David R. Henderson  

Krugman and Bastiat: Confusing the Centuries

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In a post yesterday, I asked readers to say who they thought is the modern counterpart of Bastiat. I should have specified that I meant someone who's still alive; otherwise, I think libfree's, Michael J. Green's, Will Ruger's, and Daniel P. Kuehn's nomination of Milton Friedman is valid. (Although Milton was so much more than Bastiat: he had the skills to make basic economics clear, but he was also a major contributor to economic research.)

Karl Smith nominated Paul Krugman, as did Joshua Gans in the blog post that motivated me to write the post. Had I asked this question in, say, 1999, I think Karl would have a point. But I had in mind someone writing about these issues today. I checked all 5 Krugman articles that Karl cited to make his case and here's the interesting thing: all were written in the 1990s. The best of the 5, in my view, is Krugman's 1997 piece defending "sweatshops." By the way, Krugman covers much of the same ground I covered a year earlier in this Fortune piece and in my response to Robert Reich's criticism.

Here's a test for those who still nominate Krugman: I can't imagine Krugman writing that article today. Can you?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (33 to date)
RPLong writes:

Since the 90s, Krugman has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that he is nothing more than a shill for the Democrats. Why should we view his 1990s works any differently? In the 1990s, the Democratic president was instrumental in the passage a few free trade agreements, and - no surprise - Krugman was there, cheering on the cause.

Krugman has been totally consistent. No ideology, no principles, no scruples, no vision. All shilling, all the time. He is the polar opposite of man like Bastiat.

For the record, I think Boudreaux is an excellent choice, as is Art Carden. But Peter Schiff takes the grand prize.

Karl Smith writes:

Well a big part of my case is that Bastiat was dead before he reached Krugman's age. Indeed, if Krugman died when Bastiat died all we would have is his formal economics and his writing in SLATE.

Also, Bastiat had just gotten into the French Assembly at that time.

So, you don't know. Bastiat could have gone all Krugman on us had he lived and been a part of the French Assembly.

Robert Hurley writes:

I am not sure what Long is reading but although I do not agree with everything Krugman writes, to call Krgman a shill only demonstrates the shallowness of Long's analysis. You can disagree with his pieces, but he has been very critical of th Obama administration.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Karl Smith,
I don’t think any more that you and I are substantively disagreeing. Krugman in the 1990s is a clearcut candidate. Krugman in the 2000s is not. And notice what you just said, “Bastiat could have gone all Krugman on us.” [italics mine] If Krugman is the modern Bastiat, your statement makes no sense.

David R. Henderson writes:

Wrong. Krugman in the 1990s was so much more than a “shill for the Democrats.” Look how he went after Clinton’s chief economist, Laura Tyson, for example.

Karl Smith writes:


I would agree to that. If what we are saying is that Krugman's writing in the NYT has taken him so far away from his roots that he is disqualified as an intellectual representative.

RPLong writes:

Henderson, Hurley:

There is more than one kind of Democrat. I don't think Krugman shills for all of them, only his own particular wing.

It's always tempting to laud what we agree with and criticize what we disagree with. But the theory that Krugman was an awesome free market economist who suddenly flipped the crazy swtich makes no logical sense. We can see this by observing that Krugman stands behind everything he wrote in the 90s, even though much of what he says now seems to contradict it.

Well, what explanation can you offer that accounts for the apparent contradiction? Either he suffered some kind of brain trauma that would render a Nobel Prize-winning economist incapable of seeing his own contradictions, or he is entirely consistent on a level you don't expect him to be.

You might object to my explanation, but at least it accounts for his evolving ideas on his own most basic assumptions.

Really, what's the alternative (credible) explanation?

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Even in the 90s Krugman was making embarrassing errors. It took Lee Gomes of the WSJ tracking him down in 1998 to get him to concede that he was wrong about the notorious chapter in 'Peddling Prosperity', 'The Economics of QWERTY'

That was after his humiliation by Steve Margolis and Stan Liebowitz in Cato's 'Regulation'; 'Academic scribblers leave paper trails...'

I don't know of anything like that ever happening to Bastiat.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David -
re: "Wrong. Krugman in the 1990s was so much more than a “shill for the Democrats.” Look how he went after Clinton’s chief economist, Laura Tyson, for example."

Right. And look at how he goes after Obama's economists today. He is a liberal, sure. Don and Steve are libertarians - OK - all the nominees to your post have political persuasions. Did we expect otherwise? But Krugman's not a shill. The difference is people agree with him on the issues that came up then and disagree on the issues that come up now. But it's pretty weak to argue that that means Krugman has changed.

I think it really depends on what you meant by all this. Are you asking "who is the best popularizer of good economics in the interest of a good society?"? If that's what you are asking (which is how I interpreted it), I think the obvious choice is Krugman. If you are asking "who is the most eloquent popularizer of libertarianism" then perhaps someone like Russ Roberts is indeed a better choice. But I thought you meant the former.

Not that it matters - but my middle initial is "P" :)

[I fixed the initial, Daniel. :) --Econlib Ed.]

