Saturday, July 16, 2011

Respect and Collaboration

When I read posts like this I have a series of reactions. I'm specifically refering to my reaction to Boettke's discussino of "the economics of illusion" and the attempt to contrast these people he doesn't like with economic luminaries like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.

My first reaction is "I can't even take this seriously".

My second reaction is "Well, yes I can take this seriously because I know Peter is a serious guy and perhaps he's just wrong or I'm missing something".

My third reaction is "Well maybe he's serious but he's obviously not taking me and people like me seriously because he continues to say these sorts of things, so why the hell should I give him the time of day?"

If I'm lucky, I come around to my fourth reaction, which is "But he should take me seriously and if he misunderstands me and people like me so badly that he thinks we're peddling an 'economics of illusion' and that he thinks we're somehow out of the 'mainline economics' (Boettke's term) of Smith and Friedman then as much as it's insulting to read claims like that it's really a duty to continue respecting him and collaborating with him and engaging him to set the record straight and clear up the confusion".

I worry, though, about the prospects for this sort of thing. It's obviously not just Austrians and libertarians that do this. Everybody alienates everybody else. And sometimes when there's a narrative that has an important kernel of truth to it (like the "Dark Age of Macro") it's presentation prevents any intellectual progress. There's a good reason why people get so heated - we're going through tough times and compromising with people who we think are blatantly wrong seems like an extremely dangerous game to play. But ultimately, human progress requires intellectual progress, which is why I think it's important to keep engaging people that seem so dismissive of you or your ideas (usually it's not me personally that's being dismissed).

I will note one tough thing about engaging Austrians and libertarians - I constantly have to justify the very idea that I'm pro-liberty and pro-market and it's actually my concerns about threats to liberty and my concerns about misunderstandings about the market that prevent me from being a libertarian. It's aggravating to have to spell this out time and again. This doesn't really happen to libertarians. Nobody second-guesses their dedication to liberty or the market and while you sometimes you get people saying libertarians don't care about the unemployed, it's not an accusation that gets brought up as much. Engaging people who think differently on these issues can be tough because I feel like I first have to demonstrate that I am not scum before getting into any actual ideas (this, I should add, is why trying to avoid blatant rudeness in the blogosphere helps a great deal in getting your message across - you demonstrate that you ought to be taken seriously and you demonstrate that in all likelihood you're not a statist scumbag).

UPDATE: I should say that this sort of thing pays off big time. Bob Murphy was one guy I used to avoid. I think the anarcho-capitalist perspective is particularly likely to presume that they have an exclusive claim to being pro-liberty (even among libertarians), the persistent attention he paid to Krugman (much of which I think is poorly reasoned), and the initial 1920-1921 paper just made me think he wasn't worth engaging in dialogue early on. Since following his blog though, I realized that that was a complete misperception. Even though Bob is one of the people I disagree with most - particularly on political philosophy/anarcho-capitalist type stuff - I've found he's incredibly intellectually curious and also almost never (that I can remember) presumes that there is some antipathy to liberty on the part of people that disagree with him, which makes talking with him much, much less stressful. He's also very open-minded, as the current series of posts on liquidity preference demonstrates. Anyway, respect and engaging people who disagree with you pays off, although there are always lots of barriers that both sides through up - intentionally or not.

UPDATE 2: And I know these "blogging about blogging" posts are dull, but I've gone through those four reactions so many times and this morning reading Peter's post I went through them rather quickly so it was fresh on my mind and seemed worth sharing the idea. If you found this dull, I encourage you to go back and read my zombie post.


  1. I kind of thought it was one of Boettke's better pieces of late.

  2. Ya, well, he didn't insinuate you were beyond the pale of Smith and Friedman and an obstacle to social prosperity.

    That sort of thing elicits a "WTF?!" reaction from some of us.

  3. Daniel,

    Well, I guess if one thinks that there is way too much government, etc. then one is going to think that you are in fact in the way (if you are favor in that amount of government or more).

  4. Seriously, stop being such a drama queen! It's not the first time "economics of illusion" has been used (there's actually a book with that as its title!), and at least Boettke is referring to government policy, rather than economic theory.

