Yes, Marco Rubio, philosophy matters—and we could use a lot more of it

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With the exception of a single shout-out to Catholic theologian Michael Novak, philosophers got weirdly short shrift in Tuesday night’s Republican debate. Ted Cruz dismissed the entire Federal Reserve as “philosopher kings trying to guess what is happening with the economy”; John Kasich said that “philosophy does not work when you run something”; and—most memorably—Marco Rubio averred that “welders make more money than philosophers,” adding that “we need more welders than philosophers.”


Rubio is factually incorrect on the incomes: As you might expect, philosophers, who tend to be college-educated and middle-class, make substantially more money than welders, who tend to have less in the way of educational credentials and who in many ways epitomize the working class.

But he’s—how to put this—philosophically incorrect as well. America doesn’t need more welders than philosophers. It needs more philosophers than welders. A lot more.


There are lots of reasons to like philosophy. For one thing, it’s cost-efficient. A welder needs a large infrastructure of metal and heat to do her job, while philosophers are cheap even by academic standards. (As the old joke has it, a mathematician is the second-cheapest professor at any college: All she needs is a pencil and an eraser. But the cheapest is the philosopher, who only needs the pencil.)

But that’s not why we need more philosophers. The real reason for philosophers is that they are truly the people who will shape the future. Rubio himself, just seconds before his paean to welders, admitted that “if you raise the minimum wage, you make people more expensive than machines”. But the fact is, of course, that people are already more expensive than machines, and the cost of machines, which has been steadily declining for the past 200 years, is going to continue to fall well below even today’s minimum wage. Humans haven’t been able to compete with machines since the days of John Henry, and it’s folly to think they could effectively do so today.

A philosopher, on the other hand, is, at heart, anybody who thinks clearly and rigorously about difficult problems. Sometimes, the issues are directly philosophical – how self-driving cars should be programmed, for instance, or how science should approach technologies like Crispr. But philosophical skills are much more broadly applicable. Hedge fund legend George Soros studied philosophy, for instance. So did PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Stewart Butterfield, the founder and CEO of Slack, has two philosophy degrees. And while I don’t think there were any welders on the panel Tuesday night, there was at least one person with a philosophy degree: Carly Fiorina.

Indeed, Rubio himself was an exemplar, during the debate, of the merits of philosophy. The highlight of the evening was an exchange between him and Rand Paul over the meaning of conservatism. Rubio wants to expand tax credits for children, at a cost of roughly $170 billion per year; Paul thinks that any such tax expenditure by its nature violates the tenets of conservatism.


When debates are good, both sides make strong points—and that’s exactly what happened in this case. Paul criticized Rubio on the grounds that he was proposing a trillion-dollar “welfare” expenditure; Rubio countered by saying that it wasn’t welfare, since everybody pays taxes, and that if we grant tax deductions for pieces of capital equipment, we should give at least as good tax treatment to the true engines of future economic growth—the nation’s children.

By the end of the exchange, the differences between the two candidates were clear, and voters could choose between them in an informed manner. It was much more helpful than the incoherent ramblings about monetary policy or too-big-to-fail banks.


To put it another way: The debaters were at their best when they were articulating a clearly-thought-through conservative philosophy (the kind of thing that philosophers are good at); they were at their worst when they simply blathered on about nothing in particular (like, for instance, Ben Carson trying to answer a question about whether he would break up JPMorgan Chase).

If you know how to weld, and if there is demand for welders, then you can compete with all the other welders out there for one of those welding jobs. (In a capitalist system, it’ll go to whoever is willing to do the job for the lowest wage.) Philosophy isn’t like that: It’s something that makes you better at almost any job, and it’s something that can never be made obsolete.


To oversimplify only a little, any job that doesn’t require thought can be done better by a machine; any job that does require thought can be done better by a philosopher.

To be sure, some of those jobs might even involve welding, or at least soldering: The Maker movement loves getting its hands dirty. But as Evgeny Morozov says, you can’t have a movement without a philosophy, and the really interesting aspects of the Maker program are philosophical, rather than material.


So let’s have more philosophy in the Republican debates, and in the economy as a whole. Once upon a time, conservatives were proud to have intellectual leaders like Milton Friedman. But the Tea Party has unleashed a wave of anti-intellectualism upon the Republican Party, and it’s hard to characterize any of the Republican presidential candidates—with the single exception of Rand Paul—as thinkers. Instead, they seem to have concluded that pummeling a philosopher or two is a great way to pander to the party base.

The scariest thing of all? They’re probably right. Let’s hope this is just some weird phase the Republican Party is going through, rather than a sign of things to come.

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