Rival Defenses of American Capitalism

Brown University, Department of Political Science, POLS1822P  •  2012 and 2014

In the United States, the moral justification for laissez-faire capitalism widely accepted in the late eighteenth century came under sustained attack from the time of debates about slavery in the mid nineteenth century to the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth. This course examines four schools of thought that subsequently arose to defend capitalism: that of free-market economists such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman; that of Protestants and Catholics who advanced a religiously grounded defense; that of Ayn Rand’s followers, who proposed to defend the morality of capitalism with a morality of selfishness; and libertarian theories. Our study will show that the differences and rivalries between these schools are as charged and as fundamental as any between capitalism and its critics. Primary sources will provide the bulk of the reading material.  The course will include a reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and conclude with an application of the rival theories to a few current public policy issues.

Coverage on the course in a departmental newsletter:

Here is all (not a sample) of the unedited, written comments, both positive and negative, for the course in 2014.

  • This class helped me greatly in building my writing skills, making me a more concise writer. It also strengthened my critical reading skills and my ability to build a philosophical and logical argument. What’s more, it was a class that made me think about the world; it gave me new perspective. One of the best classes I’ve taken at Brown, for sure!
  • This was a great class! It was full of healthy debate, some of the best in-class debate I’ve had in a class at Brown. The readings were appropriately challenging. The papers were the right length; they pushed me to condense my argument to its most essential parts, unlike in other classes, in which 12 page papers encourage long-windedness.
  • Professor McCaskey is smart. He constantly pushed me to strengthen my arguments, and he was available outside of class for further conversation. He holds strong personal opinions but he welcomes other opinions, as long as they are based upon sound logic. That’s the makings of a good professor. His organization of the course and its goals were on point; I’ve rarely had professors that go back through the syllabus throughout the semester, tying things together and relating different sections of the course to one another. This was extremely helpful.
  • Professor McCaskey was absolutely outstanding. I would recommend him and this course to any of my peers at all.
  • [Course objective:] To understand the multiple, rival defenses of American capitalism and the different forms it’s been given over time.
  • [I learned:] Exceptional writing and critical skills, argumentative skills, public speaking, persuasive abilities.
  • I would suggest this course to anyone passionate about the philosophy of capitalism. I can confidently say that it has been by far my favorite course in my 4 years at Brown. I have never felt more intellectually challenged, and I love how Professor McCaskey challenged every political and ideological idea I held up to this point. A truly educational, stimulating and fascinating experience.
  • Professor McCaskey is one of the most effective professors I’ve had. His passion for the material seeps into every discussion, and his ability to make extremely complex philosophies easy task comprehend is unparalleled. Not only that, but his passion was passed on to all of us students. His sense of humor was an added bonus.
  • I thought I was a good writer before taking Professor McCaskey’s course. Since then my writing has grown tremendously. This class taught me what it means to write a well-structured, well-articulated essay. You don’t need to use big words or lengthy sentences. You simply need to say what you want to say.
  • The course introduced me to material I had never before encountered. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to take such a unique and well-constructed class.
  • I’ve probably learned more from this course than any other course I’ve taken at Brown. And I have Professor McCaskey to thank. He is a passionate, accessible, and thought-provoking professor who challenges our views and pushes us to see the underlying philosophy behind the ideas we once took for granted. I hope to have the opportunity to take a class with Professor McCaskey in the future.
  • [Course objectives:] To defend capitalism and promote Ayn Rand’s beliefs.
  • [I learned:] Writing. Of all the classes that I have taken, this is the class that has taught me the most about writing.
  • The week on the Protestants was a little weird. Perhaps more time could have been spent on Nozick. Nozick seems like an important thinker for libertarianism.
  • Replies emails (about papers) quickly. Gives detailed feedback. Has strong beliefs. Encouraged discussion in class. But it is possible that as a result of his strong beliefs, some students might be less willing to challenge those beliefs.
  • [I learned:] Learned about the original proponents of capitalism, pushback from 19th century philosophers and the Progressives, and subsequent 20th century defenses of capitalism from a variety of perspectives (free-market, religious, libertarian, and Ayn Rand). We delved into each author’s argument until we understood its foundation. The class had a strong focus on writing. We discussed writing clearly and concisely a lot before the first paper was due and had in-class editing sessions throughout the semester.
  • Shorter papers allowed us to put more thought into each paragraph and forced us to be concise writers—a skill it can be hard to develop when expected to churn out 10+ page papers as in other courses.
  • The best discussion leader and facilitator in any seminar I’ve taken at Brown. Discussions never stalled, and classes were always engaging. Doesn’t mince words when giving feedback on writing, and that’s extremely helpful. He makes the path to improvement clear.
  • We learned about defenses of capitlaism over time. There was also a great interest in improving writing quality. It was an amazing course with a great prof.
  • I learned how to synthesize large quantities of information quickly and concisely. I also learned specifics about tons of different schools of thoughts on capitlaism over time.
  • [Course objectives:] To understand the different perspectives on capitalism from about three hundred years ago to today.
  • [I learned:] The course definitely improved my writing skills.
  • The course was formatted in a way to where every week tackled a fresh topic. The class was over two hours long yet the time flew by because of the engaging discussions.
  • The instructor rarely lectured and instead provoked each student to present their ideas on the course material.
  • After reading critiques of capitalism, we looked at four schools of defenders of free market capitalism: Ayn Rand and followers, libertarians, religious folks, and economists. Our task was to answer a simple question: What justifies capitalism? In other words, how can it be defended? This was a very theoretical and philosophical class.
  • [Course objective:] To become acquainted with the general strand of critiques against capitalism and 4 schools of defense which responded to those critiques.
  • [I learned:] CLEAR WRITING. Also the ability to pick out the key themes or arguments from a text and how to communicate that with a class. Also how to communicate with peers who had completely different academic backgrounds and approaches to the texts.
  • Incredibly interesting!
  • The best course I have ever taken at Brown. Absolutely incredible. Extremely challenging, lots of reading, but my writing improved immensely and my ability to develop and support an argument in class discussions as well as in my writing. I learned how to think on my feet, and how to critically read, to understand the arguments made by others.
  • Good focus on writing skills and argumentation.
  • Simply one of the greatest classes I’ve taken at Brown. Prof. McCaskey was among the best professors I’ve had in my 3 and a half years at this school. More professors should be like him. I would recommend any class he teaches to any student even if they are not concentrating in a related field.
Here is all (not a sample) of the unedited, written comments, both positive and negative, for the course taught in 2012.

