Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on February 12, 2018

in Economics, Trade

… is from page 591 of my late colleague Gordon Tullock’s 1984 article “How to Do Well While Doing Good!” as this article is reprinted in Virginia Political Economy, which is Vol. 1 of The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed., 2004) (footnote deleted):

The protective tariff, of course, has long been a bête noire of the economists, but a review of the advanced theoretical literature over the last years shows far more discussion of optimal tariffs than of the desirability of getting rid of tariffs.  This is particularly surprising because the articles dealing with optimal tariffs rarely, if ever, point out that their optimality is a rather special one and that, in any event, it would be impossible to calculate an optimal tariff in the real world.  Still, the majority of economic opinion was always against protective tariffs even if this point of view did not get much attention in the technical journals.

DBx: Academic journals are the place to hash out new ideas, to note exceptions to established ideas, and to see how well or how poorly different ideas explain different slices of reality.  Academic journals are not the place to repeat long-ago-discovered truths.  A bias, however, arises from this role of academic journals and of the need for scholars to publish in them – namely, a disproportionate amount of attention is given in academic journals to speculative ideas and to exceptions to long-ago-discovered truths.  Foundational ideas and long-ago-discovered truths appear only in the background of academic journals, or whenever someone discovers (or believes that he has discovered) an exception to these.

For example, a young economist in 2018 receives no professional acclaim for restating the economic case for free trade; she does, however, get much attention for describing theoretically a weird set of circumstances under which that case is weak, or for claiming to find empirical evidence that calls that case into question.  All such research is to be welcomed.  But in addition to helping to give to the general public mistaken impressions about the strength and applicability of established ideas and long-ago-discovered truths, this publication ‘bias’ tends to select for economists who never really learn – and I mean really learn (as opposed merely to be able to restate in rather mechanical ways) – foundational economics and why long-established truths became justly established.


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