David R. Henderson  

The Modern Bastiat

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Solar Power... From Mobility to Misanthropy...

If you have never read Frederic Bastiat, you're missing a real treat. He was the French economic journalist who wrote a spate of articles in his 40s, before dying in 1850, laying out economics in a very clear way. When I have my students read his "What is Seen and What is Not Seen," some of them comment that so much of what he writes seems as if it were written today. Many of the issues haven't changed that much.

Bastiat is the one famous for:
. The "broken window" fallacy (in the article referenced above),
. The Candlemakers' Petition (his clever reductio ad absurdum about protectionism),
. His argument about why it's better for the rest of society for a rich guy to save rather than consume (in the article referenced above),
. Why demobilization of soldiers won't, after adjustment, destroy jobs (in the article referenced above--also see my "The U.S. Postwar II Miracle" for empirical support for Bastiat's claim),
and many more.

So here's my question: "If you were asked to name a modern economist of whom Bastiat is the 19th-century counterpart, whom would you name?" Multiple answers are accepted.

At about 9:00 p.m. EST today, I'll do an update telling you why I ask that question. If you've figured out why, please don't say so in a comment.

Update: Many of the commenters below gave the names of the people I would have said. The one that comes closest to saying what I would have said, is Don Boudreaux. Except that he is too modest and excludes himself. I would also include Steve Horwitz. And I'm not too modest and so I would include myself, but I wouldn't put myself in the top category.

Here's why I asked. In this blog post, Joshua Gans refers to Paul Krugman as the modern Bastiat, just as Karl Smith did below. I was shocked. It's not because Krugman isn't a liberal whereas Bastiat was. It's because Krugman makes some of the very same economic mistakes that Bastiat criticized: the broken window fallacy, how saving is bad for an economy, how it's good to build defenses against non-existent threats from outer space because that will put people back to work, etc.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (48 to date)
MikeP writes:

I'll do an update telling you why I ask that question. If you've figured out why, please don't say so in a comment.

Because you're a machine sent back by a prospective world collective government in the year 2035 to terminate every century's Bastiat?

If the 19th-century economist cited in this article changes from Bastiat to someone else, you will know you are successful.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MikeP,
LOL.

Steve Horwitz writes:

To the degree that he has a wonderful ability to bring economics to the masses and to do so with terrific analogies and just a little sass, I'd say the closest thing we have right now is Don Boudreaux.

CC writes:

Thomas Sowell. Hands down.

Josh Hanson writes:

Based on what I've read of his blog "The Economic Imagination", I'm going to go with Art Carden.

Phil writes:

Steven Landsburg.

Russ Roberts. Roberts works in different media (blogging, podcasts and rap) than Bastiat did, but in terms of education and making the economic way of thinking accessible to laymen, Roberts is right up there.

While we're on the subject, the last generations Bastiat was obviously Hazlitt. The depressing thing about reading Roberts and Hazlitt is how much time they spend trying to refute the same fallacies that Bastiat attack (and Smith before him and probably someone else [Say?] before Smith).

We never learn.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Ne existe pas

Is that about right?

Henry writes:
At about 9:00 p.m. EST today, I'll do an update telling you why I ask that question. If you've figured out why, please don't say so in a comment.

Guesses:

a) You think you or one of your co-bloggers is the modern Bastiat.
b) You're regretful that there is no modern Bastiat.

Milton Friedman

Karl Smith writes:

The obvious answer is Paul Krugman.

The style is similar and tone is similar. They are both speaking against the currents of their day and they both write intelligibly for the lay person.

Indeed, in discussing Krugman's abrasive style - which I find unfortunate - I have had to acknowledge that Bastiat also had an abrasive style and perhaps for that reason he is still celebrated today.

As much as I wish the world rewarded humility and grace, it does not.

sams writes:

Wlater E Williams, speficaly his citizen guide to economics.

jc writes:

All good names. All excellent communicators, good at distilling sometimes complicated data, theories and models into everyday language that seems more intuitive than it did before they spoke.

Two more that come to mind are Walter Williams and Greg Mankiw...though if the criteria includes acidity, strike Greg from the list; he's probably 'occupied' at the moment anyhow (apologies in advance for that one). :)

Woj writes:

Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux. Each consistently attacks the modern day fallacies at their core assumptions. As someone mentioned earlier, the issues they focus on are unfortunately those long-ago exposed by Bastiat but largely forgotten in time.

