David R. Henderson  

Quiggin's Zombie

My AEA Speech for Ed Clark, 19... Economic Advice ...
It is disappointing that there is one zombie idea that Quiggin does not bury and still buys into: the idea that a government with a lot of coercive power over people's lives can be trusted to use that power for good ends. In saying this, I am not making the point that many public choice economists make: that governments tend to serve special interests. Indeed, Quiggin's book references his own 1987 critique of public choice, a critique that I find persuasive. I am making a more basic point: I believe that governments with significant power over people--whether or not the governments are controlled by special interests--are dangerous.

Quiggin has much more faith in government's benevolence than I do. His zombie view is still stalking the land.

This is from my "Burying Good Ideas," my review of John Quiggin's Zombie Ideas: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us.

Update: When writing my review, I also listened to Russ Roberts' interview of Quiggin. I recommend it.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Two things -
First I think a lot of people that get accused of holding this zombie idea don't actually feel they hold it, therefore don't consider it controversial, and therefore don't talk about it much. I don't hold this zombie view you point out IMO, but I get accused of holding it all the time. If I were to write a book about zombie ideas I wouldn't choose to write about something that as far as I'm concerned I agree with the other side of the aisle on. Quiggen doesn't talk about protectionism either in there for a similar reason - not because he doesn't think the idea is dead. He does. He just doesn't think it's the living dead the way you do.

Second, even if this were a legitimate zombie, I think many people would dispute it's claim to inclusion in a book on economics. Our trust in politicians has implications for economics of course, but it may not strictly be an economic question, particularly for someone like Quiggen who is already skeptical of public choice theory. People may quibble with that assessment, but I think it would be wrong to conclude that because people assess it as out of their purview they disagree with you.

Brian writes:

In your review, you write: "To the extent that cuts in the top marginal tax rates of the highest-income people cause any increase in their labor supply...this added labor supply will cause their before-tax incomes to fall, reducing income inequality."

I'm confused. How can you say that their total incomes, rather than their wages per hour, will fall, without knowing the relevant elasticities?

David R. Henderson writes:

You're not confused. You are correct. I'm assuming that the elasticity of demand for this high-price labor is less than 1. Thanks for the clarification.

Jim Rose writes:


A spirited reply to Quiggin’s 1987 critique is at Brennan, Geoffrey and Jonathan Pincus “Rational Actor Theory in Politics: A Critical Review of John Quiggin” The Economic Record 63 (1987) (March): 22-32.

Brennan and Pincus take particular exception to the claim by Quiggin that public choice is ideological driven because Quiggin supplies no evidence of this attack on professional integrity despite his own strong insistence on the authority of the empirical record.

To be fair to Quiggin, the studies of the political opinions of U.S. economists were in their infancy in the 1980s. Anything done in the 1980s does not compare to the detailed studies comparing voter registrations of academics with university home pages across all of the social sciences.

Public choice was still contentious in the 1980s but so was the proposition that inflation was a monetary phenomenon.

Even so, the casual empiricism of studying at university and later working with other economists might have led one to suspect a social democratic bias among professional colleagues.

IVV writes:

Just replace "government" with "people" and you'll get to the truth of the statement.

Whether it's dictators, kings, slave owners, robber barons, crime syndicates, conquering tribes, or whatever, bad things happen when one group of people achieves significant power over another group. It doesn't matter if they call themselves a state or not.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jim Rose,
Thanks. In saying I thought had scored against the public choice economists with his critique, I was focusing on one part: his showing that there wasn't a strong positive correlation between degree of concentration of an industry and degree of protection and political favors.
I wasn't referring to his tendency to attack motives of those he disagrees with.

Jim Rose writes:

Thanks David,

I used to post on Quiggin's blog but gave up because his and others routine rudeness.

As an example, on climate change, I reminded Quiggin that in the 1970s the climate scare was global cooling. I remember this well from my high school science classes and from the front-pages of Time and Newsweek and television of the time.

To his credit, Quiggin knew that there were 100 or so scientific studies up about 1980 that found for, against or were ambivalent on cooling or warming.

Quiggin then pointed out that 41 or so studies were in favour of warming, about 30 were in favour of cooling with the rest being ambivalent.

Quiggin immediately went on to use this counting of studies method of growing knowledge as proof, in his words, that I knew less than zero about global warming.

This is odd because Quiggin himself is often in the minority in his own profession having to rely on critiques rather than the conventional wisdom.

Quiggin and Friedman are brothers in arms in some senses because they both often are greeted as the wild man in wings because they say no, no, no, you are wrong! How do you know that? Show me your evidence? Your arguments are not logical?

Friedman was unfailing polite. Friedman never questioned personal motives. Friedman focused on the evidence of the actual effects of competing policy options that, at a broad level, were aiming at the common social goals of most.

Quiggin is not so keen on counting of the available economic studies to form his own economic views, and nor was Friedman.

Knowledge progresses by one man or women saying no, you are wrong, and starting to show why, and it is often years later before their initial dissents form into full arguments.

Public choice writers spent a few decades puzzling over why and how people voted before getting on the right track with the expressive voting literature pioneered by Buchanan and Brennan.

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