For the Al: Russ Roberts

October 31, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

One of the underlying themes in awarding The Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, particularly in recent years, has been highlighting a virtue or norm that our present society lacks but desperately needs. As Jay wrote, last year’s winner (Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds) demonstrated the “type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.” In 2015, the winner (Ken M) “reveal[ed] the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.”

This year’s nominees have been no exception. Jay’s nominees appear to be using humor and pop culture to restore some sense of morality in a nihilistic age. Greg’s nominee made great sacrifices to honor the truth and expose both the evil of totalitarianism and the corruption of our ruling class. And Matt’s nominee literally saved the world by refusing to follow orders.

My nominee is economist Russ Roberts of the Hoover Institution, host of the popular EconTalk podcast and author of numerous books including How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He didn’t save the world (so far as I know), but he exemplifies many virtues and habits that the world needs today.

In an age when talking heads, radio shock jocks, and Twitter twits confidently bloviate about every matter under the sun, and in which self-proclaimed “experts” and technocrats believe they can run your life better than you can, Roberts demonstrates personal and epistemic humility.

In an era in which TV debates consist primarily of shouting over each other while trading insults, and in which college students frequently shout down or even assault speakers with whom they disagree, Roberts consistently engages in civil and reasoned discourse.

In a time when our attention spans seem to be precipitously shortening, when big ideas are expected to be expressed in 140 characters, when “tl;dr” is a supposedly valid excuse for expressing an opinion about something one hasn’t even bothered to read first, Roberts delivers each week a master class in the art of the substantive interview — getting past the talking points’ sizzle and down to the meat of the matter.

In a generation in which social-media navel-gazing has become our nation’s pastime, self-esteem is unearned, and the number of Twitter followers passes as a measure of achievement and influence, Roberts reminds us of Adam Smith’s wise counsel: it is not enough to be loved, we must also strive to be lovely.

And in moment in which we are obsessed with politics and the political has invaded every aspect of our lives, Roberts turns his — and our — attention to the infinitely diverse and fascinating things in this world that we inhabit.

If you don’t already subscribe to his podcast, do yourself a favor and do so right now. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.) Recent topics have included meditation and mindfulness, technological advances and their effect on our lives and culture, income inequality, philanthropy, self-driving cars, the evolution of language, internet bullying, permissionless innovation, and more. He also draws the highest-quality guests, including (to cite a few well-known recent guests in no particular order) John McWhorter, Megan McArdle, Michael Munger, Nassim Taleb, Tyler Cowen, Sally Satel, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein and many more. He regularly invites guests with whom he disagrees and yet he is never disagreeable. He never asks “gotcha” questions, talks over his guest, or tries to score cheap political points. Instead, he asks insightful questions and gives his guests the space to make their case, pushing back at times but always thoughtfully and respectfully.

Russ Roberts is the teacher and role model we need now. He deserves The Al.

I’ll leave you with two videos he co-created — raps battle between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek: