A Bad Sort of Homecoming

I left the League of Ordinary Gentlemen after a relatively short time there because it quickly became clear I didn’t fit in well there. And my foray back, discussing Jason Kuznicki’s post about my post on living a 1950s middle class lifestyle, didn’t go well.

There’s a certain type of liberal who thinks they know economics quite well despite having never put any effort into studying it. So they claim to know the basics, while stating as simple fact the claim that free trade is bad, or repeating the tritely pointless claim that there’s never been a free market. It’s like creationists arguing that they understand evolution perfectly well, then stating that mutations can’t add information to a genome. I’m pretty sure where they get their “knowledge.” They read liberal critiques of basic economic thought and think that results in an accurate understanding of it.

But as it turns out, economists don’t smugly point out that there’s never been a free market–they consider to what degree markets are free or controlled. Economists don’t believe free trade is bad, and if someone wants to claim both that they understand economic basics and that free trade is bad, they’re going to have to demonstrate that you understand Smith’s law of absolute advantage and Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage–basics, very basic–and why they are wrong, which is not so basic, which in fact is Nobel Prize worthy. Of course that Nobel Prize winner in fact believes very strongly in free trade, too. Demonstrating an understanding of the basics would also be helped by showing passing familiarity with Coase’s theory of the firm, instead of worrying about “How much of the basic premise of a corporation is rooted in the state to begin with?”

I’m not talking about dumb people, but smart people who insist that they know things they haven’t actually studied, but have only read about on an obviously very casual basis. Why is that? I suppose it could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, or perhaps it’s fear of having their ideological commitments undermined. I really don’t know. All I do know is that while my condescending attitude clearly was not an effective manner of persuading them, the issue is ultimately not whether I’m polite enough but whether they’re going to be honest enough to study what they claim to already know.

My big sin was being condescending. Good lord, I lost count of how many people dishonestly claimed that my statements of facts were actually normative statements saying “this is how it should be.” As one commentor in support of me cheekily said, “You didn’t explicitly say it was bad, so therefore you must believe it was good.” That pretty much sums up the type of League reader that made me realize it wasn’t the place for me, and why I decided to allow myself the freedom to engage in arbitrary banning here (fortunately I haven’t drawn enough readership for that to have become an issue yet). It’s one of the lowest forms of political discourse, and repetitions of it have the effect of turning me towards snideness and condescension.

Sorry you didn’t like it, E.C. But you’re simply deluding yourself about understanding economics. So just in case you wander over here to see how I’m “shitting” in my own bed, here’s my list for becoming an educated layperson in the field of economics.

There’s plenty more pop econ books out there, but I think anyone who reads all those will know more than 90% of the general public.

And there are plenty of good blogs to read, too.

Yes, E.C., that’s all quite condescending. But you can read those books within a month, and look at these blogs once a week, and you’ll develop an actual understanding of the basics of economics. You might be surprised how real economists’ understandings of those basic concepts don’t line up with yours. Your choice is to embrace the knowledge or run from it.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to A Bad Sort of Homecoming

  1. Braxton Thomason says:

    Hi James – I’m curious as to why you don’t recommend Don Boudreaux? I find his letters to the editor to be excellently succinct illustrations of common economic fallacies.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    I’ll wander in to commit the sin you condemn: commenting without having read the thread. However, since you refer in particular to “a certain type of liberal [1] who thinks they know economics quite well despite having never put any effort into studying it,” it’s worth pointing out that the economists you point them to are not exactly loaded with right-wing ideologues.

    In particular, I note the title of Krugman’s blog.

    Generally, I’ve found very few true experts in any field who are prone to strong absolute statements about its application. Other than, “it’s not that simple,” anyway.

    [1] I don’t think liberals have a monopoly here.

  3. James Hanley says:

    D.C., I specifically list Krugman so it doesn’t appear that I’m pushing people toward right-wing economists. I think if liberals would read Krugman’s books and ignore his op-eds, where he tends to regularly commit the nirvana fallacy it would easier to talk to them. On the other hand, all the George Mason guys whose blogs I list lean more libertarianish than liberal.

    Braxton, Boudreaux’s letters are amusing, and they are correct. But he almost never engages in as deep an analysis as Roberts, and writing letters to the editor non-stop and boasting about it gives him the appearance of being something of a crank. It’s worse than blogging even. At the least, he’s certainly not the first economist you want to introduce liberals to.

  4. Personally, if it’s worth anything, I thought your arguments at the League were quite valuable, and I’m glad you participated.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Thank you. If I didn’t emphasize it appropriately, there were a number of people there who were reasonable. There always have been.

  6. What Christopher said.

  7. Will says:

    Yeah, I’d like to echo Christopher and Dennis’s sentiments. I’m sorry you’re not still writing with us, and I’m sorry things got testy in the comments section.

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