Kling on metaphors

by Russ Roberts on August 3, 2011

in Politics

I have long been a fan of the rainforest as a better metaphor of the economy than an engine. But what I really like about this post of Arnold Kling’s is his summary of the spectrum of views of government action–Mafia Godfather vs. Day Care Center Supervisor.

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Scott G August 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm

These are great metaphors that can be easily extended into fictional stories that can inform and entertain!

Thanks Dr. Kling and Roberts.

Greg Webb August 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Russ, I think that government is all of these things. For even evil people occasionally do good things. But, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Government is necessary because people are not angels. But, because people who are not angels are necessary to operate the government, government must be limited by the Constitution and the checks and balances designed to keep the competing factions fighting and not bothering the rest of us. Given the huge growth in government spending and power regulatory power since President Herbert Hoover, I believe that Professor Kling’s analogy is the most accurate description of government today.

Invisible Backhand August 3, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I remember Col. Kling from the TechCentralStation days (lots of ExxonMobil ads in that more innocent time). I used to stop by for the antics of Soon and Baliunas too.Then it became TCSdaily.com, and now I see that redirects to ideasinactiontv.com/ run by Glassman.

All people who have no problem living off the oil industry’s food stamps.

Don Boudreaux August 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Are you incapable of judging arguments on their own merits?

wintercow20 August 3, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Ayn Rand once said of similar arguments:

“The tone is usually one of scornful or belligerent incredulity. “Surely you are not an advocate of capitalism, are you?” And if this does not intimidate the prospective victim—who answers, properly: “I am,”—the ensuing dialogue goes something like this: “Oh, you couldn’t be! Not really!” “Really.” “But everybody knows that capitalism is outdated!” “I don’t.” “Oh, come now!” “Since I don’t know it, will you please tell me the reasons for thinking that capitalism is outdated?” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” “Will you tell me the reasons?” “Well, really, if you don’t know, I couldn’t possibly tell you!”

All this is accompanied by raised eyebrows, wide-eyed stares, shrugs, grunts, snickers and the entire arsenal of nonverbal signals communicating ominous innuendoes and emotional vibrations of a single kind: disapproval. If those vibrations fail, if such debaters are challenged, one finds that they have no arguments, no evidence, no proof, no reason, no ground to stand on—that their noisy aggressiveness serves to hide a vacuum—that the Argument from Intimidation is a confession of intellectual impotence.”

kyle8 August 3, 2011 at 3:19 pm

My metaphor for government is Nuclear energy. It is very very powerful, it can be used sometimes as a useful tool, But we don’t really fully understand how to harness it, If we do not use the UPMOST caution it will cause a horrible disaster.

Granted it is not a perfect metaphor because nuclear power is not nearly as devastating or hard to control as is state power.

vikingvista August 3, 2011 at 7:16 pm

“nuclear power is not nearly as devastating or hard to control as is state power.”


John Papola August 3, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Arnold’s effort to avoid agreeing with the mobster metaphor is kinda strange. We know what happens to monopolies that don’t have government support or protection: they become so careless that the door opens for competitors and those competitors enter and steal marketshare.

To think of government as a monopoly without thinking about WHY it’s a monopoly sure is polite, but it’s clearly stopping short and begging the question. Why IS it still a monopoly after all these years of failure? Oh… that’s right… it’s the guns and tanks. It’s the monopoly of FORCE that makes it government in the first place. It’s the mob with occasional voting.

Stone Glasgow August 4, 2011 at 2:42 am

I agree completely. His “middle ground” between a nanny and a mobster is weak and avoids asking why that monopoly stands. Does he not understand that monopolies do no last without the use of force? Does he not understand that a monopoly is a good thing as long as no force is involved?

Governments are simply the the most powerful group of mobsters, who have tricked most of the general public into believing that they are there to serve them.

PS Look up the meaning of the phrase “To beg the question.” You’re doing it wrong.

Richard Stands August 4, 2011 at 10:40 am

Kling’s spectrum of analogies shows whether the observer identifies with the enforcer or the target of enforcement. In the mob metaphor, government is the mob enforcer (a pejorative). In the day care metaphor, the target is a recalcitrant child (a pejorative).

Does one view citizens as free agents and government as forceful intruders into otherwise legitimate voluntary interactions? Or does one view himself and (mostly) other citizens as children whose aspirations are not to be taken seriously, to be guarded against, to be controlled?

Ray August 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I’ve had the most success in describing how the economy works to the uninitiated by comparing the economy to the human body. A dynamic economy being healthy, and free to move as it needs, but restricting a leg or an ankle or whatever of course inhibits the body’s ability to move, adjust, heal, etc.

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