  • My writing is more concise. I understand better what a quality essay should look like, even if I don’t always meet those standards. This is a fantastic course for developing writing skills.
  • I think I gained some knowledge of recent political theory history, and the ability to recognize the meta-ethical premises behind political arguments. Also got very specific feedback on my writing.
  • I gres immensely in this course and developed many important skills. I learned how to develop and support arguments, to more clearly articulate my ideas, and to write more effectively. I also learned about the reasoning behind the different arguments of important political theorists who all support capitalism, but on different grounds
  • Extremely well planned and executed. Very thoughtful selection of assigned readings, which we discussed and analyzed extensively in class.
  • (1) how to write better. 5/5 (2) How to think more clearly. 5/5 (3) How to read more carefully and nail down the author’s arguments. 5/5 (4) How to think about morality in a completely different way. 5/5
  • Amazing professor.
  • Readings were unconventional (ex: George Fitzhugh, Ayn Rand, Pope John Paul II) and thus very interesting.
  • The material was extremely interesting, forced me to think about the topics and issues in new ways, and refocused my understanding of the course material.
  • Professor McCaskey is incredibly enthusiastic about the course material and is very adept at moving class discussions. He is also very accessible and willing to meet with students.
  • Professor McCaskey was incredible. Probably the best teacher I have ever had. He pushed us to think critically in class about the arguments made by the theorists we studied, and pushed us to develop logical and analytical arguments step by step. He was extremely helpful outside of class and always made himself available. His advice on writing was extremely helpful, and he really wanted all of us to succeed, but pushed us to do so. Additionally, he truly cared about our writing, and really pushed us to write clearly, and develop arguments well. My skills to write and clearly articulate my points improved immensely because of his instruction.
  • The best professor I’ve had at Brown. Hands down.
  • Good at leading discussion and challenging students. Clearly interested in the subject matter.
  • He encouraged me often to step outside my comfort zone, even when I wasn’t always able to.
  • Professor was very engaged and led very (generally) very interesting class discussions. Partially due to time constraints, I felt the professor made some ellipses in his reasoning when it came to his support to Ayn Rand, wish we had more time to really understand her arguments, as is they came off as unconvincing to me. Otherwise professor chose great readings, was very helpful outside of class with essay assignments. Hope he comes back next year to teach again!

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