Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 28, 2021

in Adam Smith, Philosophy of Freedom, Seen and Unseen

… is from page 49 of Adam Smith’s celestial essay “The History of Astronomy,” as this essay appears in Liberty Fund’s 1982 collection of Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects (a collection originally published by Cadell and Davies, in London, 1795):

But a savage, whose notions are guided altogether by wild nature and passion, waits for no other proof that a thing is the proper object of any sentiment, than that it excites it.

DBx: Yes.

A primitive mind, like a childish mind, focuses on only the first sensations that strike and stimulate it. These initial sensations are all that such a mind comprehends and is willing to comprehend. Entranced by these initial sensations, the primitive or childish mind refuses to look past, above, beyond, beneath, or behind these initial impressions. Reality, to such a mind, is limited to initial impressions. Because reason, rather than emotion or any of the physical senses, is the chief tool for exploring regions beyond initial impressions, people too lazy or immature to employ any capacity beyond emotion and sensation remain blinded by first impressions. Unfortunately, such lazy and immature people are quite common. Many are even called “intellectuals.”

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Some Covid Links

by Don Boudreaux on October 27, 2021

in Country Problems, Current Affairs, Risk and Safety

The Brownstone Institute shares another excerpt from Paul Frijters’s, Gigi Foster’s, and Michael Baker’s 2021 book, The Great Covid Panic. A slice:

Reducing the movements of healthy people was not going to move the needle in terms of stifling virus transmission among the truly vulnerable elements of the population. Worse, the logic of trying to keep movement limited meant there was almost no escape for governments from doing the wrong thing: once they and their health advisors had convinced the population that normal interactions were a serious risk, every move to ‘open up’ was seen as potential endangerment that could be exploited by political opponents.

I’m pleased and honored to have again been a guest, with John Tamny, on The Bill Walton Show.

Martin Kulldorff decries the sudden loss of long-held medical knowledge.

Noah Carl reports on reasons not to put much confidence in the predictions offered by Neil Ferguson and other “experts.” A slice:

A more recent study reached slightly different conclusions. Earlier this year, the epiforecast group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hosted a forecasting competition in which they invited members of the public to predict weekly case and death numbers in the U.K.

The competition ran from 24th May to 16th August. Both experts and non-experts were eligible to compete, experts being those who declared themselves as such when they signed up (so we’re presumably talking about epidemiologists and people with a background in forecasting).

What did the researchers find? In this case, the self-declared experts performed slightly worse than the non-experts, although neither group did especially well.

Why did the two studies reach different conclusions? I suspect the answer lies in the composition of each study’s non-expert group. In the first study, the non-experts were random members of the public, whereas in the second, they were laymen who chose to take part in a forecasting tournament.

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has gathered a large amount of evidence that, when it comes to quantitative forecasting, experts aren’t any better than well-informed laymen (even if they do have an edge over the man on the street).

I suspect the non-experts who took part in the Covid forecasting tournament were the kind of well-informed laymen that Tetlock identified in his research. After all, you’d have to be pretty geeky to find out about such a tournament in the first place.

Overall, the evidence suggests that no one’s particularly good at forecasting the epidemic. Where the ‘experts’ do have an advantage is in making their predictions appear scientific.

Fraser Nelson reports on the “staggering costs” of a possible renewed lockdown in Britain.

The higher the rate of testing for SARS-CoV-2 infections, the higher will be the percentage of the population found to be infected.

Robert Dingwall criticizes the magical thinking from which much of the case for mask mandates springs. A slice:

The bitter controversy over the use of masks or face coverings in community settings that has erupted in the USA and can also be seen in the UK and Mainland Europe has many of the characteristics of the contest between magic and science. Advocates of masks have struggled to demonstrate a causal connection between face covering and the transmission of the SARS-COV-2 virus. Their critics might well be forgiven for claiming that mask mandates are based on magical thinking and questioning whether the power of the state should be used to enforce this. Surely we have moved on from the Salem witch trials?

