Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why do we caricature?

Peter Boettke has a good post up on Fukuyama's article on Hayek, where he accuses him of caricaturing Hayek.

"Caricature" is a great word - I use it a lot. Perhaps too often. Usually I'm suggesting that someone is caricaturing Keynes or Keynesianism. But the phenomenon of caricaturing intellectual positions itself is an interesting one. Boettke and I aren't the only ones that point to these cases. You hear the suggestion all the time. This is the comment I left on his post:

"This phenomenon of caricaturing is interesting. A lot of people seem to find a lot of other people guilty of it.

Is it just the nature of specialized knowledge? Is it just a criticism that people need to be open to and therefore willing to work through (and then if they still disagree at the end, that's OK)? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper issue?

I genuinely don't know, I just know I see a ton of caricaturing around from my perspective and I hear a ton of people making similar claims from their perspective, and even when I genuinely work at understanding someone's perspective I can still get told that I'm caricaturing. My guess is it's inevitable. My hope is it's not rooted in a lack of concern or care

So why do we do this? Any ideas?


  1. Trade paradigms. People with very different ideologies develop a contract where they agree to meet certain goals which are counter to their world-views. A good example would be to have a formal argument with someone you think is wrong while arguing his actual side. Points awarded for most vigorous and coherent argumentation of said detested idea. I'd love to see this with people who are completely alien to each other, like Higgs and Krugman trading Great Depression explanations.

    Considering that nearly all people are bothered at one time or another by their own confirmation biases or those of others, it's a shame that professional thinkers like Fukuyama aren't expected to publicly fight theirs. His fans should demand that he (as a neocon) correctly represent Hayek, but they won't for the obvious reason.

  2. Daniel, imagine an article filled with 3963 words.

    If the article simply kept repeating the sentence, "Today is Friday", you would not need to remember all 3963 words of the article, in order to repeat it by memory. You would simply remember this sentence and repeat it 1321 times.

    If it were a full fledged essay, you would have a hard time remembering each one of the 3963 words. Of course, you may read the first sentence, "Today is Friday", and assume that's what the rest of the article says. That's easier.

    Caricaturing is a form of compartmentalizing and putting into patterns. Patterns and categories help people understand and remember when they don't want to make the effort.

  3. It distills criticisms of a person down to the most elemental aspects that the criticizer dislikes.

    Sometimes it's shorthand for cutting to the chase, other times it obfuscates and distracts from the fundamental truths of a person.

    Hard to know the difference sometimes.

  4. It's inevitable, either that you'll do it or people will accuse you of doing it. I usually try to resist the temptation to talk about what other people believe, especially if they have been dead for a long time.

  5. Possibly because romantic narratives are much more inviting to a dogmatic bunch than enduring the opportunity cost of discovering that Keynes wasn't full of malicious intent, propagandizing shill for the state, insincere, and all around a very bad man.

    A gold star to anyone who figures out what entity I'm summarizing.

  6. "Possibly because romantic narratives are much more inviting to a dogmatic bunch than enduring the opportunity cost of discovering that Keynes wasn't full of malicious intent, propagandizing shill for the state, insincere, and all around a very bad man."

    That sounds like a caricature of opponents of Keynesian economics...

  7. Incidentally Anonymous, I'm not just making a joke. Just as you think it's very convenient for Tea Party types to dismiss Keynes because he (say) was homosexual or whatever, by the same token it's very convenient for you to assume that anybody who disagrees with Keynesianism must be a dogmatic ideologue with no basis for his views.

  8. "by the same token it's very convenient for you to assume that anybody who disagrees with Keynesianism must be a dogmatic ideologue with no basis for his views."

    In find no convenience in negligence of intellectual honesty no matter which extreme people veer off to on the spectrum.

    And considering my podcast collection and kindle library, I find your attempt at psychoanalyzing me very disappointing Bob.