    And, if he thinks that policy has led to an illusion then that's his right as a theorist to believe. I don't see how it isn't a perfectly respectable conclusion to come to. Or, would it be disrespectful for you to claim that austerity would lead to disaster? Or that if one period in history there was a correlation between austerity and economic growth then there would be the illusion that the two are causally related?

  5. Actually, you have a case if you look at the following passage of Boettke's review,

    "We realized the gains from trade (Smithian growth) and we realized the gains from innovation (Schumpeterian growth), and we fought off (in the West as least) totalitarian government (Stupidity). As long as Smithian growth and Schumpeterian growth outpace Stupidity, tomorrow’s trough will still be higher than today’s peak."

    This alone doesn't present a problem, because stupidity apparently refers to totalitarian government. But, the entire piece is about how too much interventionism can cause stagnation, and how this has become a problem in the last few decades. So, it seems to me that there is a subtle connection that Boettke makes between totalitarianism and interventionism in the United States, even though I think Boettke would immediately deny that he believes that (and I would believe him; it's just that I think the language in the review might be a tad bit sloppy).

    Totalitarianism is "stupid", but I can see where you can believe that he extends the category of "stupidity" to all interventionists.

    Although, I don't necessarily think that at the extreme you'd disagree with him. If we accept that greater capital consumption than capital investment leads to economic decline then we pretty much accept Boettke's premise.

  6. Oh yea. You write,

    "I will note one tough thing about engaging Austrians and libertarians - I constantly have to justify the very idea that I'm pro-liberty and pro-market and it's actually my concerns about threats to liberty and my concerns about misunderstandings about the market that prevent me from being a libertarian. It's aggravating to have to spell this out time and again."

    Well, don't be so conceited, because I don't think Boettke ever had you in mind when he was writing that post!

  7. "I constantly have to justify the very idea that I'm pro-liberty... This doesn't really happen to libertarians. Nobody second-guesses their dedication to liberty..."

    The above is untrue. Propertarians are anti-liberty. Lots of literature asserts this. Maybe you ought to read Alan Haworth, for example.

    I don't see why my assertion of such true statements should be a problem. I have no difficulty in acknowledging correct statements from, say, Robert Murphy, when he makes such (e.g. on the existence of multiple own-rates of interest in an intertemporal equilibrium).

    But if I want to see economists explaining how people sustain themselves in a more-or-less capitalist economy like the U.S., I look to Marxists, Post Keynesians, Institutionalists, etc.

  8. Robert,

    You are entitled to believing your assertions to be right. That doesn't mean other people have to agree with you. But, that other people don't agree with you doesn't mean that other people should be insulted by your conclusions (unless you call them stupid, and like I said above, I can see how it could be seen that Boettke was making that insult).

  9. But if I want to see economists explaining how people sustain themselves in a more-or-less capitalist economy like the U.S., I look to Marxists

    You just disqualified yourself from being taken seriously.

  10. Daniel,

    Robert is right; I can't tell you how many times I've been told that I am a fascist for being a libertarian.


    How do people sustain themselves in a non-capitalist economy? Oh yeah, they don't.

  11. You are so right about Bob Murphy. I am taking macroeconomics class for MBA program. My professor is a Berkeley product - avid Keynesian. I am also taking Murphy's Keynes, Krugman & Crisis offered by Mises Academy. Murphy does a fine job of explaining Keynesian positions, many times better than my Keynesian professor. I find so many holes in Keynesian story when I am listening to my professor, and not quite as many listening to Bob.

  12. Jonathan -
    re: "Seriously, stop being such a drama queen! It's not the first time "economics of illusion" has been used (there's actually a book with that as its title!), and at least Boettke is referring to government policy, rather than economic theory."

    Well, I said this post was dull. But I'm surprised you're flinging "drama queen" at me, given the hand-wringing about government spending in the original post. Mine is dull to be sure, but I'm not being the hysterical one here.

    My point is - the gut reaction of a lot of people is to ignore posts like Peter's. Upon further reflection, I think that's not as good an idea as it initially seems.

