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.