Bryan Caplan  

You're Not Fooling Anyone: The Futility of Libertarian Euphemisms

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Yesterday GMU had a mini-debate between Dan Klein and Pete Boettke on "Is It Time to Retire the Label 'Austrian Economics?'" Dan said Yes; Pete said No. Dan's proposal, roughly, was to (a) expand the set of heroes to include not just Menger, Mises, Hayek, etc., but virtually all libertarian-leaning economists minus Dan's nemesis George Stigler, and (b) call this tradition "Spontaneous Order Economics" - sponecon for short. Pete, in contrast, (a) emphasized the distinctiveness of the Austrian tradition, and (b) argued that Dan's new label wasn't very catchy.

Neither Dan nor Pete directly addressed what I see as the critical question: Do the Austrians have an original and true approach to economics, or not? But the subtext of Dan's argument is that they don't; the Austrians are just a part of a great tradition of libertarian economists, and ought to broaden their horizons. As a libertarian critic of Austrian economics, I think that's great advice. (Of course, if I'm wrong, it's terrible advice, because Austrians would be selling the One True Way short!)

Dan loses me, however, when he tries to label this great tradition Spontaneous Order Economics. When you look at Dan's list of sponeconomists, it's just a bunch of libertarian-leaning economists. Calling them Spontaneous Order Economists isn't going to fool anyone. Regular economists will either think "That's a codeword for libertarian," or "I don't know what that is, and it isn't worth my time to find out."

In his talk, Dan considered a number of alternative labels. "Liberal economics" is hopeless, since hundreds of millions use the word as a synonym for "leftist." "Classical liberal" is scarcely better - as I told Dan, it sounds like someone who prefers Kennedy to Clinton. Students at the debate suggested a number of other possibilities. But it fell upon me to suggest what I think is the obvious name for the tradition Dan admires: libertarian economics.

The virtues of this name are plain. It's descriptively accurate, and means something to educated outsiders.

What's wrong with it?

Too political? One of Dan's main goals is to get economists to pay more attention to policy; there's no use hiding the fact.

Too dogmatic? There's nothing dogmatic about saying "I've studied economics, and decided that libertarian policies are usually better."

Non-libertarians won't like you? They won't like you no matter what you call yourself.

You won't get tenure? Then don't use a label at all. Calling yourself a "sponeconomist" rather than "libertarian economist" won't save you.

Bottom line: If you think that the Austrians have an original and true approach to economics, keep calling yourself an Austrian. If you think that the Austrians are just one part of a great tradition of libertarian economists, call yourself a libertarian economist. If you don't want to alienate non-libertarians, use the label sparingly.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Ivan Kirigin writes:

Woah, "sporecon" read "spore con" -- some kind of confidence scheme involving fungus.

How about "spor economics" -- implies seeds and growth -- pretty appropriate.

Ivan Kirigin writes:

whoops. read sporecon, not sponecon.

I would like labels that imply different dimensions of desire for government intervention. Many "liberals" are just affraid of social conservatives.

I suppose that gets into politics and out of pure economics labels.

Nigel Kearney writes:

Surely there is no libertarian economics, any more than there is libertarian mathematics or libertarian chemistry.

Economics, done properly and without any pre-existing political bias, generally leads to conclusions that will be agreeable to people with libertarian political views.

Isn't it enough to just do economics properly and simply call it 'economics'?

Calling it 'libertarian economics' gives far too much credit to non-libertarians who nevertheless claim to be doing economics. They don't deserve it.

liberty writes:

>Calling it 'libertarian economics' gives far too much credit to non-libertarians who nevertheless claim to be doing economics. They don't deserve it.

Agreed!

I think that labels should stick to method, again which there should be few, all recognizing complexity in markets and the basic (micro) economic laws of suuply and demand, incentives, prices, limitation of resources etc.

Complex Systems Economics would imply this understanding, finds its roots in Hayek and describe only method and understanding, not politics or outcomes.

More on that can be found here:

http://www.santafe.edu/research/economicSocial.php
http://ideas.repec.org/p/qld/uq2004/335.html
http://www.cscs.umich.edu/complexity.html

Zac writes:

The only labels worth mentioning that come before "economics" are "bad" and "good." And perhaps "armchair."