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 27, 2021

in Growth, Innovation

… is from page 50 of Mariano Grondona’s 2000 essay “A Cultural Typology of Economic Development,” which is chapter 4 in Culture Matters, Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. (2000):

Yet the questioning mind that is the one that creates innovation, and innovation is the engine of economic development.

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Dan Klein remembers the late Fred Foldvary.

David Henderson is less impressed than is Fred Hiatt with Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell.

My GMU Econ colleague Larry White asks the appropriate question about proposals for better payment arrangements.

Matt Ridley explains how to rev up innovation in the United Kingdom. A slice:

One of the key elements that is required for innovation to flourish is freedom. By that I mean the freedom for trial and error, particularly the freedom to experiment, to be wrong, to fail, to start again. This freedom for entrepreneurs was a feature of 17th to 19th century Britain, not just the North East where I live, but across the UK, making it quite distinct from continental Europe (except Holland).

I believe this economic freedom is also the key to understanding China, because one of the reasons for China’s economic success is that – although not free politically – it has been free economically for entrepreneurs, at least until recently. There is an important lesson for the UK.

Nick Gillespie talks with Garry Kasparov.

“Institutions Matter, But Not as Much as Neo-institutionalists Believe” – so argues Deirdre McCloskey. A slice:

Humans of course have always innovated. But not until recently have they innovated rapidly enough to overcome Malthus. An ancient and modern contempt in many minds for the innovator, and the resulting control of innovation in most places, has radically slowed innovation. Merchants in Confucian countries were ranked below peasants, and only barely above might-soil men. No play of Shakespeare celebrates a bourgeois. Even Antonio the merchant of Venice is a right fool for love, love for the aristocratico Bassanio. And bourgeois Shylock, though he does speak in dignified blank verse, is held in a contempt usual in an England emptied of Jews until Oliver Cromwell. The contempt for the bourgeoisie (and Jews) was routine until the idea of liberalism sharply changed social attitudes, by a Bourgeois Revaluation, at first in the Dutch Republic of the 16th and 17th centuries, and then with a Dutch king and a Dutch stock market and a Dutch national debt in England, and then Scotland, and then the world.

Sheldon Richman is correct: Inflation is evil.

Samuel Kronen writes about Shelby Steele.

Philip Klein explains that Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach was not a gaffe; it’s an accurate reflection of Progressives’ mindset.

Ilya Somin remembers Anthony Downs, who died earlier this month. A slice:

Economic Theory of Democracy also includes several other major innovations, including insightful discussion of information shortcuts as a tool for overcoming voter ignorance, crucial advances in the application of the median voter theorem to analyses of electoral competition, and much else. In a single book published before he turned 27, Downs achieved far more than most scholars accomplish in a lifetime.

And he didn’t stop there. In later years, Downs turned his attention to housing and urban policy, and published influential analyses of bureaucracy, rent control, housing shortages, and traffic congestion. On the latter issue, Downs was a leading advocate of peak‐​hour congestion pricing, which (in part thanks to him) most experts now recognize as the most efficient solution to the problem of traffic jams. In 2010 he spoke at a Cato Policy Forum on traffic congestion.

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Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


Most American progressives today deny that their proposals have anything to do with socialism. But these denials ring hollow. As “A Banking Regulator Who Hates Banks” (Oct. 25) makes plain, the Biden administration has fully embraced genuine, no-qualifiers-necessary, honest-to-badness socialism.

Among the roles for government desired by Comptroller of the Currency nominee Saule Omarova is that which resides at the core of all socialist and communist programs: control by the state of the allocation of capital. It is the exercise of this role that Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, in the interwar years, proved would severely impoverish the denizens of any socialist economy.

Who with even a modicum of knowledge of history doubts that such impoverishment was indeed a universal feature of every such socialist regime? And who with even a modicum of common sense supposes that America’s fate under socialism would differ?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 26, 2021

in Budget Issues, Debt and Deficits, Growth

… is from page 505 of my Mercatus Center colleague Jack Salmon’s excellent Fall 2021 Cato Journal paper, “The Impact of Public Debt on Economic Growth“:

While weaknesses in the economic literature undoubtedly exist, they do not invalidate the broadly well‐​founded conclusion drawn from the survey of 40 empirical studies – that high levels of public debt have a negative impact on economic growth.

