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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 561 of my colleague Bryan Caplan’s Spring 2001 article in the Independent Review, “Libertarianism Against Economism” (citations deleted; links added):

The accumulated evidence on public opinion suggests that the strategy for libertarian change that Hayek advanced in “The Intellectuals and Socialism” was basically sound.  The view that people vote their self-interest, marking existing policies as beneficial and in any case independent of abstract ideas, is empirically mistaken.  Instead, the twin foundations of public opinion seem to be education and ideology, and the content of “what educated people think” and “what defines ideologies” is not a passive reflection of “objective conditions.”  However, Hayek probably overstated the extent to which all ideas originate with intellectuals.  There is considerable evidence that “populist” ideas – from scapegoating foreigners and greedy capitalists to promising something for nothing – have a life of their own.  Such ideas survive and even thrive without a veneer of academic credibility.  Thus, although winning abstract debates works in the expected direction, such victories have a smaller effect than Hayek’s analysis would predict: not because politics is a compromise between ideas and self-interest, but because it is a compromise between emotionally appealing populist pre-conceptions and relatively sophisticated ideas transmitted by ideology and education.

Of course, the challenge of promoting a better public understanding and appreciation of markets is only made more difficult when credentialed economists enter the public arena to assure the person-in-the-street that his or her economically untutored opinions of the ways that markets and government interventions work are, after all, correct.  Great damage is done to the public’s understanding of economic reality whenever some economists tell the general public, for example, that it really is true that foreigners who sell to us lots of imports thereby inflict on us economic harm, or that it really is true that the incomes of all low-skilled workers can indeed be raised, with little or no ill-consequences befalling such workers, simply by government stripping such workers of their right to bargain for jobs by offering to work at hourly wages below the minimum wage stipulated by politicians.

Successfully promoting economic fallacies is much easier than successfully challenging such fallacies for at least two reasons:

(1) Fallacies are easier to generate than are truths because the range of what is false is far wider than is the range of what is true; put differently, there are many different ways to be wrong about some subject or topic, while there are far fewer ways to be right about that subject or topic.

(2) The audience demand for confirmation of what the audience already believes is far higher than is the audience demand for ideas, argument, perspectives, and evidence that challenge what the audience currently believes.  Challenging a mistaken but popularly held view – such as, for example, the widely held belief that minimum-wage legislation helps low-skilled workers – requires of any persons challenging that popularly held view great patience and a thick skin because people do not let go of their priors and their current beliefs readily or easily.  Challenges to those priors and beliefs are often not only resisted, but are resisted with anger and accusations of dishonesty, or by hurling accusations of foul ulterior motives at those who dare to challenge popular priors and beliefs.