How to Shut Off a Great Debate

Aaron Ross Powell has an excellent, thought-provoking  post over at libertarianism.org on how many of classical liberalism’s opponents tend to argue against libertarian caricatures that have very little to do with the real thing. This talking past one’s target instead of to it hurts both sides. Progressive and conservative thinkers would benefit from testing their ideas against quality opponents. And libertarians/classical liberals are unfairly tarred. Ad hominem attacks are getting in the way of what could be an enlightening intellectual discussion for everyone involved.

Aaron held his fire to one common attack fallacy, that state equals society. But there are more. One of them has been around for at least 80 years, when Hayek made his first public lectures in the 1930s at the London School of Economics. One of those lectures later became the title chapter of volume 3 of his collected works, The Trend of Economic Thinking. His familiar lament appears on pp. 14-15 of that book:

 No serious attempt has ever been made to show that the great liberal economists were any less concerned with the welfare of the poorer classes of society than were their successors. And I do not think that any such attempt could possibly be successful.

Instead, (classical) liberal apathy towards the poor is simply assumed. The argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. The primary concern of many progressives is helping the poor.
  2. Libertarians tend to favor different economic policies than progressives.
  3. Therefore, libertarians do not care about the poor. QED.

This is not a rigorous argument. Steps 1 and 2 are mostly true. But an Olympic-caliber long jumper couldn’t make the leap to step 3. It denies the possibility that the two sides simply prefer different means to similar ends.

This is a shame. There is a wonderful debate just waiting to be had on a number of fronts. Are the poor better served by letting economic processes emerge from the bottom up, or by expertly managing the economy from the top down? Which focus is more important to bettering the lot of the poor, absolute poverty or relative poverty? Is it better to approach the economy as a biologist, seeking merely to understand evolving market processes, or is it better to be an engineer, with an aim to tinker, fix, and improve specific outcomes?

Classical liberals tend to prefer the first answer to each of those questions; progressives tend to favor the second answer to each. But to the extent that the two sides engage each other at all, it tends to be of roughly the same tenor and quality as the “they don’t care about the poor” argument outlined above. An honest debate requires the end of such reflexive ad hominem attacks.

Adam Smith himself, painted by people who haven’t read him as the ultimate atomist individualist, based his whole defense of free markets on his belief that they would bring the masses out of poverty and into prosperity. This was his highest priority. His belief in the deep interconnectedness of people across the world, brought together by our shared natural tendency to truck, barter, and exchange, is also why economics is inherently a social science.

But reading Adam Smith can be a chore, which is why few people bother. Let’s look instead at the raw data, as provided by Jim Gwartney and many others in the annual Economic Freedom of the World report. They find that, in absolute terms, poor people are far less poor in relatively free-market countries than in more controlled economies.

This opens up an entirely new area for honest intellectual debate. Nothing close to a pure free-market economy exists on Earth. So is this free-market prosperity due to the free-market elements that do exist, or is it due to the mixed economy’s more constructivist elements? To my knowledge, this debate has not happened. This is largely because of thought-closing fallacies such as Powell takes on in his post, and the ones I discuss here and elsewhere.

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