David R. Henderson  

Williamson on Lind and Caplan; Me on Leonard Read

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Kevin Williamson of National Review has written an excellent response to Michael Lind's attack on my co-blogger Bryan Caplan. Here's one excerpt:

The ideological Turing test, modeled on Alan Turing's 1950 thought experiment for measuring the approximation of intelligence in computers, is relatively simple. It holds that a political partisan can be said to adequately understand opposing ideas if he is able to articulate them in such a way that his explanation would be indistinguishable from an explanation offered by a person holding those ideas when judged by a neutral panel. Judging from his piece on Professor Caplan, Mr. Lind has about as much a chance of clearing that hurdle as I do of dancing Coppélia with the Bolshoi Ballet.

Williamson's piece is not long and so I recommend that you read the whole thing.

Naturally, Bryan, in addressing Lind's attack, focused mainly on Lind's statement of Bryan's views. But Lind made a number of other "drive-by" attacks on various other people that should be responded to.

Williamson handles a few of them. One of his responses is to Lind's attack on Peter Thiel. Lind called Thiel a "third-rate mind." Williamson responds:

Does any serious person think that the founder of PayPal and Palantir, a former federal appeals-court clerk, Stanford philosophy graduate, and rated chess master is a third-rate mind?

I won't quote the other parts of Williamson's response on Thiel because I don't approve, as a general rule, of responding to B's attack on A for failure X by accusing B of himself having failure X. Even if it's true, and it may be true, I don't like that approach.

But one person who goes undefended by both Bryan and Williamson, and who deserves defense, is Leonard Read, the man who founded the Foundation for Economic Education. Lind calls Read "appallingly dumb." Lind gives no evidence for this strong claim: what I have just quoted is the whole Lind discussion of Read.

To his credit, Lind links to the Wikipedia entry on Read, which I have linked to above. Probably Read's most-famous contribution is his "I, Pencil." I highly recommend it. I use that article in every economics class I teach--and my strong impression is that the students "get it." You can see the article as a less subtle, less nuanced, and more reader-friendly "Use of Knowledge in Society" by Hayek. I don't think one can read and understand "I, Pencil" and think that Read was "appallingly dumb."

Beyond his intellect, the thing I liked most about Leonard Read was his passion for liberty and his willingness to explain it to anyone who was interested. The only time I ever met him was at the Mont Pelerin Society Annual Meeting in Hong Kong in 1978, the first one I ever attended. On our "day off," we went over to Macau by hydrofoil and then got on some busses in Macau to do a tour. I was sitting with a young woman from Spain and Read was sitting a few rows in front of us. When we pulled up to one of the sights to see, almost everyone got off the bus. Leonard Read did not. The young Chinese tour guide, whose English was very good, asked Read what our group was about: who were we, etc. Read quickly answered "The Mont Pelerin Society" and then went on to explain what the people in it stood for and why liberty is important. Being a fairly nosy person, I persuaded my new Spanish friend to hang back and listen to Read's explanation. We were both impressed by how clearly and compellingly he explained and how responsive the woman seemed to his ideas. I'm not saying that he made a convert, but I was pretty sure that she had never heard these ideas before and that she found them compelling.

Of all the libertarians in history I admire, Leonard Read is surely in the top ten.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (7 to date)
LD Bottorff writes:

Much as I appreciate that Mr. Lind acknowledges Caplan's influence, I found it particularly insulting that he claimed that "for most of its post-1945 history, libertarianism has lacked thinkers of its own." I must be appallingly dumb myself for thinking that David Friedman is a brilliant libertarian thinker.

David R. Henderson writes:

@LD Bottorff,
I agree--not about you being dumb, but about David Friedman. There’s more value in that one book, The Machinery of Freedom, than in almost any other libertarian book (and maybe I could cut “almost”) written since 1945.

David Anthony writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jeff writes:

You're right, David. Best to take the high road when dealing with people like Mr. Lind.

NC Law writes:

I would not take the attack (rant?) on Caplan too seriously. It looks like the common fare that you might find on Salon.

Tom Jackson writes:

David,

Brian Doherty made a point of defending Leonard Read at Reason's Hit and Run:

http://reason.com/blog/2014/05/12/michael-lind-nearly-a-decade-after-decla

Bill writes:

In one of my first undergrad economics classes, a subject which I took on a whim, my professor linked to I, Pencil and Petition of the Candle Makers on this very website.

What I found on this site was not only so much more rational and reasoned, but actually explained the causes and solutions to certain behaviors and conditions in the economy and society. It had so much explanatory power than all those semesters of feminist/Marxist hysteria and, along with some other reading and exploration I did post-graduation, was a huge factor in making me a libertarian.

Thanks everyone at Econlog, you do great work.

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