Chicago Schools: Economics, Religion, Philosophy, & Law

The references to "Chicago" (meaning, of course, the University of Chicago) Schools of economics and history of religion, and the quotation of Allan Bloom, who may be considered to belong to a Chicago school of philosophy, may suggest a general endorsement of "Chicago" ideas. This is not the case.

Chicago economics, indeed, is superior: Hayek, Friedman, Sowell, and others, like Gary S. Becker, have helped rescue the free market from slow death at the hands of dominant post-War Keynesianism. While, in a practical sense, the battle has not been won, since the typical political response to any problem in the United States is still to propose programs, create rent-seeking constituencies, and spend money, the theoretical weapons are now well in place, especially with help from other branches of Austrian economics (e.g. Murray Rothbard) and other innovative fields in economics, like the Virginia School of Public Choice (e.g. James M. Buchanan), to expose the fallacies, futility, and dangers of such practices. As with the Anti-Corn Law League, time should tell in achieving influence on public policy.

The Chicago history of religion school of Eliade is a different case since it is, in fact, a matter of history, rather than philosophy, of religion. Thus, Eliade, although contributing important ideas, such as sacred space and sacred time, is not even at the theoretical level of Otto, much less able to deal with all the philosophical issues and difficulties that surround Otto's theory, or philosophy of religion in general. Eliade's contribution may therefore be acknowledged, even while its significance for the Friesian School and the development of Friesian doctrine will be gravely limited.

Chicago philosophy presents an altogether different case, for it offers little that is conformable to Friesian purposes or doctrine. Allan Bloom (1930-1992), although valuable as a critic, often seems merely to be promoting the ideas of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), whose own approach strikes the editor as a very idiosyncratic version of esoteric textual hermeneutics: to argue that Plato's Republic was not a serious political theory and that Plato and Aristotle really didn't disagree on fundamentals perhaps nicely reaffirms the views of the Neoplatonists and early Mediaeval philosophers like al-Fârâbî, but otherwise it must seem positively perverse in its strained counter-intuitiveness. It is an approach that fits neatly into Chicago "Great Books" pedagogy, but that in itself seems somewhat too Mediaeval in its approach. Mediaeval, indeed, is all that need be said about Mortimer Adler. For him, evidently, modern philosophy has done nothing right, from Descartes to Kant and beyond, and the great synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas still represents the best in human thought. As a critic of much that is bad in modern thought, Adler, like Bloom, can be valuable and even entertaining; but he has little to offer by way of a positive contribution to the genuine issues that, indeed, arise in Descartes, Kant, and others.

Finally, there is in effect the beginning of a fourth Chicago School, of law. This is fully as important as Chicago economics. Richard A. Epstein [shown] has grown into a devastating critic of the sophistry and dishonesty that has become essential to American constitutional jurisprudence. In a series of great books, including Takings [1985], Forbidden Grounds [1992], Bargaining with the State [1993], Simple Rules for a Complex World [1995], and Mortal Peril, Our Inalienable Right to Health Care? [1997], Epstein does for the descendants of New Deal jurisprudence what Hayek, Friedman, etc. have done for the descendants of New Deal economics: demolish the entire rational, legal, utilitarian, and moral basis for them. This is profoundly important work at a time when the common verities of politics and law have become so unthinking, reflexive, senseless, and tendentious that Thomas Sowell, as the subtitle of his The Vision of the Anointed [1995], can refer to it all as, "Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy." Epstein's work thus complements, on the legal side, the great achievements of Hayek and others on the economic side.

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved