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Inspired by Bryan Caplan on Straw-Manning

My colleague Bryan Caplan, over at EconLog, productively ponders the practice of straw-manning.  This paragraph is especially insightful and important:

To qualify as straw manning, of course, the leading/best adherents [of a viewpoint, ideology, or  proposition] have to reject the rank-and-file’s painfully bad positions.  Since leadership is largely a popularity contest, straw manning leading adherents remains fairly rare, too.  Few intellectual leaders rise to the top of their local pecking orders by pedantically explaining all the ways their side should amend their beloved tenets.

One implication of Bryan’s insight is that proponents of ‘man-in-the-street’ economic fallacies will nearly always have a larger audience and be more widely celebrated than are good economists who strive to correct these fallacies.

Basic economics isn’t difficult and, really, all you need to know to be darn good at thinking like a sound economist is basic economics – the material an attentive undergraduate learns in his or her principles of microeconomics class when taught by a good teacher (such as we have at George Mason University).  Significant deepening of economic insight is added by other basic economics courses taught by good and wise professors: macro-principles; intermediate micro; intermediate macro.  Beyond these courses, most formal economics course are, when done well, helpful exercises in the discipline of applying again and again the economic way of thinking to a series of different and increasingly challenging real-world and hypothetical problems.  And beyond these exercises, most advanced economics is, at best, the rococo gilding of a lily.

Yet despite its relative ease and accessibility, mastering basic economics does require some effort, intelligence, and that most elusive of all intellectual traits, sound judgment.  And it requires yet something more: the willingness to express, or at least to hold, unpopular opinions – opinions that are not only rejected by most family members, co-workers, friends, lovers, neighbors, and casual cocktail-party acquaintances, but in many cases regarded as bizarre and even, in some instances, downright evil.  (“What!  How can you possibly oppose legislation to shut down sweat shops?!”)

Most people are never exposed to the economic way of thinking (or, worse, are exposed to economics only by professors who treat economics as if it were a branch of applied mathematics).  And most people wish to fit in, to be popular, to not be seen as holding unconventional opinions.  So most people – intelligent and well-meaning – are carriers of horribly mistaken myths about the way economies work and hang together.

The typical person unexposed to sound economics slips easily into focusing only on ‘the seen’ and the obvious (such as, for example, the apparently sensible assertion that raising the minimum wage increases the incomes, and hence the well-being, of all low-paid workers and their families, end of story).  And this fact, when combined with both confirmation bias and the natural human tendency of each of us to accept popular opinion on matters about which we are not expert, gives a huge survival advantage to ‘man-in-the-street’ economic myths.

And matters are made even worse when credentialed economists join the public discussion on the side of ‘man-in-the-street’ economic fallacies.  (“See!  Even Prof. X, who teaches economics at an Ivy League school, says that raising the minimum wage is a good way to help poor workers!”)  The problem, already self-reinforcing, becomes even more so when credentialed economists assure the general public that most of their ‘men-in-the-street’ fallacies are not fallacies at all but, instead, profound truths that (as every ‘man-in-the-street’ knows!) rich plutocrats alone (if helped, alas, by a handful of ideologically blinded fools) wish to obfuscate and deny.

Add finally to this toxic mix of ignorance the public-choice forces that enable concentrated special-interest groups to gorge gluttonously and with ease at the public trough.  The people who profit from such forces – politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, many lawyers, and shareholders, executives, and workers at firms that enjoy special government-created privileges – have every interest in keeping the public uninformed about economic reality.

Sound economic educators face a steep uphill struggle, every day.


Today is, as Steve Davies (over on Facebook) reminds us, the 239th anniversary of the publication of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations – a volume that, despite the difficulty, shows the promise of sound and clear explanations of basic economic truths.


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