In this week’s episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts talks with James Otteson about socialism and capitalism, touching on camping, G.A. Cohen, Adam Smith, and education along the way.

Use the questions below to check your knowledge or respond. As always, we love to hear from you.


What should be the criteria for state intervention in the economy?
Check Your Knowledge:

1. How does G.A. Cohen’s notion of “communal reciprocity” differ from Adam Smith’s notion of market exchange, according to Otteson?

2. What does Otteson note as Adam Smith’s two criteria for government intervention in the economy? To what extent are these still valid criteria today? To what extent are they followed? What criteria would you suggest?

Going Deeper:

3. At about the 26:00 mark, Roberts suggests Otteson has opened a “Pandora’s Box” regarding the encroachment of the welfare state. Is Otteson more or less pessimistic about the future of the welfare state than Roberts? With whom are you in more agreement? Explain.

4. Toward the end of the conversation, Roberts and Otteson discuss the goal(s) of education in a commercial society. Otteson suggests that today, K-12 education suffers confusion of what’s necessary and what’s sufficient. What does he mean by this, and to what extent is this a good characterization of American public education?

5. Some listeners were unhappy with Otteson’s definition of the “socialist inclination” as a desire for equality, a top-down approach, and a focus on classes and groups rather than individuals. Do you think these views should be grouped together? Is there a better way to describe people who hold these views or are labels unhelpful? Is there a similar problem with the term “capitalism?”

Extra Credit:

6. Otteson and Roberts agree that wealth, while not a guarantor of happiness, does enable the things that matter for a well-lived life. Smith, too, Otteson argues, recognized that people needed to emerge from the historical norm of poverty before flourishing could become a concern. To what extent does this suggest the need for a “basic income guarantee, as argued for by Matt Zwolinski and others?” Would you support such a policy? Explain.