"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen."
mobile writes:

Does Austrian economics have any influence on Austrian economics?

Eric writes:

Sponecon? That's the new catchy buzzword? Sounds like something sold on a late-night infomercial. I can see the adds now... "It'll clean your bathtub AND rid you of the perils of socialism! Just $19.95, and if you act now, we'll throw in a free copy of the Ethics of Liberty!"

SummerS writes:

You won't get tenure? Then don't use a label at all. Calling yourself a "sponeconomist" rather than "libertarian economist" won't save you.

On the contrary, I think the more complicated and obscure your specialty sounds, the safer you will be. Even better, add a few prefixes and suffixes to it.

Matt writes:

"Libertarian economics" may be descriptive and meaningful, but "sponeconomics" makes me giggle just hearing it in my head. Come on, there has to be some advantage in affiliating yourself with a label that sounds like it came out of a Monty Python skit.

Brad Hutchings writes:

How about giving a math-centric definition. Do we model human affairs with calculus (the neoclassical economists) or with networks (Austrians)?

While neoclassical economics may have a foothold on studying boring things like GDP, Austrians have a distinct edge in studying and modeling new things like the Internet, file sharing, value and usage of DRM, etc.

So how about a name for economics that treats us all like a networks of individuals interacting, rather than a homogenized soup? Call it Networked Economics if you need a name.

ChrisW writes:

I definitely don't like "spontaneous", as it sounds like "surprisingly all of a sudden", which isn't really the idea here.

Likewise, I don't like "libertarian"; although it may arrive at many of the same conclusions as the political movement, it travels a rather different path to get there -- I don't read Hayek as being particularly libertarian, more utilitarian given his economic theory.

My vote would be for "emergent economics". I believe that this term is used in other fields -- particularly biology and computer science -- for phenomena very much analogous to what the Austrians would describe.

On the other hand, it also sounds a bit like "emerging economies"...

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Dare I suggest "Econotarian"?

liberty writes:

>My vote would be for "emergent economics". I believe that this term is used in other fields -- particularly biology and computer science -- for phenomena very much analogous to what the Austrians would describe.


That is the much like what I suggest, but I think the term "Complex Systems" is more accurate than "emergent" and avoids the problem of "emerging". See my post above.

milo writes:

I think the name has to go towards building the brand of Austrian/libertarian economics. I would think that your ultimate goal would be to spread the ideas of "spontaneous order economics" to the general public. A name like "spontaneous order" may aptly describe the field, but it sure won't stick to anyone's brain.

How about "entrepreneurial economics"? Who could hate an entrepreneur? The name should be simple and unassailable. I like "emerging economics" too, as in "Hey! Look at these great new ideas emerging from the world of economics!" Nobody but economists will know if they're actually new or not, but people might be more willing to give them a try.

Matt writes:

Are all these comments the accidental preliminaries for titling Caplan's next book? My vote is for "Libonomics: Taking Back the Word "Liberal" from Those Who Stole It."

Barkley Rosser writes:

I would say that there are clearly three groups: 1) Austrians, 2) Libertarians, 3) Spontaneous Order/Complexity, whatever, economists. These are three distinct sets that are overlapping in various ways. Milton Friedman is a libertarian who is probably neither of the other two. There are Spontaneous order types who are not Austrian or libertarian. There are Austrians who are neither of the other two. OTOH, there are people who might be all three, Peter Boettke perhaps. So, attempting to assert a conflation of all three, or even some subset of two of them, is simply a waste of time.

JJ McCurry writes:

I believe "sponeconomics" sounds like "spawn economics" when spoken which is much akin to the Monty Python reference earlier. I remember a skit where a couple just kept having kids and more kids!

Do Austrians use Austrian economics? People without a clue may confuse Austrian with European or Australian! I don't believe this is the effect economists are seeking. Again, those without a clue will confuse Libertarian with liberal. (I have heard it with my own ears!) Putting the wrong label will create the opposite effect of the effect desired, unless, of course, you desire to confuse others.

Complex systems economics is safe, but not sexy. Austrian economics is hard to sell as a name and is vague as well. Sponeconomics is downright dorky for anybody seeking an audience.

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