  9. There is likely no singular reason why caricature is so often invoked. However, I can think of a few off hand.

    Sheer lack of comprehension - The party engaging in caricature doesn't realize they are doing so, because they think they are stating the whole of the case. For example, when my girlfriend was studying economics in Switzerland, her economics professor skipped over all the parts of the textbook which taught non-Keynesian views (monetarism, rational expectations, etc) and told the class he wasn't going to teach them because they were nonsense. He followed this up with a one or two sentence dismissal of each school of thought. Doubtless many students came out of that class with a caricatured view of non-Keynesian economics. In the other direction, I was at an IHS seminar where one of my fellow attendees told me that his econ teacher did the same regarding Keynesianism - he only mentioned it in order to tell the students what was wrong with it. (I had asked him where he had learned Keynesianism, because conversation with him made it abundantly clear he didn't understand what he was criticizing.) I pointed out to him that this would be like a prosecutor promising to present a jury with the defense's case; how much honesty and thoroughness could one expect from that? He suddenly looked uncomfortable.

    Honest simplification - One is likely to find this when experts are writing for popular audiences. Steven Landsburg cops to this in his book "The Big Questions," by opening one of his chapters with the statement "This chapter is full of lies." He was using that chapter to write about some of the puzzles of physics, and sought to explain everything contained therein using non-technical terms which were mostly (but not fully) accurate. When economists write for non-economists, there will always be a layer of simplification, which can easily become caricature. Walter Bagehot once said "To illustrate a principle you must exaggerate much and you must omit much." When illustrating how markets work, economists will often start with caricatured models; zero transaction costs, perfect information, homogeneous goods, infinite firms, free entry, etc. In that sense, caricature can be useful as a first approximation of a case.

    - Dishonest simplification. Or, the straw man argument.

    Anyone have any quibbles with what I've said so far? Or, does anyone want to throw in a few more reasons?

  10. Bob -
    So, first - it was a pretty harsh point that anonymous was making, but it's not a point that he's making out of the blue (I think we all know what he's refering to). Really unprofessional stuff comes out of there. I think you can criticize that institution without extending it to all critics of Keynesianism or even to everyone who has ever been associated with the institution. You also write: "Just as you think it's very convenient for Tea Party types to dismiss Keynes because he (say) was homosexual or whatever", but the thing is it's not just "Tea Party types". "Tea Party types" generally aren't even aware of Keynes's existence. It's many people that ought to know better that are the problem, just like many people I otherwise respect have been unfair to Hayek (saying, for example, that he doesn't care about the unemployed). I don't think the abuse is proportional by a long stretch but it is a problem on all sides.

  11. Kevin -
    Those are good points. Genuine lack of understanding should be an opportunity for humility. There's nothing wrong with having an underdeveloped view of a position - you should just be much less haughty about it. I have a decent grasp of ABCT, although not as good as some people. I feel free to comment and if I get something wrong we argue about it and go back to Hayek or Garrison or whoever (because often my critics are newbies as well and I'm not entirely convinced they know any more than me). Mises's praxeology is something I am less comfortable with so you'll see me talking about it much less. I will talk about epistemology and methodology in general, of course - and I can infer what I think will be lacking in praxeology from that. But you won't see me picking apart Human Action because (as Mattheus knows) I haven't read it. The other nice thing about this medium of blogs is that you CAN talk about things you don't know about so easily. The thing is, when you do it you have to be careful, hedge, and not look like an idiot.

  12. Honest simplification is good too. I think Casey Mulligan was doing this in his recent post about price rigidity. If he had gone on to say "so this is why Keynesianism is wrong", he would have veered into dishonest simplification. But as he put it, I think he was quite fair.

  13. "That sounds like a caricature of opponents of Keynesian economics... "

    Nope, it just sounds like I'm describing caricatures that, believe it or not, actually exist!

    Bonus question answer:

    LRC or the Mises blog comment section and forum.

  14. Daniel-

    I agree that genuine lack of understanding should bring about a little humility. But, sadly, it seems more often to lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Frequently the people who know very little don't know enough to realize that they know very little, and as such they make confident proclamations. I believe I have an above average understanding of both Keynesian and Austrian economics compared to the average American. But I also recognize that I am a Marine (albeit one with unusual reading habits), not an economist, and that I am an enthusiast rather than an expert. This makes me very inclined to, as you said, hedge. Sadly, I don't see that very much. Maybe it's just the company I keep, but I wonder.


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