Alex J. writes:

Reich: "The same argument was used in the early part of this century to justify keeping poor American children in sweatshops."

The word he was looking for there was "allowing", not "keeping".

Alexandre Padilla writes:

For what it's worth, I would argue that Thomas Sowell should be considered in that list and I am surprised people haven't mentioned his name. I also believe Gary Becker should be considered in that list. He has a blog and he has published columns and op-eds regularly.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

Nevermind, Sowell's name came 6 times in the comments of the previous post.

Martin writes:

I agree with Daniel here, Krugman is an obvious choice. You might not agree with his ideology, you might not agree with his economics, but what you cannot disagree about is that he is capable of distilling the essence of what he thinks and to write that down.

"Here's a test for those who still nominate Krugman: I can't imagine Krugman writing that article today. Can you?"

I can. Why wouldn't he be able to write that?

John V writes:

To me, the fact that Krugman may say that he stands behind everything he wrote in the 90s does not mean the problem is in the eye of the beholder and that it's still the same Krugman as today...as Daniel and others are somewhat suggesting.

It's not the same Krugman. Sure, behind closed doors to a peer, he may agree...however grudgingly perhaps...with free trade concepts and other ideas that are more welcome in free market circles and, thus, sound more like the Krugman of the 90s. BUT, that isn't the point, IMHO. PK, today, has no will or desire or inclination to discuss these topics in the NYT or anywhere. He has no wish to challenge or irritate his loyal readers or cherished positions among the masses in his party. He has no desire to stand up for things that he knows are right that do not jive well with the general Left. THAT is the difference. His desire for certain subject matters has clearly changed.

Today, he wants to almost exclusively engage in topics that get applause from his party and attack the other. If you carefully go over what he says now with a fine tooth comb, I'm sure you can make the argument (often pedantically) that he isn't technically contradicting his prior positions in the 90s but, again, is that really the point?

When you avoid openly supporting free trade arguments while giving power and support to selected and narrow ideas with the greater anti-free trade argument, you are basically emboldening and feeding the greater anti-free trade argument because, to most of his readers, there is no distinction.

Martin writes:

I don't think the problem is with getting applause from 'his party', it's more that his analysis of current issues does not garner any applause from 'your party'.

When your opinion of someone changes because of what he says now, this is not necessarily the result of the person having changed.

Another and more likely explanation would be that you only liked him because he justified what you believe to be true. Considering that the dislikes expressed are (almost?) exclusively from people on the right side of the political spectrum...

John V writes:


First of all, I'm an independent with a very split voting record and not one vote ever to GOP presidential candidate. I have no party.

My point is simple:

Krugman avoids supporting arguments that he used to openly support. In the 90s, he openly and frequently irritated and challenged the base of his party...but perhaps not the Clinton leadership. Today, he not only avoids those same arguments but actually emboldens and empowers anti-free trade positions.

Again, it's not the eye of the beholder. He has changed his focus and subject matter...and he has done so to the point that he gives the very real appearance of not supporting what he used to openly support.

Michael E Sullivan writes:

Do you have some examples of where Krugman "empowers anti-free trade positions"?

It is true that there are two basic groups with power in our current political climate, and one group likes to use the words "free trade" a lot, and the other doesn't. Krugman is currently mostly siding with the second group on various questions of current disagreement.

OTOH, on the most salient free trade question of the last 10 years (immigration), it is the "free trade" shouting caucus that is mostly taking an anti-free trade position.

I don't personally know Krugman but if the same kind of anti-free trade arguments espoused in the 90s started to come back with any kind of real political support, I can absolutely imagine him writing something like that today or in the future.

Faré writes:

You're underestimating Bastiat if you imply that he didn't contribute to Economic Research. For instance, Chapter 11 of his Economic Harmonies contains the essential insight of Marginalism, though he is insufficiently credited for it.

Martin writes:


It's rater irrelevant whether or not you're a member of the GOP. You're still the member of 'your party' whatever that may be. 'Your party' is merely a proxy for whatever your political position may be. The same point still applies.

With regards to your observation that he has changed his subject matter, have you considered the idea that perhaps the issues under considerations have changed? I won't deny that people and Paul Krugman including, can change their opinion over time, but whatever increase in differences between your and his position has occurred might very well be due to the change in issues.

Younger Cato writes:

Why can't we just admit that, although he is not an academic (as though that should be the prerequisite) Peter Schiff was indeed right, is on record as having been right, and continues to do much to promote sensible economics to the masses. So he doesn't write scholarly journal articles. Yet he's more intimately involved in the tacit workings of that phenomena which most academics claim to be trying to make sense of.

Bastiat himself wasn't formally an academic. You all already have plenty of prizes to hand out to one another (Nobel, various other academic awards). Why not nominate someone who has been great at applying theory (however informal it may be) to the real world, and has yet to go bankrupt or looking to government for a handout? Shouldn't that be the true test of a successful economic practitioner?