Bill writes:

I would have to say Don Boudreaux and Thomas Sowell.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Without question, there are only four serious candidates among the living for this distinct honor - and an honor it unquestionably is: Steve Landsburg, Russ Roberts, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams. (I exclude David Henderson only because he is the author of the post to which we are all responding.)

Because Bastiat was a genuine liberal, that fact helps us narrow - if we must - the list of candidates down to Steve and Russ, who are a bit more liberal (in modern language, libertarian) than are Sowell and Walter. Bastiat was fiercely on guard against government's official justifications for going to war.

Steve is more in-your-face than is Russ. But, at the end of the day, I must give the honor to both: Steve and Russ share that honor.
.....
As for the claim that Krugman is a modern-day Bastiat, I must strongly disagree. Yes, like Bastiat, Krugman is passionate in pressing his position. But Bastiat was above all a (classical) liberal - and one ever-attuned to the unseen. Krugman fails magnificently on both counts. Moreover, unlike Bastiat, Krugman spends far too much effort fronting for a particular political party.

Krugman isn't 1/20th the economist that Bastiat was - and not 1/100th the stylist.

Robert writes:

Econlib Ed - Please don't publish my previously submitted comment. I did not read the last sentence of his post "If you've figured out why, please don't say so in a comment."

[Heh. Saved by the skin of the spam filter. A coincidental series of three letters in a url you gave in the comment happened to get flagged, so it wasn't published immediately. And as it turns out, you nailed it. All the same, I've relegated it to permanent Unpublished status for you. Thanks for this comment of explanation! --Econlib Ed.]

libfree writes:

Milton Friedman

noiselull writes:

Unusual choice but the win must go to Bob Murphy.

Karl Smith writes:

I still push Krugman.

First, had Krugman died at 49 he would be known primarily for his formal economics work and his witty contrarian writing. Krugman's strong political stuff did not begin until he was about 48, which is the same age Bastiat was when elected to the French Assembly.

Second, the majority of the economics related thing Krugman writes is about the UnSeen. We can go through them all if you would like.

Third, Krugman has said both publicly and privately that he thought he could make people think deeper by mocking them. Once this failed he took to attempting to tear them down with straight forward attacks.

Fourth, I think concentrating on someone who shares Bastiat's political views or even worse reiterates his points would be extremely unfitting because it is the clever contrarian nature of writing that is so disctitive.

With, of course also, the tendency to be a horse's rear to people he disagreed with.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Sorry. Krugman's popular economics (especially since he became a regular columnist for the NYT) is predictable nonsense - "economics" as understood by desk-clerks in union halls. It's all what is seen (as Bastiat meant that term), and an direct affront on the unseen.

Krugman, do recall, predicted that 9/11 would be good for the economy - Krugman argued in 2005 that the one of the reasons he didn't object years earlier to Japanese investments in the U.S. is that he knew (brilliant dude that he is) that the Japanese, unlike the Chinese, are unwise investors - Krugman admits to being unfamiliar with public-choice economics.

Sorry, Karl, to suggest that Krugman is today's Bastiat is like suggesting that some backwoods snake-handling faith-healer is today's Pasteur.

Steve Horwitz writes:

Thanks for the shout-out David. I am extraordinarily flattered to be mentioned with Don, Russ and the rest, much less Bastiat himself!

Duane Moore writes:

I wholeheartedly agree with Don's suggestions above. I personally think Russ is probably near the top of the list for the way he has popularized economics for mere mortals through podcasts, rap videos, novels, blogs and other media. I look forward to seeing Russ (perhaps along with his immensely talented creative partner and amateur economist John Papola) create a television series or indeed a feature-length film to bring economics to the masses. After all the other media forms that Russ has mastered, that surely has to be next?

Poor Yorick writes:

This kind of post is exactly what Karl Smith is talking about when he accuses Don Boudreaux of being deliberately obtuse.

No one is denying that Bastiat understood some important economic truths that apply most of the time, and that he said them with great flair. However, Horwitz and Boudreaux regularly indulge in lazy and intellectually dishonest caricatures of Keynesian arguments. I think Boudreax and Horwitz are more accurately described as Bastiat's parrots, not his intellectual heirs.

This post upsets me. I recently removed Cafe Hayek from my RSS feed after I realized I had been reading the same 10 or so blog posts for almost 6 years. Anyone want to guess which blog replaced it in my reader?

William Ruger writes:

David,

In my bio of Milton Friedman, I called him "a Bastiat for the age of the welfare state." So I'm voting for MF. Could it really be anyone else?