  13. Daniel,

    I really don't see what is so controversial about what Boettke is saying.

  14. It's not controversial so much as it's odd. He's wrapping intervention in the late twentieth century together, and he's suggesting it's cut into innovation and growth, and finally he's using that to suggest that to contrast proponents of certain intervention with Smith and Friedman and provide a rallying call against proponents of intervention.

    Each step of that thought process comes across as patently ridiculous. He doesn't seem like he's thinking about this carefully enough to be worth paying attention to. And what I'm saying is I know better - I know he is a thoughtful guy. And often we have to push through these apparent absurdities and give people the benefit of the doubt, even when it's grating to read stuff like this. Otherwise we wouldn't get anywhere and we'd all be in our own separate camps continuing to make bizarre presumptions about each other.

  15. And I should say - it could have all been nipped in the bud by differentiating this idea of "intervention" (what is intervention exactly? It's an awfully vague, throw-away idea) and spend more time on the question of whether we're really stagnating (a ton of people have challenged Cowen on this), and whether intervention has caused that.

    If that portion of the argument were approached more critically it would be impossible for Boettke to talk about certain groups of interventionists as being out of the "mainline" of economics as he likes to do, it would be impossible for him to lump good intervention and bad intervention together, it would be impossible for him to ignoret he role of certain interventions and robust governance mechanisms that foster innovation, etc. etc.

    A lot of the poorly thought through starting assumptions facilitate the weird conclusions.

    What's especially shocking for me when I read Peter write things like this is that I know he reads Buchanan, Ostrom, etc. I know when he takes the time to he has a much more nuanced view of non-market governance.

  16. You're shocked that a classical liberal or a small government liberal or a libertarian would argue that the growth of government since WWI (or whatever point in the past you want to work from) has been a major drag on innovation, economic growth, etc.? How is that odd or weird exactly?

  17. Also, I have to ask, have you ever read Friedman's _Capitalism and Freedom_?

  18. Gary -
    It's an odd argument - not odd that a libertarian would make the argument.

  19. Daniel,

    I don't think it is an odd argument at all.

    Anyway, your claim that libertarians don't have to demonstrate their bona fides is just flat out wrong. Go to the DailyKos or wherever and pretend to be a libertarian; see what sort of response you get. Or, better yet, in your next dinner conversation with friends start defending libertarian ideas - see how well that goes. Of course being a libertarian today is not quite like it was back in the 1940s or 1950s (or the 1970s for that matter), but there is still a fair amount of mudslinging and accusations of barbarism, etc.

  20. Daniel,

    One further observation (or really a restatement of my earlier comment) about your comment regarding libertarians (or "liebertarians" as we often called) is this: you kind of live in a bubble dude.

  21. I agree with Robert Vienneau.

    The fact is, DK, people challenge the Libertarian claims to Liberty ALL THE TIME. On philosophical forums, on political forums, and so on. The arguments are pretty much common sense: property can get out of hand, there are other values than economic values, democracy might be important, and so on. George Orwell (no minor figure) said that Libertarianism might lead to a worse tyranny than the totalitarianism Hayek was attacking. Noam Chomsky has also said that anarcho-capitalism would be the worst form of tyranny and that they just can't see it: "…I do not think they see the consequences of the doctrines they espouse, or their profound moral failings," and, furthermore is "not even worth talking about … a special American aberration, it's not really serious." *

    Libertarians have a right to claim to be the greatest proponents of Liberty, and many people reject this claim. Furthermore, those familiar with political science history know that many early Americans, before the revolution, spoke highly of democracy, of equal rights, even to land, and so on. They carried signs like "equal rights for all, special privileges for none" and so on. And you had the levelers in England, and this constant strain of left-libertarianism I think is important (even if, as perhaps may be true, it is as unrealistic as right Libertarianism, I don't think it should be ignored).

    Mill concludes in his autobiography that he was pretty much in line with the socialists by the end of his life.