Or at the very least, don't give it to Krugman.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Younger Cato,
I’ll grant that Peter Schiff called the housing bust. He has fine moments, but I don’t think he lays out basic economics all that clearly. I have no bias towards an academic. After all, I think the Bastiat award winner for the middle of the last century was Henry Hazlitt, who was completely self-taught.

RPLong writes:

"Do you have some examples of where Krugman 'empowers anti-free trade positions'?"

I do, but the problem is that he wouldn't see it that way. Just as Joseph Stiglitz would never see his positions as being anti-free trade, even though I've come across predecessors of his assymetrical information ideas in the writings of Lenin.

The problem with these guys is that too many of us insist on letting them off on technicalities. I think it's time we stopped that. I'm tired of watching capitalism lose by default because no one feels comfortable acknowledging that a daily insinuation drawn out into infinity is probably worse than one comprehensive Bolshevist screed.

That is, of course, assuming you don't view monetary manipulation as being inherently anti-free trade, as I do, in which case virtually every word Krugman writes is anti-market.

Vangel writes:

I would argue that someone like Robert Murphy, Joseph Salerno, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, or Jörg Guido Hülsmann tower over Krugman. I certainly agree with Hazlitt and would add Rothbard to the list. Both certainly wrote clearer and better than most economists today. (Probably because they were capable of thinking much clearer.)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: ""Here's a test for those who still nominate Krugman: I can't imagine Krugman writing that article today. Can you?"

I can. Why wouldn't he be able to write that?"

A good point, Martin - I had no idea what David was talking about here either. Of course I could see that.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RPLong -

re: " Just as Joseph Stiglitz would never see his positions as being anti-free trade, even though I've come across predecessors of his assymetrical information ideas in the writings of Lenin."

Yes, and I hear Hitler was a vegetarian.

You can't be seriously putting this forward as a counter-argument, can you???

Dennis writes:

Sheldon Richman of FEE is an excellent writer, though not a good speaker. However, he, like Bastiat, writes clearly and defends the morality of free markets. I would consider him the modern Bastiat.

Jim Glass writes:

If you have never read Frederic Bastiat, you're missing a real treat. He was the French economic journalist...

As to an economic journalist, I'm surprised nobody has mentioned P.J. O'Rourke, of "Parliament of Whores" and such. He's much more like Bastiat as a journalist who uses humor and absurdity to throw light on the issues of the day (throwing much the same light as well).

Economists who explain economic matters in plain English terms (such as Friedman and Krugman), as valuable as they are, just aren't the same thing.

Neither Krugman nor Friedman used anything like the humorous absurdity Bastiat did. I suspect that to be a PhD economist you can't have that in you to begin with or else have it drilled out of you (unless you are Yoram Bauman).

"Government is the great fiction by which everyone strives to live at everybody else's expense."
-- Bastiat

"The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it."
-- P.J. O'Rourke

I can imagine Bastiat saying far more of these things than I can either Krugman or Friedman.

RPLong writes:
Yes, and I hear Hitler was a vegetarian.

You can't be seriously putting this forward as a counter-argument, can you???

I don't know man. I've read Stiglitz articles in Z Magazine. What more do you want? They don't publish Friedman in Zmag...

But hey, maybe I'm making the whole thing up!!

mansoor h. khan writes:

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Manfred writes:

How about Richard Epstein?
Not an economist, but pretty darn close of being one, and a lover of freedom.

Bob Murphy writes:

Two quick points:

(1) Krugman bashed the heck out of Bush on foreign policy and civil liberties, and (to my knowledge) has literally never said anything about it since Obama took over. Inasmuch as Obama is arguably worse (from a progressive viewpoint) on these issues, that to me clearly shows his partisanship.

(2) For those who have no idea what we are talking about when some of us say that Krugman is nowhere near the free-trader that he used to be, take this recent blog post, where he suggests that unemployment could be due to the trade deficit.

P.S. Please don't "explain" the last post; yeah I get it. My point is, someone who is a typical protectionist, "let's give jobs to Americans not to those shifty foreigners!" is going to take great comfort in posts like that.

Bob Apjok writes:

Walter Williams. Thomas Sowell also, but the easily readable examples Williams uses and the way he can make even a person with no economics study understand is incredible.

John V writes:

Well said, Bob.

That's what I was saying before about PK. He may not technically contradict his previous points when taken pedantically but he sure does choose his topics carefully to empower and please his readership...readership with that would disagree with much of 90s writings on trade and general position they buttressed.

People on the Left...both in articles and in Congress propose asinine ideas and policies about trade that would make any economist cringe...PK included. Where are his NYT articles calling them out for such destructive policies that totally fly in the face of what he supposedly believes and supports? You never see them. However he'll dig anything up to go after anything a Republican says that he can rant about. Is it justified? Often yes. But that's not the point.

However, in the 90s, he just might have had something to say if some writer at the American Prospect or ZMag or Dem in Congress had something silly to say about free trade. And I'm sure he did. A lot of those articles from back then are clearly a response to silly, protectionist ideas on trade.

Back then, he cared about things like that. Now he doesn't seem to. Actions matter. And his actions nowadays show that he can't be bothered with defending such principles that he used to back then.

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