaw

      Could it be that being the entrepreneurs of our own existence is not only the way to a meaningful life, but can also be the path to a life with almost no meaning at all?  

      Choices, free will, that sort of thing?

  • CFV

    Have you ever read Fikret Adaman & Pat Devine “A reconsideration of the theory of entrepreneurship: a participatory approach”? In case your answer is positive, I’d be interested in your opinion.