    *I only mention chomsky because he's the one anti-right Libertarian I'm most familiar with, and follows Russell's tradition. "Russell's approach to this range of topics (libertarian socialism, the power of the centralized state and how to achieve real freedom or democracy) seems to me eminently reasonable, and — after half a century of tragedy — as remote as ever from any likelihood of achievement." But you don't really have to go far to find this.

    So the claim that everybody knows libertarians are for liberty is false.

    (In short, I actually agree with Gary. Libertarians DO have to demonstrate that they are for liberty a lot on forums, and attempt to do so, all the time.)


    ~ Chomsky

  22. Anyway, I'm not here to cause trouble. Just thought I had a "perspective" for people to read. If I'm a burden let me know and I'll be on my way.

    About Tyler Cowen and this stagnation, I agree with it to a large extent. I think he makes good points. The fact is, the GDP can grow and a lot more people can be in poverty, and you've actually had AN INCREASE in the poverty level in the United States. You saw that same effect in certain Latin American countries as well. But poverty was at one of its lowest points in the 60s and 70s due to Johnson and the war on poverty and so on, but has steadily gone up. More people are in poverty today around the world than they have ever been. I've posted some of the stuff on India as well, and can provide more evidence.

    I do think Cowen inadvertently downplays computers though. Having a computer is as big if not bigger as having a washing machine or car. And yes, they've gotten cheaper, really thanks to some of the capitalistic corporations and individual inventors (who I would argue are outside of market forces, belonging to households, which operate different than firms) and so on. People do their taxes on it, it has replaced filing, it makes automation easier, it saves on paper, and so on. They have replaced workers in a lot of areas so that those workers can then go on to do more productive things in other areas. And people would have been able to get to work on public transport without cars, though.

    Furthermore, new programs and ideas are invented every day. Probably new programs and ideas in computers have matched the inventions in other industries.

    So the electronic computer was probably the greatest invention in human history. One computer science text puts it thusly: "The early history that began with the abacus ended with the delivery of the UNIVAC I. With the building of that machine, the dream of a device that could rapidly manipulate numbers was realized; the search was ended. After 1951, the story becomes one of the ever-expanding use of computers to solve problems in all areas... From that point, the search has focused not only on building faster, bigger devices, but also on developing tools that allow us to use these devices more productively."

    In other words, humans had searched for two millenia for a device that could calculate quickly, and that was realized in the second half of the twentieth century. Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of the twentieth century if not the most brilliant one, had this to say: "Computer science is not as old as physics; it lags by a couple of hundred years. However, this does not mean that there is significantly less on the computer scientist's plate than on the physicist's: younger it may be, but it has had a far more intense upbringing!"
    -- Richard Feynman

    Feynman also understood the importance of the architecture developed in the 50s, noting that almost all computers "work on a layout or an architecture invented by von Neumann, in which there is a very large memory that stores all the information, and one central location that does simple calculation." (Computing Machines in the Future, printed in The Please of Finding things out, p.29.) (I can explain why this is important.)

    So, yes, there has been a stagnation, but Cowen downplays the role of computers and their advancements too much.


  23. And if Libertarians are so cool, why can't they all be more like Tyler Cowen? I don't agree with him on everything, but he just writes his stuff and that's it.

    Libertarians claim to follow Lao-Tzu, but lao-tzu said, basically, set an example and if you don't like things don't partake in it. Libertarians are always in your face with revisionist history and AIDS denialism and so on and it can get tiresome -- they're like internet street preachers. I can't even look for documentaries without David Ike and Alex Jones coming up and stuff.

    Such "preaching" is, indeed, a far cry from the way.

  24. Thanks for the nice words... Yeah I guess it would be a bit frustrating if someone referred to your views as an "illusion." Never thought of it like that. :)

    On the other hand, I think you are kidding yourself DK if you think it's a one-way street. A certain laureate, to pick just one example, routinely questions the motives of people who disagree with him. The latest one is that we want to help the rentier class.

  25. Bob Murphy -
    The laureate I mention in the post as an example of someone that acts like this on the other side?!

  26. Oops, right, I forgot you put in the "Dark Age" thing. (I had read the initial post in the airport, and couldn't post my comment until hours later, after reading the comments. Those #)($*#$ libertarians clouded my mind.)


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