Posts tagged F. Bastiat

Column on Dogmatism on the Left

Dogmatism on the Left

Tibor R. Machan

As a loyal reader of books, articles and columns by members of the American intellectual left, I marvel often at just how blind these folks can be to their own dogmatism. Folks like these routinely charge those whose politics and economics they dislike with this sin, as if all those who reject Keynesian economics suffered from mindlessness instead of seriously disagreed with them. The likes of Paul Krugman do not deign to argue with their adversaries only to denounce them and label them something distasteful, such as “market fundamentalists”. (This clearly suggests that those who are convinced of the merits of free market capitalist economics couldn’t possibly have come by their view through study and reasoning but simply signed up to their “dogmas” from blind faith!)

But Krugman and others, like Mark Lilla–both of whom write regularly for The New York Review of Books, which has what its editors and contributors evidently believe the ultimately smart take on anything political and economic–are quite dogmatic themselves. This comes out when one reads them frequently and notices that they often simply assert their highly disputed positions without acknowledging that these require support, argument, evidence, etc.

Take as an example Mark Lilla’s recent contribution to a forum in TNYR where several of the favorite writers offer up their ruminations about the recent midterm elections. As a casual aside in his commentary Lilla makes this point: “The Tea Party remains a real problem for the GOP, and it will grow between now and 2012, as the party must deliver on what it promised, and knows it can’t: without serious cuts in the fastest-growing items in the federal budget–Social Security, Medicate, and defense–about which there is no social consensus, the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised, another taboo.”

That bit about how the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised” is, for Lilla & Co., a simple article of faith, in no need of argument. Never mind that there are quite a lot of serious and bright economists who disagree that raising taxes is the answer. I am no expert but even I can think of at least one reason to doubt that wisdom of raising taxes, never mind about its morality (isn’t extortion a moral problem for these people?). Haven’t the likes of Lilla ever heard of Frédéric Bastiat’s point about what is seen versus what is not seen? Or of Arthur Laffer’s point about how you can tax people only so far after which they stop producing and start spending their assets or simply abandon the market places but for the most essential, minimal involvement? Ok, maybe these points can be refuted–which I very much doubt–but surely serious commentators owe it to their readers to at least suggest how they would handle them.

Bastiat’s position suggested that often when governments take money out of people’s pockets and spend it on so called public works, they overlook the fact that they have also robbed the economy of honest versus artificial spending (spending that does not represent the genuine intentions of those whose wealth is being spent). Sure, officials of the government can easily point to the results of their public spending–all those shovel ready jobs Mr. Obama once liked to mention (but later admitted didn’t really exist); but hidden behind these are the losses of jobs from the fact that income and credit are depleted and in consequence productivity–jobs–are not much needed. The taxes have deprived people of their opportunity to spend their own wealth in favor of politicians and bureaucrats stepping in, as if the latter and not the former had superior knowledge of what sort of spending needs to be done.

In any case, my limited point here is that people like Lilla are dogmatic about their views, seeing no need to justify them, just as they accuse people in the Tea Party of being the same. Sure, being university faculty these folks are probably more articulate and erudite about rendering their positions, invoking their version of history and calling upon their famous experts in various disciplines. But in the end that is not what makes one knowledgeable about political economy. It is what Ayn Rand liked to call “argument by intimidation.” My bunch has fancier intuitions than yours! End of argument.

This way of going about the business of commenting on current affairs betrays lack of real interest in solving problems. Instead it suggests that such folks see it sufficient to rely on appearance as opposed to substance when they confront their opponents.

Column on The Error of Choice-Haters

The Choice Haters’ Error

Tibor R. Machan

If you keep up with works coming from the academy hoping to influence the world as I try to do–in part because I wish I could claim some success at the same task–you may know that during the last several years a spate of books has hit the market in which the target is consumer choice. Like how we are supposed to have too many choices when we go to the grocery store, the mall, or more generally, throughout the market place. Too many flavors of ice cream; to many makes of automobiles; too many styles of shoes and pants and so forth. Well, anyone who has ever been to a mall, like the pretty swanky ones in my neighborhood–South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island, and so on–can figure out what the beef is about. No one could possibly process all the options he or she faces when entering these places. (Ergo, let’s have politicians and bureaucrats limit our choices–for our own good!)

But it’s just this that should alert one to the problem with such laments. The plain fact of the matter is that most of us don’t go shopping expecting to peruse everything that’s on display from which we could make our selections. No. Even when one goes to a grocery store–one of these huge ones that used to amaze European, especially Eastern European visitors to North America–one usually knows the places where what one is after can be found. Yes, there are a lot of cereals available to choose from but people don’t explore all of them but a few–say, the several varieties of granola or oatmeal. Or one goes straight to the seafood or cheese sections.

In other words, not everything is on display for everyone who enters. Thousands of people come to these markets and most of them know where their kind and range of merchandise is to be found. No psychological trauma will afflict them–as suggested by the choice-haters who write these books, aiming therewith to undermine the merits of the market place where all these things may be found–because of some kind of mental overload.

But then this is common sense and too many of the academic enemies of the market are looking for the worst case scenario instead of crediting shoppers with the intelligence required to narrow the sphere wherein they will make their selections. It isn’t as if we all went shopping tabula rasa, without a clue as to what we wanted. Most people know pretty well which region of the market place they will be checking out when they get on the road to do their shopping.

I recall another area where something like this came up, namely, in how a great many urban planners dislike tack houses. Yes, these structures do look very similar when looked at casually or from the air. However those who live in them aren’t standing about looking at their homes from the outside and when you enter these homes, you find all the variety that humanity is capable of displaying within its living spaces. So while looked at as some kind of art form, from afar, they may not be very appealing, such cookie-cutter homes are (a) affordable and (b) plenty different where it counts, namely, inside.

Frederick Bastiat, the great French classical liberal political economists, coined the expression, which is the title of perhaps his most famous essays, “That which is seen, and that which is not Seen.” It points up how often intellectuals fail to see what is important in economic affairs because they only notice what’s on the surface–like when they champion minimum wage laws since on the surface these appear to help wage-earners, never mind that once closely examined it turns out that such laws produce unemployment among just those who need work most, namely, the unskilled.

I think Bastiat’s point is applicable elsewhere, also, including when it comes to this matter of how we face too many choices in the market, so many, in fact, that it traumatizes most of us and contributes to our unhappiness. No–look closer–it does not!