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Noah Carl patiently picks apart a recently expressed argument, in the Daily Kos, in support of Zero Covid. Here’s Carl’s conclusion:

The author then invokes the spectre of long Covid, noting that persistent symptoms “are not rare”. However, if he’d referred to the latest estimates from the ONS, he’d know that only 2–3% of patients still report symptoms after 12 weeks, and this is before you factor in widespread immunity.

Even if ‘Zero Covid’ were achievable, which it almost certainly is not, the costs of getting there would be enormous. We’d not only need a massive annual re-vaccination program, but also constant vigilance at the border, as well as large-scale testing in perpetuity.

“Whatever the price of defeating COVID-19 may be,” the Daily Kos article concludes, “it must be paid.” And that more or less sums up the case for, and against, ‘Zero Covid’. For you can’t take a proposal seriously if there’s no estimate of costs.

J.D. Tuccille, citing the work of Robert Higgs, explains that crises fuel unwarranted expansions of government power – and, thus, are today making ‘Long Lockown’ a real and frightful thing. A slice:

“Crises have always granted reformist policymakers powers to bypass legislative gridlock and entrenched interests,” Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder gloated in March 2020. “The coronavirus crisis is already allowing the implementation of ideas that would have been considered very radical just months ago.”

That explains why we’re likely to be stuck with some elements of the expanded state apparatus and extended government powers that were allowed to metastasize during the 18-months-and-counting of the pandemic. Much of the public has lost its taste for large and expensive government, but its brief shift in sentiment allowed enough of an opening for the ratchet to click forward into a new position. And many people really have returned to their usual preference for smaller, cheaper government.

“Given a choice, half of Americans say they prefer fewer government services and lower taxes, while 19% want higher taxes and more services,” adds Gallup. “Twenty-nine percent want taxes and services as they are now.”

After a taste of lockdowns and mask mandates, the public may, by and large, want to push officialdom to the sidelines where it can do less damage. But that’s not what lawmakers and presidents have been up to during these long months of viral fears, spending, and dictates. It’s certainly not what’s in the far-reaching, multi-trillion-dollar, 2,465-page bill that’s pending in Congress.

Charles Oliver reports yet another small yet ominous incident sparked by Covid Derangement Syndrome.

Laura Dodsworth rightly fears the authoritarianism that is at the core of ‘nudge.‘ A slice:

Is it a nudge too far when someone is hurt by the nudging? How about deliberately increasing people’s sense of personal threat because they understand the risk of Covid to their own demographic, to make them more scared in order to make them comply with the lockdown rules.

Fear is a very destabilising tactic. I interviewed people who were quite undone by fear for my book A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of them identified that it was specifically government messaging and advertising, the 24/7 doom-mongering in the media, the steep red lines on graphs of worst case scenarios, the use of terms like Covidiot to shame and other and encourage social conformity.

The once-liberal world is creating a new class of untouchables.

Margery Smelkinson tweets:

Students without age-appropriate immunizations in MD
2019: 62
2021: 23,000

Covid myopia mean forgoing childhood vaccines for high-risk diseases in order to “stay safe” from a virus that has very low-risk of childhood disease.

Robert Dingwall urges his fellow Brits not to succumb again to the panic that keeps the straw man threatening to pay yet another visit to that country. Here’s his conclusion:

The promoters of a moral panic selectively represent data to justify a claim to judge their fellow citizens according to their personal standards. These values never need to be justified because their virtue is self-evident. If we cannot describe the present campaign as such a panic, the concept has no meaning. The lesson for governments is that it is usually best to hold one’s nerve.