Will

Michael J. Green writes:

I'll take your lead here, David (as Editor of the articles, right?), and suggest Anthony de Jasay. Maybe a bit too difficult for the masses, but he's immensely quotable and witty. Few people have matched Bastiat and Jasay in clearing away foggy argumentation and sloppy logic. An essay like "Frog's Legs..." is equal to "The Law."

Friedman is a pretty obvious choice, but I assume we're talking about still living economists.

Speedmaster writes:

Off the top of my head:
Walter Williams
Thomas Sowell
Donald Boudreaux
Russ Roberts

Cal writes:

I second the nod for de Jasay, though all suggestions above are good with the plausible exception of Krugman (at least the Krugman of the last decade or so).

Like two other have already said, Anthony de Jasay is the obvious choice. Frankly, I'm shocked that you didn't mention him, especially since he blogs on this very website. Only Jasay matches Bastiat in both logical rigor and rhetorical flair.

Jan writes:

I would say John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano have to be in the running in this television age.

They have surely reached more than Williams, Sowell, Boudreaux, and Roberts combined.

anthony de jasay

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I agree with Karl Smith that by far and away the most obvious choice is Paul Krugman. I understand why people here can't bring themselves to agree with Karl, but it doesn't make it any less true. It's disappointing to see so much nastiness on here about the guy that is the foremost communicator of economic thinking to the public.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I mean really - we have Andrew Napolitano being proposed and you all are balking at Krugman???

Someone mentioned Friedman earlier. If we're interpreting "modern Bastiat" to span recent decades rather than just today's modern Bastiat, I'd probably go with that.

Jan writes:

Julia Borowski, a William Anderson student, has been called the Milton Friedman of the YouTube age.

http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2011/11/julie-borowski-on-confusion-at-occupy.html

David B. writes:

I would pick Steve Horwitz. As mentioned above, Bastiat was a classical liberal so Krugman does not fit the bill.

Gary Gunnels writes:

A modern Bastiat (if you're trying to be analogous in any useful way) would be a politician; Bastiat was a politician for most of his short period of prominence after all. Bastiat also physically participated in the events that went on around him - he went down to the barricades in other words.

It becomes less obvious why a professional economist would be a modern day Bastiat when Bastiat was anything but that; Bastiat was a very well read person who burst upon the Parisian scene via publication; he came out of nowhere in that way and he quickly turned his eye to practical politics afterwards (until his unfortunate and early death just a few years later).

Neither Keynes nor Krugman are really anything like Bastiat; nor is anyone else for that matter. To be analogous a modern Bastiat would have to have spent most of his or her life in the active social, political and intellectual life of say some rural area of the America West, he or she would have to then write a work which takes much of the U.S. by storm, and then run for political office and take a seat in the U.S. Congress all the while continuing to use their pen to pursue their view of the world. In short, there is no modern Bastiat.

Better to quote Shakespeare instead:

"He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again."

Jonathan M.F. Catalan writes:

Karl,

But, libertarians are also writing contrary to popular opinion. So, based solely on this idea that the author must write against the grain I don't think it's Krugman, and Krugman alone, that we can isolate as deserving of the title of the "modern Bastiat".

-- Jonathan

Karl Smith writes:

Bob Murphy asked me to come back in so I will.

Here are the some of the style similarities. Here is Krugman ostensibly on trade but more generally on bad economic metaphors

THE COMPETITIVE metaphor -- the image of countries competing with each other in world markets in the same way that corporations do -- derives much of its attractiveness from its seeming comprehensibility. Tell a group of businessmen that a country is like a corporation writ large, and you give them the comfort of feeling that they already understand the basics. Try to tell them about economic concepts like comparative advantage, and you are asking them to learn something new. It should not be surprising if many prefer a doctrine that offers the gain of apparent sophistication without the pain of hard thinking.

Bastiat opening up Seen and Not Seen

This explains man's necessarily painful evolution. Ignorance surrounds him at his cradle; therefore, he regulates his acts according to their first consequences, the only ones that, in his infancy, he can see. It is only after a long time that he learns to take account of the others.**2 Two very different masters teach him this lesson: experience and foresight. Experience teaches efficaciously but brutally. It instructs us in all the effects of an act by making us feel them, and we cannot fail to learn eventually, from having been burned ourselves, that fire burns. I should prefer, in so far as possible, to replace this rude teacher with one more gentle: foresight. For that reason I shall investigate the consequences of several economic phenomena, contrasting those that are seen with those that are not seen.


Both are essentially arguing that weak thinking has lead people to believe things that are not true. Both are mildly condescending but quick in their tone.

The following I think is typical of Bastiats opening to a particular line of argumentation.

