Who's the Partisan Hack?

by Don Boudreaux on January 12, 2009

in Current Affairs, Economics, Weblogs

Brad DeLong says that his blog is “Reality-Based.”  And, indeed, it often offers sound, reasonable, clear-eyed commentary – stuff that I typically find valuable even when I disagree with it; indeed, chiefly when I disagree with it.

But not always.  This post borders on being scurrilous — and certainly crosses the border from reality into paranoid fantasy.  DeLong calls a number of economists, including my GMU colleague Richard Wagner, “ethics-free Republican hacks.”  The offense that sparks this charge is opposition to government “stimulus” of the economy.

The charge is outrageous, for a number of reasons.

First, opposition to government stimulus of the economy is hardly a Republican matter.  Suppose the stimulus were to work.  Are Republicans less interested in restoring the economy to health than are Democrats?  Of course not.  In fact, if the stereotype of the GOP is accurate –
namely, that the GOP is the party of business – it would appear quite unlikely that any “hacks” for this political party would oppose steps to improve the business climate.

Of course it’s possible that the economic theories and ideas motivating a GOP opposition to a stimulus package are mistaken – but being a poor economist is not at all to be an “ethics-free Republican hack.”

Second, on the economics of the matter, opposing such a stimulus package — for macroeconomic reasons or for public-choice reasons or for both reasons — is hardly a sign of economic dementia.  It’s possible, again, that the stimulus reflects good economics and that opposition to the stimulus (such as is expressed by my colleague Dick Wagner, by Ed Lopez, and by other economists listed by DeLong) reflects weak economic reasoning.  But to treat Keynesian fiscal stimulus as beyond-question appropriate — to treat economists who reject Keynesian theory and policy as buffoons — is simply nonsense.  Or worse: such treatment seems like the actions of a political hack.

To claim that government cannot spend resources that it doesn’t first acquire from the private sector is hardly bizarre.  To claim that taking resources from the private sector reduces demands in those industries from which the resources are taken is hardly bizarre.  To claim that any economic activity stimulated by increased government spending is offset by economic activity elsewhere slowed by government’s need to get the resources it spends is hardly bizarre. Again, such claims might be mistaken — but what about such claims is so ludicrous as to advertise persons who make them “ethics-free Republican hacks”?

Nothing that I can see.

Third — and here I can speak only for the handful of persons on DeLong’s list of “ethics-free Republican hacks” whom I know personally (such as Dick Wagner and Ed Lopez): many of these scholars would be loathe to identify themselves as Republican.  Dick Wagner is one of the least politically partisan people I know.  He has nary a kind word for any politician, Democrat or Republican.  The idea that Dick Wagner is somehow buttering his biscuits by insincerely writing things that the GOP wants to read, or that he thinks the GOP wants to read, is crazy beyond description.

Fourth, again supposing that fiscal stimulus by government will work and that the economists on DeLong’s doo-doo list actually agree (for these suppositions are part of DeLong’s premises), it’s more likely that such opposition reflects an abundance of ethics rather than an absence of ethics.

It’s no ethical challenge to support something that works.  It is, however, a real ethical challenge to oppose something that you believe would work.  Someone opposed as a matter of principle to government intervention into the economy might be sensible or not; but if that person sticks by his or her principles — if he or she continues to oppose the intervention on moral grounds, or because of a belief that following what is thought to be a wise rule-of-thumb is best even at the cost of making things worse in the immediate case — that person is ethics-infused, not ethics-free.

Once again, the economics underlying such principles might be mistaken, or the ethics motivating such opposition might be disagreeable, but the persons standing up for what they believe in are quite the opposite of “ethics-free.”

I myself am quite skeptical — for reasons expressed beautifully by Dick Wagner in the quotation that DeLong features — of the success of any “stimulus” plan.  But even if I were convinced that such stimulus in this case would restore economic health much sooner than it would otherwise be restored, I would still oppose it — on ethical grounds.


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