James Schneider  

Who Should We Revere?

Media Bias Yet Again... Taxes are all around...

SAM_8793.jpgSifting through the coins in your pocket, you will likely find many images of politicians. In some sense, this conveys the impression that government leaders are the most important figures in society. However, everyday currency can honor other contributors to society. For example, check out this 50-cent euro coin featuring Miguel de Cervantes. Or these 20th-century physicists on currency. European currency lavishes less honor on political leaders than American currency (perhaps because almost all "great" European leaders have waged war on other European countries).

If we were to rethink which professions should be honored, we might consider where additional talent would most benefit society. This seems unlikely to be the political sphere. Imagine a world where twice as many people vied for political office. This would yield little social benefit.

  • Regardless of how many people vie for a political office, only one person will be elected. Political office really is a winner-take-all field. More capable candidates would lead to more capable officials, but this effect would be mild.
  • If both Democrats and Republicans became more capable, they could hypothetically reach more intelligent compromises. But it seems that a lot of political ability is used to misrepresent opponents in clever ways.
  • Most political differences are not caused by one side solving a difficult technical problem that eludes the other side. Much of politics is a zero-sum game because Democrats and Republicans simply want different things.
  • The actions of politicians are constrained by the demands of relatively uninformed voters. Simply making politicians more capable probably isn't enough to change the system.

    If government leaders were demoted from currency, should artists take their place? Most people benefit greatly from artists; however, attracting additional talent to the arts might yield little incremental value. If Mozart and Wagner never existed, most of their current fans would spend more time listening to Verdi and Puccini. There is simply too much music and literature for any one person to consume in a lifetime. Additional artistic output largely steals attention away from other works of art. Many people write novels and compose music for the sheer pleasure of creation; (at least) the socially optimal output of art is already being supplied without providing additional encouragement. In the past, paying to self-publish a novel was considered a vanity project. Now there are so many fiction writers that trying to get any publisher for a novel could be considered a vanity project.

    How about the fields of science and technology? Additional effort in the fields of science and technology would yield significant incremental value. Every scientist relies on the contributions of those that came before her. Miniaturization allows for faster processors and better manufacturing techniques, which in turn facilitates further miniaturization. In recent times, scientists and engineers might have done as much to further the enjoyment of the arts as artists. For example, using a Kindle app, I can instantly download a huge selection of free literary works written before 1923 (since they are in the public domain). Many of these works are out-of-print and would be extremely difficult to acquire otherwise.

    IMG_2466.jpgIt may be obvious that I endorse shifting honor away from politicians and towards scientists and engineers. Towards this end, I have a proposal for a Norman Borlaug memorial. Notice that to keep construction costs low, I've repurposed a pre-existing structure.

  • Comments and Sharing


    COMMENTS (18 to date)
    Daniel Kuehn writes:

    The state quarters have been a nice change in this sense. They're still political jurisdictions, but I think almost all of them have cultural, natural, or non-political individual images.

    James Schneider writes:

    @Daniel Interesting.

    They are currently cycling through every U.S. president on $1 coins. https://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/$1coin/ This year they're minting both Herbert Hoover and F.D.R (along with with Coolidge and Harding)

    EclectEcon writes:

    [Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

    Roger Sweeny writes:

    I personally would like to see a plumber on a coin. Without fresh water and a way to easily get rid of my, well, you know, I'd have a much less pleasant life.

    David R. Henderson writes:

    Seeing the cherry blossoms at Washington’s Normal Borlaug Memorial. It does have a certain ring. But, his having slaves aside, which, I admit, is a HUGE aside, don’t you think that Jefferson did a lot of good for his country?

    Thomas Sewell writes:

    Is that image a side view of the Jefferson Memorial, one of the more prominent academics and scientists from a couple of hundred years ago? The man who brought science and mathematics into plowing? Who automated Macaroni production? Improved the dumbwaiter? Invented the folding ladder? The portable copying press, and so forth?

    I hear he also dabbled in natural philosophy and politics a bit. Why pick on him to re-purpose a building? It seems to me it'd suit your purpose better to find some career politician's monument to re-do....

    James Schneider writes:

    @ David There are only so many appropriate sites available. For example, we couldn't repurpose the FDR memorial.

    I might be wrong, But I think Borlaug did more for the world than Jefferson did for United States. For example, without Borlaug, Ehrlich's dystopia might have come close to existing. Also from a libertarian perspective, I think his efforts safeguarded reproductive rights (meaning the right to reproduce) in much of the world.

    Also, it is true, that I just dislike Jefferson on a personal level. For example, he gets a lot of credit for the Declaration of Independence but he would have included a section about England being responsible for the slave trade. It is hard to imagine anything more hypocritical coming from him. However, to give your question the answer it deserves , I would have to reread a major biography of Jefferson, which I won't be able to do in the near future. I have a lot of examples that I would offer, but the facts aren't fresh enough in my mind.

    @ Thomas I agree that based on scientific merits, Jefferson scores high amongst politician. However, I suspect that even historians of science would be unaware of them, if people were not enamored of him as a political figure.

    David R. Henderson writes:

    @James Schneider,
    Thanks, James. Well answered.

    NZ writes:

    Shouldn't that be "Whom"?

    James Schneider writes:

    @NZ. You are absolutely correct. I'm just doing my part to move us to a world where we don't have to learn the difference between who and whom. Be the change you want to see in the world.

    EclectEcon writes:

    The Bank of England uses of number of historical figures (rarely politicians!) on the backs of their bank notes. The current 20-pound note has a picture of Adam Smith on it!

    ap writes:

    It seems to me that the Norman Borlaug memorial should be a plot of dwarf wheat grown on the National Mall. The grounds of the Japanese Imperial Palace include a plot of rice which the emperor plants and harvests. Although I would not expect any politician to be able to plant or harvest the plot competently, it would be quite an honor for an ordinary citizen.

    James Schneider writes:

    @ ap Nice.

    MingoV writes:

    I would prefer no people at all on coinage. I prefer images of landmarks, animals, and plants. Many of Costa Rica's coins feature such items (typically framed by the seal of Costa Rica).

    Shane L writes:

    Just a curious aside: Americans may be interested to know that pre-euro Irish currency prominently featured an American woman. The Irish artist John Lavery had often painted his beautiful wife Hazel, who was from Chicago. In the 1920s the new Irish government asked him to paint a woman as the personification of Ireland (continuing a traditional depiction of Ireland as a woman). John Lavery chose his elegant wife for a model, and Hazel featured on Irish banknotes for many decades.

    Hence the personification of Ireland on Irish currency was the daughter of an American industrialist:

    Andrew writes:

    Are we talking about "graven images" alongside "In God we Trust"?

    Pasteur is the only individual off the top of my head who might beat Borlaug.

    Massimo writes:

    I was thinking of Normal Borlaug when I read the title. I'm surprised the author had the exact same person in mind.

    Tracy W writes:

    But we don't put all politicians on currency, we ideally put the best ones.
    If you think of the massive reforms of say Margaret Thatcher, or Roger Douglas, those created an awful lot of value.
    Or think what the USA could have turned out like if George Washington hadn't been willing to step down from power.
    Facing down interest groups and finding peaceful resolutions to political problems, like the transfer of power (think how many civil wars start in monarchies or in nominal democracies where the current President doesn't believe in losing), is an amazingly good and valuable thing.

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