History comes to Troy
Troy University will host an exhibition from The Remnant Trust from September through the end of November. The artifacts and books included afford an opportunity for Alabamians to see some history.
Founded in 1999, The Remnant Trust is a foundation dedicated to preserving items important to the history of individual freedom and human dignity. Partnered with Texas Tech University since 2014, the Trust has a collection of over 1,400 documents for research and exhibitions like the one coming to Troy University. The Troy exhibit will include items from ancient Greece and the Middle East, early editions of Shakespeare, Newton and Tocqueville, and documents like the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation.
The exhibition also features some classic economics books. To help understand their significance and contemporary relevance, the Johnson Center is pleased to bring two nationally-renowned scholars to Troy.
Our first scholar, visiting on September 24, is Dr. James Otteson of Wake Forest University. Dr. Otteson is an expert on Adam Smith and author of What Adam Smith Knew. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, expounding on (among other topics) the source of prosperity and the nature of the market economy.
When Smith wrote, the Mercantilists dominated policy in England and France. The Mercantilists viewed gold as wealth and colonial empires as the way to build national gold stocks. By exporting more than importing (running a trade surplus), a nation could accumulate gold. Europeans would pay for English goods with gold, increasing England’s gold holdings. Colonies allowed the mother country to avoid importing raw materials.
As Smith explained, a nation is prosperous because its citizens enjoy a high standard of living, not because it has the most gold. Ultimately production and consumption matter. President Trump seemingly holds Mercantilist ideas regarding a trade surplus.
Furthermore, Smith showed how market institutions are the products of human action but not human design, or spontaneous orders. Smith’s metaphor of an invisible hand guiding people’s actions describes this beautifully. People act in their self-interest in impossibly complicated ways.
Spontaneous order explains why economists or government officials cannot plan or control our economy. Politicians who think, mistakenly, that someone designed our entire financial system will think that they can restructure it with no adverse consequences.
On November 12, we will host Dr. Daniel Jacobson of the University of Michigan, a scholar of 19th Century British political economist John Stuart Mill. Mill’s On Liberty provides a classic case for freedom of speech and inquiry. The souring of so many political and intellectual figures on free speech makes Mill’s arguments important today.
Mill offered two arguments for free speech. The first was the importance of free inquiry as a means of learning the truth, or the idea of a marketplace of ideas. The second was the potential for abuse of restrictions on speech. Free inquiry will always upset government leaders, who never like being told they are wrong. Furthermore, criticism can spark defiance of political authority.
Some commentators might dismiss The Remnant Trust project as Western cultural hegemony. I do not find the Trust’s mission to preserve our heritage of “individual liberty and human dignity” ethnocentric. The Troy University exhibit includes the Torah, the Quran, and the Morals of Confucius.
More significantly, I have met persons from across the globe in my years as a student and faculty member. People generally want better lives for themselves and their families; the dignity and value of individuals are human, not Western, values. Unfortunately, human history also abounds with oppression by rulers. Today’s freedom and prosperity did start in Western Europe with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Yet I see this as more of an accident than a consequence of culture. Diffusion of these values shows the universal appeal of freedom and dignity.
The Remnant Trust exhibit will be on display at the Troy University library. Hopefully, many of you will come out and see these items.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.