Tag: Paul Krugman

Misunderstanding Nozick, Again

Someone called Stephen Metcalf writes at Slate of his horror at finding in “an otherwise quite groovy loft” in New York’s SoHo “not one but two copies of something called The Libertarian Reader.” Given that he manages to lump not just Paul Ryan and South Park but Sarah Palin into the libertarian basket, you can appreciate his dismay.

Metcalf puts Robert Nozick at the center of his argument, understandably enough. My colleague Tom Palmer says that academic critics almost always cite one chapter of one book, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and declare that they have grappled with libertarian ideas. Still, it’s a good book and worth grappling with, and it did have an impact, as Metcalf notes:

I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ‘75 [1976], the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.

I’ll leave it to my more learned colleagues to analyze how successfully Metcalf actually deals with Nozick’s arguments. I just want to note one thing here. Like many other critics of libertarianism, Metcalf triumphantly announces:

How could a thinker as brilliant as Nozick stay a party to this? The answer is: He didn’t. “The libertarian position I once propounded,” Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late ’80s, “now seems to me seriously inadequate.”

Yes, yes, yes. It gets repeated a lot: “Even Nozick renounced libertarianism.” If it were true, it’s not clear what it would mean. Libertarianism is true, or not, whether or not Paul Krugman or Russell Kirk believes it, and whether or not Robert Nozick believes it. The idea stands or falls on its own. But as it happens, Nozick did “stay a party” to the libertarian idea. Shortly before his death in 2002, young writer Julian Sanchez (now a Cato colleague) interviewed him and had this exchange:

JS: In The Examined Life, you reported that you had come to see the libertarian position that you’d advanced in Anarchy, State and Utopia as “seriously inadequate.” But there are several places in Invariances where you seem to suggest that you consider the view advanced there, broadly speaking, at least, a libertarian one. Would you now, again, self-apply the L-word?

RN: Yes. But I never stopped self-applying. What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the “Core Principle of Ethics.”

So Nozick did not “disavow” libertarianism. Indeed, Tom Palmer adds a point that

David Schmidtz told at a forum about Schmidtz’s book from Cambridge University Press, Robert Nozick, held October 21, 2002 at the Cato Institute. According to David, Nozick told him that his alleged “apostasy” was mainly about rejecting the idea that to have a right is necessarily to have the right to alienate it, a thesis that he had reconsidered, on the basis of which reconsideration he concluded that some rights had to be inalienable. That represents, not a movement away from libertarianism, but a shift toward the mainstream of libertarian thought.

Metcalf’s criticisms of libertarianism will have to stand on their own, as will libertarianism itself. He doesn’t have Nozick on his side. As for Metcalf’s final complaint that advocates of a more expansive state have been “hectored into silence” by the vast libertarian power structure, well, I am, if not hectored, at least stunned into silence.

P.S. Matt Welch notes that if Metcalf doesn’t have Nozick on his side, at least he has Ann Coulter.

English Riots, Faux Austerity, and Krugman’s Fairy Tale

London was just hit by heavy riots as part of a protest against the “deep” and “savage” budget cuts of the Cameron government. This is not the first time the UK has endured riots. The welfare lobby, bureaucrats, and other recipients of taxpayer largesse are becoming increasingly agitated that their gravy train may be derailed.

The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but some hooligans took the opportunity to wreak havoc. These nihilists apparently call themselves anarchists, but are too ignorant to understand the giant disconnect of adopting that title while at the same time rioting for bigger government and more redistribution. My anarcho-capitalist friends must be embarrassed by the potential linkage with these hooligans.

Speaking of rage, Paul Krugman is equally dismayed with Prime Minister David Cameron’s ostensibly penny-pinching budget. Summoning the ghost of John Maynard Keynes, Krugman asserts that such frugality is misguided when an economy is still weak and people are unemployed. Indeed, Krugman argues that the UK economy is weak today precisely because of Cameron’s supposed austerity.

Not surprisingly, the purpose of his argument is to discourage similar policies from being adopted in the United States.

Here’s part of what Krugman wrote as part of his column on “The Austerity Delusion.”

Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong. …Like America, Britain is still perceived as solvent by financial markets, giving it room to pursue a strategy of jobs first, deficits later. But the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback. As I like to put it, the Cameron plan was based on belief that the confidence fairy would make everything all right. But she hasn’t: British growth has stalled, and the government has marked up its deficit projections as a result.

At first I wondered if Krugman was playing an April Fool’s joke, but this is consistent with his long-held views about the magical impact of government spending. Besides, his piece is dated March 25, so I think we can safely assume he actually believes that Cameron’s supposed budget cutting is crippling the UK’s recovery.

There are two problems with Krugman’s column. The obvious problem is his unwavering support for Keynesian economics. I’ve addressed that issue here, here, here, here, and here, so I don’t feel any great need to rehash all those arguments. I’ll just ask why the policy still has adherents when it failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, failed for Japan in the 1990s, failed for Bush in 2008, and failed for Obama in 2009.

