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What I Hold In Contempt Is Economic Error

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My utter mystification at being accused, in the comments section of this post [2], of viewing ordinary people with contempt causes me to ask: What could possibly give an obviously intelligent person that notion?

I think I have the answer – one that goes further than do the two comments that I there posted in reply.  The answer is that I am very critical of the opinions that most non-economists (and many economists) express about economics and economic matters.  It’s true that I do hold in very low regard – in, indeed, contempt – the “economics” expressed by many non-economists and by the politicians and pundits who cater to economic ignorance.  But this fact does not mean that I regard these people to be stupid or unable individually to tend properly and prudently to each of their own individual affairs.  I criticize such people in the same way that, I’m sure, an experienced engineer would criticize people who, seeking a way to allow motorists to get back and forth across the Mississippi river, propose to build a bridge made only of cotton candy.  And just as the engineer would no doubt amplify the volume of his protests if the clamoring for such a cotton-candy bridge grew loud and began to display a real prospect for being taken seriously, I amplify the volume of my protests when similarly fanciful and unscientific notions – such as making us wealthier with tariffs – grow loud and display a real prospect for being taken seriously.

It is ungenerous – or, certainly, erroneous – to accuse someone who is an expert in X of thinking that those who know nothing of X, yet who express opinions about X, are contemptible.  These expressed opinions about X are typically mistaken, and in many cases even contemptible.  Further, they become a public nuisance when politicians secure power by professing to share these mistaken opinions.  It is, therefore, appropriate for someone who knows better to explain that those opinions are flawed.  And if those opinions continue to be stubbornly held in ways that threaten to generate outcomes quite the opposite of the outcomes expected by those who profess those mistaken opinions, it is appropriate for a knowledgeable person to amplify his or her reasons for rejecting those opinions.

But, surely, just as no one would think the engineer to be arrogant or haughty if he continues to explain why a cotton-candy bridge will not support automobile traffic, no one should think the economist to be arrogant or haughty if he continues to explain why, say, tariffs do not create jobs or raise wages generally, or why the minimum wage will reduce low-skilled workers’ employment options.  Yet no more should it be inferred from the economist’s protests that he views ordinary people with contempt than it should be inferred from the engineer’s protest that he views ordinary people with contempt.

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