Words and Numbers Hosts Visit Providence


By Chloe Olsen, Class of 2021

Coercion’s grasp is capable of stripping American society of liberties, and our deliverance relies on cooperation.

On Tuesday, February 21, Drs. James Harrigan and Antony Davies presented a talk to Providence students targeting these concepts. Dr. Harrigan is the managing director of the Center for Philosophy of Freedom and the University of Arizona, and Dr. Davies is a professor of economics at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh. In their popular podcast, “Words and Numbers,” the two delve into philosophy and economics. They are currently traveling the country and have now visited Providence three times in the past four years to impart their wisdom to high school students entering into a world where an awareness of subjects like these is crucial. Providence is a school that places an immense gravity on students’ knowledge of ideas, including economic and political ideas. They talked about the governmental hold on citizens’ lives, the extent to which coercion should be accepted and considered beneficial, and the fruits of cooperation. As authors of Cooperation and Coercion, a book that unpacks the tendency in human relations to either comply or constrain, they posed the pros and cons of both trends during their talk.

Harrigan began the discussion on the topic of coercion. Explaining the problematic nature of societal constrictions, he addressed the myriad of limitations on day-to-day activities such as those on our use of water and where we can cross the street. Another form of coercion from the government appears in the price of harmful products. He gave the example of the dramatic increase in the cost of cigarettes. During the 1980s, a pack of cigarettes could be purchased for roughly one dollar, while today a pack costs nearly seven dollars. In an attempt to prevent unhealthy habits, our government has nudged citizens into living a life they believe is best for us.

Students were encouraged to question these regulations. Should such constraints exist to prevent self-inflicted harm, or should regulations be in place solely to prevent one person from harming another? Nations exercising too much coercion become consumed by a sea of regulations on everyday life which compromise the liberty that keeps our country afloat. With examples such as China’s social credit system and its former limits on the amount of children per family, Harrigan warned of the damaging effects of a coercive government.

Post-presentation, students in the Libertas Scholars program meet Dr. Harrigan and Dr. Davies.

Rather than forceful leadership, perhaps our prosperity depends on cooperation. Davies led students in an interactive experiment that emulated real-world commerce. Students divided into groups of four who traded within the group, aiming to multiply their products and create the largest amount of goods possible. One side had a comparative advantage and was significantly more efficient at production than its competition. However, despite one group’s lack of skill and one’s clear industrial domination, both gained from the cooperation; in fact, those who were the poorest improved more. Through this experimental economics, Davies demonstrated that trade works to not only make us all better off, but also to decrease economic inequality. With an engaging, palpable take on production and consumption, his example helped students understand the often unrecognized fairness of cooperative exchange. Similar to this exercise, there exists a reciprocity in cooperation that debunks the popular notion that all sellers are thieves. Trade produces profit for the disadvantaged in the deal and lessens economic inequality.

In groups of four, Providence students and teachers participate in an interactive economics experiment led by Dr. Davies.
Students work together to solve production and efficiency problems through trading.
Drs. Harrigan and Davies conclude the discussion with a Q and A, where students had the opportunity to ask questions about the talk and about economics and politics in general.

The matter of whether force or compliance is best for our nation is certainly relevant. Amidst the current political climate and upcoming election, an understanding of economics is especially vital. With a unique optimism, Harrigan shared that he expects our generation to have an awareness of the importance of liberty and value of trade that many millenials do not always recognize.

Our school promotes the economic and political education of students, as this insight is necessary for navigating the world of politics and life as an American citizen. Providence High School students   attained a worthwhile understanding of coercion and cooperation from Tuesday’s discussion and greatly appreciated the two talks. Students were particularly drawn to the comprehensibility of the presentation. Senior Chloe Norton shared, “They make economics a more tangible subject. I think that a lot of the times I am intimidated by the concepts, but both Antony Davies and James Harrigan make it simple without losing its vast complexity.” Others were motivated to further their understanding in this area. Junior Nolan Lundgaard said, “I thought it was so great to hear from these economists today, and everything they had to say about the benefits of working together and the drawbacks (and the good) that result from coercion. It just underlines the importance of cooperation in society and that things will be better off once humans begin working with others. The whole presentation was super inspiring.” Junior Josh Frankenfield added, “Personally, I really enjoyed the presentations… It was quite intriguing to see the contrasting ways on solving problems (coercion vs. cooperation) and which option yields better results. Discussions and topics like those that were presented are the reason why I am fascinated by economics.”

James Harrigan and Antony Davies spurred on a venture for learning political and economic truth and a cultivation of knowledge through considering that coercion may be poisoning liberties, but cooperation is fruitful to all.

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