But the really amazing thing is that both Krugman and the rioters are wrong, not just in their opinions and ideology, but also about basic facts. Government spending has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom in recent years. Spending is even increasing at about double the rate of inflation in the current fiscal year. But don’t believe me. Look on page 102 of the UK’s latest budget.

Maybe that’s austerity to the looters and other protestors who think they have an unlimited claim on the production and income of other people, but it’s hard to see how a 4 percent increase in spending can be characterized as “brutal” and “vicious” spending cuts.

Moreover, Cameron has been a disappointment on the tax issue. He left in place Gordon Brown’s election-year, 10-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate. But then he imposed an increase in the VAT rate and implemented a higher capital gains tax.

To be sure, Cameron’s budget promises a bit of fiscal restraint in upcoming years, with spending supposedly growing at about 1 percent annually over the next three years. That would actually be somewhat impressive, roughly akin to what Canada and Slovakia achieved in recent decades. But promises of future spending restraint (which may never materialize) surely are not the same as present-day austerity.

One final comment: While I obviously disagree with much of what Krugman wrote, he does make some sound points. Many Republicans and Democrats claim that changes in deficits and debt have a big impact on interest, for instance, but Krugman correctly notes that there is no evidence for this assertion. Nations such as Portugal and Greece may face high interest rates, but that’s because investors don’t trust those governments to pay their debts, not because those states’ borrowing is having an impact on credit markets.

Bastiat on the Japanese Tsunami

Nathan Gardels at the Huffington Post writes (emphasis added):

No one – least of all someone like myself who has experienced the existential terror of California’s regular tremors and knows the big one is coming here next – would minimize the grief, suffering and disruption caused by Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

But if one can look past the devastation, there is a silver lining. The need to rebuild a large swath of Japan will create huge opportunities for domestic economic growth, particularly in energy-efficient technologies, while also stimulating global demand and hastening the integration of East Asia.

But as French political economist Frédéric Bastiat noted, destruction isn’t stimulative because it cannot create wealth:


Krugman (Both of Them) on Competitiveness

When it became clear that President Obama would make “competitiveness” a theme of his SOTU address, I looked forward to seeing Paul Krugman’s statement pointing out how much nonsense that is. Here he is, after all, in his excellent 1997 book, Pop Internationalism (MIT Press):

…International trade, unlike competition among businesses for a limited market, is not a zero-sum game in which one nation’s gain is another’s loss. It is [a] positive-sum game, which is why the word “competitiveness” can be dangerously misleading when applied to international trade.

Sure enough, President Obama’s speech last night was peppered with references to “the competition for jobs,” “new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else, “the competion for jobs is real,” etc. And of course there was a healthy dose of the usual mercantalist obsession with exports.

Although written before the President’s address was delivered, what would Paul Krugman 2.0 think of this sort of talk? The title of his column Sunday was certainly encouraging: “The Competition Myth.” But the substance of the column went in a … er… different direction from that which I had anticipated/hoped:

…talking about “competitiveness” as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it’s a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what’s good for corporations is good for America

So what does the administration’s embrace of the rhetoric of competitiveness mean for economic policy?

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it’s just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that’s actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they’ve been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation. [emphasis mine]

In other words, Krugman’s objections to the “competitiveness” rhetoric are based on his fear that it will lead to policies favorable to corporations, not that the whole concept is flawed.

[Disclaimer: the above is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the problematic parts of the column]

I yield to no-one in my admiration for Paul Krugman, trade economist. He made a real contribution to the discipline I’ve loved since I was a teenager. But Paul Krugman, columnist…not so much.

Behind the Political Rhetoric Are Profound Differences

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Post-Tucson will campaign trail rhetoric change in any discernible way? Should it change? What phrases or words should be considered out of bounds? Or is that approach a way of silencing legitimate criticism of political candidates?

My response:

Post-Tucson campaign trail rhetoric won’t change because, as Charles Krauthammer put it brilliantly in yesterday’s Washington Post, fighting and warfare are routine political metaphors for obvious reasons: “Historically speaking, all democratic politics is a sublimation of the ancient route to power – military conquest. That’s why the language persists,” why we speak of “battleground states” or “targeting” opponents.

That doesn’t mean that no charge is “out of bounds.” It’s perfectly all right for Sarah Palin to “target” 20 potential swing districts – Democrats do the same. And her use yesterday of “blood libel,” as Alan Dershowitz explains, is entirely acceptable too. What is out of bounds is the kind of scurrilous charges we’ve seen from The New York Times, the Paul Krugmans, E.J. Dionnes, Jonathan Alters, and their ilk, that the Tea Party and the political discourse around it contributed to the Arizona shooting – when there isn’t a shred of evidence to support that, and every indication that a lone mentally disturbed individual was responsible.

