Thursday, May 29, 2014

Knaves, fools, and Pete

Peter Boettke has a post that's worth chewing over on conversation blocks in democracy, particularly as they apply to - for lack of a better word - more intellectual subject matter such as economics. Pete makes two basic points:
1. The view that one side is seeking bad ends and is wrong and one side is seeking good ends and is right (what he calls the "knaves, fools, and me" approach after Krugman's post of that title) "is a block to genuine discourse in a democratic society, not really a part of it --- as it asserts a privileged position for the self-anoited expert in that discourse", and

2. That we need to be more cognizant in policy discussions that "wishing it so doesn't make it so".
In broad strokes of course it's hard to disagree with either of these points - I doubt anyone does. But the devil is in the details, and I have a few thoughts on the details.

First, "wishing it so doesn't make it so" is obviously correct, but in practice I think this is poorly applied. Nine times out of ten, in my experience, it is invoked when no one has argued that wishing it so makes it so. Indeed they've usually either presented a case for the compatibility of the proposed policy with the stated goals or there's a very obvious literature on the compatibility that is implicit in the policy claim and no one has invoked "wishing it so" in the first place. In these nine out of ten cases invoking "wishing it so doesn't make it so" is more of a conversation stopper itself by someone that for whatever reason does not choose to engage the explanation presented. Disagreement on the argument is one thing of course. Pete makes pronouncements all the time that seem to me to have little more than wishful thinking undergirding them (and this is even more common with anarchists). But I know that's just my impression of the quality of his explanation, not the lack of an explanation of the compatibility of his policy with his goal, so invoking "wishing it so doesn't make it so" doesn't seem appropriate. I feel like a lot of people who do invoke it are in a similar situation but invoke it anyway, and it's hard to know what to do with those sorts of people. You can restate the argument but it's liable to meet with the same retort. Eventually you just to move onto other projects or conversation partners.

With politicians I think it's easier to invoke correctly than fellow economists. Then again I've never thought of a politician as someone you'd have an above-board policy conversation with because they are cultivating an image and a platform.

I think I differ far more markedly with Pete on the "knaves, fools, and me" issue. The real difficulty here is that as an empirical matter there are knaves and fools in the world. Overstating or poorly arguing for their existence is wrong and indeed a conversation stopper, but they do exist. This one is therefore more of an empirical question, and an empirical question on which there will be substantial disagreements, so I think it's harder to pinpoint it as inherently wrong.

What's especially frustrating here is that Pete throws out "knaves, fools, and me" arguments all the time. He's also served on dissertation committees where this was - if not the thesis - a big part of the thesis (such as Jesse Gastelle's - the link is to a shorter paper taken from the dissertation that is more focused on this point). Keynesianism, Pete will argue, succeeded not because it was a set of good ideas but because people wanted to see more interventionist government and Keynesianism offered them justification. It was driven by hostility to limited government and the hiring and promotion of economists that facilitate that mission. This is an exact replication of Krugman's argument in the knaves, fools, and me post. He argues that the various pro-austerity views in economics succeeded not because it was a set of good ideas but because people wanted to shrink government and "austerianism" offered them justification. It was driven by hostility to active government policy.

So I find it very hard to swallow the idea that Pete has a general problem with these sorts of arguments. He obviously doesn't because he makes them too! The difference, of course, is that Pete thinks he is right and Krugman is wrong.

I think both cases have very real problems and if I'm speaking of economists (not politicians, who I think tend to be more opportunistic in promoting economic theory), I tend not to use these preferred arguments of Pete and Krugman (note my paper on Hayek in Critical Review and on modern ABCT work - I did not use an argument like this). But if I had to weigh in on which had more of a whiff of truth to it I think it's clearly Krugman's argument. People may disagree and that's fine - we can argue about it, because it is an empirical question. You may easily find these arguments in my repertoire. I'm sure I make them when I think they are true. I just think that as a general matter I think science is a functional, self-correcting system so generally speaking I don't believe scientific ideas persist for long due to knavery or foolery, although of course sometimes it may happen - I don't deny the possibility.

One last point that is a little disconcerting to me. Krugman knows he makes "knaves, fools, and me" arguments, he knows other people know that, and he stands by it. Pete doesn't seem to know that or that other people see his posts as being broadly comparable to Krugman's. It's probably worth recognizing the parallels.

1 comment:

  1. What is interesting is that Peter Boettke thinks I am a knave--and says so:

    "Charles Rowley has never shied away from speaking truth to power. This is a very admirable trait. In a series of posts this week he demonstrates that principled stance as an economist again… [as] he tells his readers: '[T]he Keynesian model never worked… has been resuscitated by opportunistic economists not because they believe in its merits as an agent of macroeconomic rehabilitation, but because they recognize its political value as a weapon for moving economies from laissez-faire capitalism, or (hopefully) beyond that to fully-fledged socialism'".

    Boettke's posts aren't just comparable to Krugman's--they are far, far, far beyond Krugman into Gamma Quadrant Wingnutville. And I don't know whether he has no clue about how far gone he is, or just hopes to bamboozle some of his audience...

    Brad DeLong


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