Have you ever been witness to the fury of that solid citizen, James Goodfellow,*1 when his incorrigible son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers, even if there are as many as thirty of them, seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame consolation: "It's an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?"

He is now taking us on a journey and putting words in others mouths for the point of showing why such words are fallacies. This allows him to choose words that are compelling but directly wrong enough that he can counter quickly and harshly.

Krugman does both of these things regularly. Here is Krugman generating a Bastiat like character for the purpose of exposing a fallacy.

When a famous journalist arrives on the scene. He takes a look at recent history and declares that something terrible has happened: Twenty million hot-dog jobs have been destroyed. When he looks deeper into the matter, he discovers that the output of hot dogs has actually risen 33 percent, yet employment has declined 33 percent. He begins a two-year research project, touring the globe as he talks with executives, government officials, and labor leaders. The picture becomes increasingly clear to him: Supply is growing at a breakneck pace, and there just isn't enough consumer demand to go around. True, jobs are still being created in the bun sector; but soon enough the technological revolution will destroy those jobs too. Global capitalism, in short, is hurtling toward crisis. He writes up his alarming conclusions in a 473-page book; full of startling facts about the changes underway in technology and the global market; larded with phrases in Japanese, German, Chinese, and even Malay; and punctuated with occasional barbed remarks about the blinkered vision of conventional economists. The book is widely acclaimed for its erudition and sophistication, and its author becomes a lion of the talk-show circuit.


Karl Smith writes:

If people are genuinely interested in examining the work, then I can look through and get some more quotes and similarities, but it might be convenient to generate a PDF rather than to keep typing and pasting in this little box.

The basic line of reasoning though for the similiarites

A Plain an easy to follow style

The tendency to present economic ideas through stories

The use of small illustrative numerical examples.

Humor that is slightly condescending towards the reader.

Humor that makes his foes out to be dunces

The lack of an opening hand "what I would term the economists's 'well'" That is, a way of trying to explain why what the person just said is ridiculous without coming out and saying that it is ridiculous.

A deep passion for their beliefs. In Bastiat's case individual liberty. In Krugman's case what he terms "democracy" but is better thought of as national egalitarianism.

Bob Murphy writes:

OK Karl, that stuff is good, but if Krugman only wrote stuff like that, then "my side" wouldn't be so infuriated with him. I mean, it's like you are saying OJ Simpson is the modern-day Gandhi, because they both were leaders.

Aidan writes:

Paul Krugman (according to Don Boudreaux) "spends far too much effort fronting for a particular political party"? I think that would be news to, say, the Clinton economic team or the Obama economic team. But sure, other than the last two Democratic administrations we've had, let's call the guy a shill for the Democratic Party.

Mark Anthem writes:

Matt Ridley is without question the modern day Bastiat.

Bob Apjok writes:

Easily Walter Williams. Brilliant man and his examples when he teaches specific economic ideas is easily followed.

Xerographica writes:

A true heir of Bastiat would advocate that taxpayers be allowed to directly allocate their taxes. Why would he advocate for this? Because he would intuitively understand that forcing taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions is the only way to guarantee the best possible use of public funds.

Well...I'm the only one advocating for direct allocation...but I'm certainly not the true heir of Bastiat. A true heir wouldn't have any difficulty convincing at least a few people of the value of direct allocation. He'd effectively describe the allocation disparity between A) 535 congresspeople allocating other people's money and B) millions and millions of taxpayers allocating their own hard earned taxes. He'd paint a picture of efficiently allocated public resources that was so perfect that every economist would want to hang it on their office wall.

Incidentally...did you guys know that the Wikipedia entry for opportunity cost didn't even mention Bastiat? I did a quick edit to correct the deficiency. The more people learning about Bastiat the better!

Methinks1776 writes:

Yes, Karl, I see your point. However, unfortunately, Krugman didn't die at 49, so I have to disagree with you.

John Papola writes:

Russ Roberts by a mile… but I’m biased.

David Boaz writes:

I agree with most of the names suggested here. In fact, I've often asked the question, Who is today's Henry Hazlitt? And names like Boudreaux, Roberts, and Landsburg get brought up a lot. I think one of the reasons we don't quite know "who is today's Hazlitt/Bastiat?" is that we have more of them.

But I do want to endorse John Stossel. He brings economic insights in accessible language to millions of people (more millions on ABC, I assume, but less often than he does now on FBN/FNC).

And I would also add P. J. O'Rourke. His book Eat the Rich is a great introduction to economics. Actually, I think it's the best "first book on econ" for a person not yet familiar with the economic way of thinking.

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