But far deeper issues are at play here, and they’re brought out in a penetrating piece by Daniel Henninger in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “Why the Left Lost It.” He points first to the devastating, potentially sea-changing midterm elections – “Republicans now control more state legislative seats than any time since 1928” – which “came atop the birth of a genuine reform movement, the tea parties.” And the debt crises, state and federal, that animate the Tea Party pose a mortal threat to a liberal agenda that stretches back at least to Goldwater.

As Henninger writes, the divide between today’s left and its conservative opponents “is deep, and it will never be bridged. It is cultural, and it explains more than anything the ‘intensity’ that exists now between these two competing camps.” Read it.

Where are the ’60s Hippies Now that They’re Needed to Fight Keynesianism?

Keynesian economic theory is the social science version of a perpetual motion machine. It assumes that you can increase your prosperity by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket. Not surprisingly, nations that adopt this approach do not succeed. Deficit spending did not work for Hoover and Roosevelt is the 1930s. It did not work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked for Bush or Obama.

The Keynesians invariably respond by arguing that these failures simply show that politicians didn’t spend enough money. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified, but some Keynesians even say that a war would be the best way of boosting economic growth. Here’s a blurb from a story in National Journal.

America’s economic outlook is so grim, and political solutions are so utterly absent, that only another large-scale war might be enough to lift the nation out of chronic high unemployment and slow growth, two prominent economists, a conservative and a liberal, said today. Nobelist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, and Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, the former chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, achieved an unnerving degree of consensus about the future during an economic forum in Washington. …Krugman and Feldstein, though often on opposite sides of the political fence on fiscal and tax policy, both appeared to share the view that political paralysis in Washington has rendered the necessary fiscal and monetary stimulus out of the question. Only a high-impact “exogenous” shock like a major war – something similar to what Krugman called the “coordinated fiscal expansion known as World War II” – would be enough to break the cycle. …Both reiterated their previously argued views that the Obama administration’s stimulus was far too small to fill the output gap.

Two additional comments. First, if Martin Feldstein’s views on this issue represent what it means to be a conservative, then I’m especially glad I’m a libertarian. Second, Alan Reynolds has a good piece eviscerating Keynesianism, including a section dealing with Krugman’s World-War-II-was-good-for-the-economy assertion.

My Overdue Response to Jesse Larner

Back in August of 2007, I issued a challenge to Jesse Larner, who blogs at HuffingtonPost.  One week later, Larner took up my challenge in a post that I’ve just finished reading.

Larner very graciously admitted to a couple of misstatements, and I must reciprocate.  I wrote, “I challenge Larner to show where a Cato scholar … describes America’s as a ‘free-enterprise system of health care.‘ “  Sure enough, Larner found an oped where one of my colleagues wrote, “I live in a country with a free-market health-care system.”  Obviously, I disagree with that claim.  But Larner was right, and I will have to look into this.

A few remaining areas of disagreement:

  • I wrote that Larner “claims that people don’t die on waiting lists in Canada’s health care system.”  Larner responds: “Actually, that’s not what I claimed. I claimed that people don’t often die on waiting lists.”  Canada’s Supreme Court writes that “in some serious cases, patients die as a result of waiting lists for public health care.”  Is some as many as often?  I hope not.
  • Larner: “the Canadian system has problems … [but] it worked better before a series of conservative provincial governments began to de-fund it.”  This isn’t the first time that advocates of socialized medicine have blamed its shortcomings on politicians who (supposedly) oppose socialized medicine.  But it is an inherent feature of such systems that they will inevitably fall into the hands of whatever viable political parties exist in that nation.  As I explained to Paul Krugman, “Unless you have a plan to abolish Republicans, they’re part of your plan.”
  • Larner writes: “a public health care plan is a public good.”  Public good is an economic term with a specific meaning.  A public health care plan is not a public good.
  • Larner: “is Cannon saying that we do not have rationing in the US?”  Hardly.
  • Larner: “In a free-market system, what mechanisms would prevent insurers from cherry-picking their customers, and denying coverage to those who are likely to require expensive treatment?”  The question presumes that insurance should do something that insurance cannot do: insure the uninsurable.  In this chapter of the Cato Handbook on Policy, I explain the (amazing) things that health insurance can accomplish, and why “health insurance markets are completely justified in not covering preexisting conditions.”
  • “So here’s my challenge to Cannon: show me a way that a true free-market system can provide decent coverage to everyone, regardless of ability to pay, without rationing.”  Elsewhere in his post, Larner acknowledges this is an impossible task.  In this magazine article, I explain that there is no way to reform health care that can guarantee that no patients will fall through the cracks.  In this Cato paper, I explain how a free market would minimize the number of people who do.
  • “Cannon is not in favor of universal coverage as a social right.” True, that.  “As a libertarian, he doesn’t even recognize the concept of social rights.”  I believe it was Friedrich Hayek who said there’s no better way to strip a word of its meaning than to place the word “social” in front of it.  Try it yourself .  I suggest using words like security, contract, justice, responsibility…