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 26, 2021

in Adam Smith, Current Affairs

… is from page 35 of Adam Smith’s profound essay “The History of Astronomy,” as this essay appears in Liberty Fund’s 1982 collection of Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects (a collection originally published by Cadell and Davies, in London, 1795):

Those panic terrors which sometimes seize armies in the field, or great cities, when an enemy is in the neighbourhood, and which deprive for a time the most determined of all deliberate judgments, are never excited but by the sudden apprehension of unexpected danger. Such violent consternations, which at once confound whole multitudes, benumb their understandings, and agitate their hearts, with all the agony of extravagant fear, can never be produced by any foreseen danger, how great soever. Fear, though naturally a very strong passion, never rises to such excesses, unless exasperated both by Wonder, from the uncertain nature of the danger, and by Surprise, from the suddenness of the apprehension.

DBx: This truth expressed centuries ago speaks to us today. The arrival on the scene, nearly two years ago, of Covid-19 has indeed worked to “deprive for a time the most determined of all deliberate judgments” and to “confound whole multitudes, benumb their understandings, and agitate their hearts.” And in this case the deprivation of reason and compromising of judgment was furthered by panic pornographers – many of whom hold government offices – and who continue to peddle their obscene and dangerous material to now-addicted audiences.

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An economist friend, who teaches at a prominent U.S. university (not George Mason!), just sent to me the following e-mail in response to this earlier Cafe Hayek post in which I quote Thomas Sowell on the abuse of science. I share the e-mail with my friend’s kind permission, but my friend wishes to remain anonymous.

Regarding your quotation from Sowell on the use of “Science (TM)” by elites:

I’m becoming increasingly creeped out by the way the phrase “follow the science” is entering our common lexicon. At a minimum, the phrase betrays fundamental ignorance about how true science actually works. Science can’t lead anyone (it is far too haphazard and chaotic for that). Moreover, science is a process of discovering what is (the positive), and can never tell us what we ought to do (the normative). But if this sort of ignorance were all we had to worry about, I think the problem would be manageable. I’m worried that Science(TM) is becoming religious in nature. Human beings have an innate religious tendency. They long to worship something that can imbue themselves and their world with metaphysical meaning. As the West has moved away from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, people are looking for substitutes to fill their religious instincts. John McWhorter has a new book out about how “Wokeism” is one such substitute. Others have pointed out that environmentalism often functions as another religious substitute. I think this cult-of-science is a third. (I’m a religious person myself, which I think makes it a bit easier for me to see the inherently religious nature of these phenomena.)

The cult wants to anoint scientists as 21st century scientist-priests who receive divine truth and convey it to the masses. To question the priests is to question the divine and thus out oneself as a heretic (i.e. a science-denier). I fear that precious few scientists will be able to resist the lure of celebrity and adulation that followers of the cult are offering them. They may not realize until it’s too late that it’s a devil’s bargain. In exchange for becoming the scientist-priests of the science-cult mob, these former scientists find that they are as much the captives of the mob as they are its leaders. True science is driven by evidence and almost always leads in surprising and unpredictable directions (because the universe is far more complicated than we can imagine). The cult-of-science is nothing more than scientism married to confirmation bias. Thus, the conclusions of the new scientist-priests are actually dictated to them by the mob. In return for status and celebrity (and even some money), the scientist-priests then furnish the mob with a sciency-sounding justification for their predetermined conclusions.  Thus, “follow the science” really means to follow the crowd, with some science jargon judiciously applied, like lipstick to a pig. The whole thing is gross to watch.

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… is from page 257 of Thomas Sowell’s December 22nd, 2009, National Review essay titled “The ‘Science’ Mantra” as this essay is reprinted in Sowell’s 2010 collection, Dismantling America:

Among the intelligentsia, there have always been many who are ready to jump on virtually any bandwagon that will take them to the promised land, where the wise and noble few – like themselves – can take the rest of us poor dummies in hand and tell us how we had better change the way we live our lives.

DBx: Indeed so.

Modern science is indeed a remarkable and wonderful human achievement. Yet it loses all claim to objectivity and to the noble name “science” the moment any of its conclusions are regarded as incontestable justifications for using state power to engineer society. “Science” so used is a synonym for “god.” And the politicians, bureaucrats, and “experts” who today seek to rule according to such “science” differ in no intellectual or ethical way from the chieftains, monarchs, and apparatchiks in the past who coercively lorded over others in the name of fulfilling the will of god or of achieving what is ordained by “History.”

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