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Poignant Nobel toasts to the Ten Commandments

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Over the past two weeks, we have been hearing who this year's Nobel Prize laureates will be. In two months, the King of Sweden will confer all of the Nobel Prizes in a ceremony in Stockholm, except for the peace prize, which is conferred in Oslo by the King of Norway.

Eight years ago, I had the privilege of attending the festivities and events that surround the awarding of the Nobel Prize. The shared prize in economics was being conferred upon professor Vernon L. Smith, with whom I worked at the time. A sizeable delegation from George Mason University traveled with Smith, and I was blessed to be part of the delegation.

Among the things I learned that week was that the Nobel Foundation conceives of the prize as a global celebration of humanity. The underlying ethos of the weeklong celebration and lectures is that humanity, through science and cooperation, has the capacity to solve its most vexing problems.

Smith was being recognized for his pioneering efforts to marry experimental techniques and analyses to the "dismal science" of economics. His research has transformed our understanding of the role of trust and cooperation within competitive markets. And his research has the potential to help us better address practical problems like air pollution and air traffic control through workable trading systems.

So it may have been one of the more interesting moments in the history of the Nobel Prize when Smith was asked to share a ceremonial toast at the white-tie banquet following the award ceremony.

Smith stood, raised his glass and thanked the hosts of the evening: the royal family of Sweden. He acknowledged the co-winner of the year's prize and his intellectual debts to other scholars.

And then Smith said:

"I wish to celebrate ... the ancient Judeo commandments: Thou shalt not steal or covet the possessions of thy neighbor, which provide the property right foundations for markets, and warned that petty distributional jealousy must not be allowed to destroy them. Neither shalt thou commit murder, adultery or bear false witness, which provide the foundations for cohesive social exchange."

At the world's greatest celebration of humanistic achievement, a toast to the economic and social value of the Ten Commandments!

For most caught up in all the dazzle of all on display that evening, the potential irony of the toast may have been missed. But I have long thought about Smith's insight and courage. I don't know if Smith believes that the source of those commandments is deity — but Smith's academic work demonstrates the necessity of virtue for properly functioning markets. And with his toast, Smith acknowledged that a vital source of that virtue comes from a belief system that puts restraints on behavior (e.g., adultery) and thought (e.g., covetousness).

Far too often, we can misleadingly believe that concepts such as commandments or words such as virtue have no place in contemporary academic discourse. But increasingly, thanks to pioneers like Vernon Smith, social scientists are now recognizing the critical role played by systems of belief. Indeed, shortly after Smith's award, a previous Nobel laureate, Douglass North, began to argue that one of the most important frontiers for economic research will be the examination of how well different belief systems or religions perform economically over time. So, it was timely and illuminating to see Smith, fresh from receiving his prize, put his stock in a belief system that is at least 4,000 years old.

Too often, we squelch good ideas because we are uncertain how they might be received within a particular social setting. Smith could have easily just thanked his hosts and friends and sat. But a great lesson that I take away from Smith is that if we act with dignity and civility, a good idea can be shared anywhere.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email: pedwards@desnews.com