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Baboons Build Their Own Cages, Don’t They?

By Peter Boettke

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.

Humans: The entrepreneurs of their own lives | Photo Courtesy: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan via Flickr

Humans: The architects of their own lives | Photo Courtesy: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan via Flickr

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.

This article was first published in Bleeding Heart Libertians.

Featured Image Credits: Boothemes.com via Flickr

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