Arnold Kling  

Of Markets and Ideas

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Miron's Conundrum: Why Liberta... Energy and Environmental Cost-...

I would like to make a couple of points about Bryan's post.
(A) Bryan says,


Leftist professors promote leftist policies, leftist policies are largely contrary to libertarianism, and are therefore socially harmful.

...The broader lesson is that libertarian reformers - or at least consequential libertarian reformers like Miron - have to believe that the market for ideas is somehow inefficient. If it isn't, what are they complaining about?


What I think Bryan is arguing is that if the market for ideas is working properly, then ideas that are harmful to people ought to be driven out. Or perhaps he is suggesting that one should believe something like that if one is a consequentialist.

This is getting into philosophical nits, but I think one should strive to believe what is true. In a perfect market for ideas, falsehoods would be driven out. Falsity and social harm are presumed to be highly correlated, but the correlation need not be perfect.

Leftist ideas prevail on campus for reasons that Bryan develops in his forthoming book, Myth of the Rational Voter (MRV).

1. some ideas are false--e.g., a belief that raising the minimum wage will reduce poverty and inequality;

2. the false ideas cost little to the individual, because an individual vote does not matter, so there is no feedback loop to reward rational voting or punish irrational voting.

3. the false ideas benefit the individual, because the individual feels righteous.

4. the false ideas' collective cost can be high, because they can lead to bad policies, such as protectionism.

(With point 3, I may be stretching beyond the scope of MRV)

The market failure is that individuals are not as motivated to correct political errors as they are to correct economic errors (i.e., errors of personal economic decision-making in consumption or business).

I think that an MRV perspective on academic leftism is to say that notwithstanding the mission of academicians to seek truth, politically they have no more motivation to be rational than anyone else. I suspect that in some ways academics are even more strongly motivated to hold irrational statist beliefs than are many non-academics. Of course, Bryan will tell you that intelligent people generally tend to score better on tests of knowledge of economics, but I think it's easy to pass an economics quiz on supply and demand and turn around and vote for a politician who promises to go after price-gougers, as if the law of supply and demand did not exist.

UPDATE--For more MRV-type analysis, see Ron Bailey's latest column. [end of update, original post continues:]

(B) In a comment on Bryan's post, John T. Kennedy writes:

Doesn't saying you are a consequentialist libertarian mean you are not a libertarian when consequences argue against libertarian policy?

Why bring libertarianism into it at all? Why not just say you're a consequentialist?

And of course this still begs the question: By what standard are consequences to be judged?


I would say that I lean consequentialist, and I lean libertarian, and for judging the consequences of actions I lean utilitarian. But I am not willing to follow any idea that leads me off a philosophical cliff, so to speak. I seek Rawls' "reflective equilibrium," which I believe to be unattainable. Instead, as another famous philosopher, Reverend Jesse Jackson put it, "God is not finished with me yet.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (5 to date)
caveatBettor writes:

My comment I posted on Miron's blog

Why does academia get to resemble the market? Wouldn't it also resemble non-markets, too, say government and/or monastery?

How does the tenure process resemble what a trader or an entrepreneur goes through? The latter will go through the darwinian experience of spending money to gain some future return. How does the candidate for professor go through that? They invest time and energy, but they receive stipends more than having to take financial risks.

And, my takeaway from reading Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that most academics subscribe to paradigms the same way monks subscribe to their respective traditions. The status quo is unfriendly to breakthrough shifts; rather, such progressive thinkers are treated with apostate suspicion.

Beyond the peer-review publishing, what direct accountability is there? Can't a professor simply show up for her classes, and then hide out in her office the rest of the work day? At least that's what my Ivy League professor buddy tells me.

K writes:

caveat: agree totally. academic life is pretty much divorced from markets. And the more inconclusive the subject the less markets mean.

Merit can drive academic success. The chemist, astronomer, mathematican who far excels is tough to ignore forever.

But for tenure in, say Eastern Religions, it is far more useful to be liked. And a very powerful professor who likes you can lead to a lifetime of relative ease.

In between are the non-genius, good, but not that good. Many invest years seeking what they do not get - tenure, prestige, the top. For them it is indeed a job market. Their counterpart in business makes a living, supervises after a few years....

Most humans like drama and thrills, they admire and want to be that man on the flying trapeze, or charge across the rice paddy with Rambo blasting bad guys. Provided it isn't dangerous.

So we see the CEO, who has just secured a funded and insured golden parachute, praised for his daring decision to sell a new breakfast bar.

And the tenured Prof, whose biggest danger in life is unknowingly buying a haunted house, lauded for boldly asserting Leonardo may have walked backwards to studying perspective.

Tom Anger writes:

John T. Kennedy seems to misapprehend "consequentialist libertarian" -- at least as I use it and see it used. A consequentialist libertarian is a person who is a libertarian because libertarianism yields better outcomes (e.g., greater prosperity) than, say, socialism and other political philosophies. The alternative kind of libertarian is a "deontological libertarian," one who simply assumes that libertarianism is superior to other political philosophies because, well "rights are rights, dammit." It's a matter of faith (deontology) vs. works (consequentialism).

John T. asks: "By what standard are consequences to be judged?" Well, how about the relative attractiveness of more and less libertarian nations, where individuals are free to choose the nation they prefer? How about the demonstrably negative effects of anti-libertarian policies on real incomes?

Now it's my turn to ask: From whom or what do the rights presumed by deontological libertarianism flow? Do they simply waft from heaven like manna? How does one choose between those rights and the equally eschatological offerings of a Hitler or a Stalin -- if not by their likely consequences?

Patrick writes:

So basically, democracy is a common good, and like all common goods, can suffer from a "tragedy of the commons".

The holding of incorrect economical views can be personally rewarding (sense of moral superiority, social acceptance) while being bad for society as a whole.

How is that incompatible with libertarianism? Sounds like the "tragedy of the commons" is one of the basis of libertarian thought to me.

bale writes:

Arnold,
you write,

1. some ideas are false--e.g., a belief that raising the minimum wage will reduce poverty and inequality;

would you agree with the converse that lowering the minimum wage will not increase poverty and inequality? if so, how do you reconcile this statement with some of the labor econ lit that argues that the decrease in the minimum wage was a cause of rising inequality in the 80s? (e.g. here and here among others). Certainly, these papers have been critiqued, and other explanations proposed, but it is not clear to me that the fall in the minimum wage played no role.

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