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When Academia Turns into Fight Club – Article by Steven Horwitz

When Academia Turns into Fight Club – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
July 14, 2017

What do academics do for excitement over the summer, you ask? This summer many of us have been engaged in a furious debate over the new book Democracy in Chains by Duke historian Nancy MacLean.

Libertarian and conservative scholars from a variety of disciplines have raised a number of criticisms about MacLean’s sources and her accuracy about historical facts that call into question the “evidence” she has to show that economist James Buchanan and public choice theory, if not libertarianism more generally, are all tools of racist oligarchs like the Koch Brothers.

Rather than rehash all of the particular criticisms, I want to focus on the controversy that has developed over the criticisms themselves. It’s important to understand that the libertarian critics of MacLean have carefully compared passages in her book with her cited sources and showed how she has misread and quoted selectively from them, often leading her to attribute to people the exact opposite of the argument they actually held. These criticisms have been posted publicly on blogs and websites. These are not just vague accusations. They are detailed examples of poor scholarship.

But the fascinating part has been her response. And her lack thereof.

Everyone Is under Attack

MacLean has offered no substantive response to the detailed criticisms. She had one exchange with Russ Roberts over her treatment of Tyler Cowen, but even there she did not respond to the substance of Russ’s concerns. Other than that, nothing.

What she did do, however, was put up a long Facebook post that reads like a combination conspiracy theory tract and call to action for progressive activists. The short version is that she claimed she was under “attack” from a conspiracy of “Koch operatives” who were paid hacks out to destroy her book and her reputation and silence her. She claimed, then retracted when she found out it couldn’t be done, that the Kochs had bought Google results to put the critics at the top of searches. She encouraged her supporters to game the Amazon reviews by posting positive reviews and down-voting the “fake” Koch reviews.

She has continued this narrative of being “under attack” in various interviews, and most recently in a story in Inside Higher Ed, where fellow progressives echo this language.

This notion of being “attacked” is particularly fascinating to me. Let’s be clear what she means: people who know a lot about Buchanan, public choice theory, and libertarianism have taken issue with her scholarship and have patiently and carefully documented the places where she has made errors of fact or interpretation, or mangled and misused source materials and quotes. That is all that they have done.

None of this was coordinated nor was it part of a conspiracy from the Koch brothers. It was scholars doing what scholars do when they are confronted with bad scholarly work, especially when it touches on issues we know well.

None of these critics, and I am among them, have called for physical violence against her. None have contacted her employer. None have called her publisher or Amazon to have the book taken down. Contrary to her claim, the only silence in this whole episode is her own refusal to respond to legitimate scholarly criticism. We don’t want to silence her – we eagerly await her response.

So where is this language of “attack” coming from? Here is where I think the political right bears some responsibility for the current situation. And to the degree libertarians have cast their lot with “the right,” we are seen as guilty by association. Call it blowback if you will.

In the last year or two, progressive intellectuals and academics have been threatened with violence and had their employers contacted, not to mention threats made from politicians, on the basis of public statements they’ve made. Yes, some of those statements were deplorable, but that is no excuse for threatening people’s physical safety or their jobs. These are real attacks, not intellectual criticisms.

We should also not forget the anti-intellectual “Professor Watch List” put up by TurningPoint USA, which gave left-leaning faculty more reason to imagine coordinated and conspiratorial attacks.

And yes, all of this was not done by conservative or libertarian intellectuals, but they were done by activists associated with “the right,” and that is all that progressives need to find the intellectuals guilty by association.

It probably also matters, though less so, that many conservative and libertarian students have referred to themselves as “under attack” in college classrooms. In my 30 years of teaching experience, what they call “under attack” is far more often than not simply having their views strongly challenged and being expected to defend them. In other words, exactly what MacLean is experiencing.

This is not being “attacked.” It is what college classrooms and scholarly conversation are all about.

Unfortunately, the real attacks on left-wing faculty (and yes, there have been ones on right-wing ones too) have provided MacLean’s defenders with a convenient word to use to blur the difference between legitimate, but forceful, scholarly criticism, and threats of violence or silencing.

Always Take the High Road

Conservative critics of higher education should take this to heart. When you whip people into a frenzy over the crazy things that a small number of faculty say on Twitter, or because of legitimate concerns about the treatment of a small number of conservative speakers, the whipped up folks are going to do things you wish they wouldn’t. And that’s going to lead to blowback.

As a libertarian academic who frequently speaks at public events on other campuses, I do have low-level concerns about my safety. And if I were a progressive academic, I’d have similar fears given the way some of them have been treated, especially by politicians. Calling the intellectual criticisms of her book a coordinated conspiracy heads MacLean into Alex Jones territory, but given the current climate, it shouldn’t surprise us that she and her supporters feel “under attack.”

But notice the result: a book that smears libertarian and conservative ideas on the basis of shoddy scholarship gets attention because the author claims she’s under attack when she is called out in careful detail by other scholars. The real attacks on left-leaning faculty enable her to claim victimhood by association while using guilt by association to blame the conservative and libertarian intellectuals who are criticizing her work.

Once we head down the road, whether caused by the left, right, or libertarians, of turning intellectual disagreements into threats of violence, or threats to employment, or anything of that sort, the social losses are huge. Indeed, once both threats to people’s safety and employment and sharp intellectual disagreement become “attacks,” we will lose our ability to recognize the moral and intellectual difference between the two, and our disgust at the threats will weaken. And to the degree that the left largely dominates the intellectual world, conservatives and libertarians will be the biggest losers when academia turns into Fight Club.

So what to do? First, call off the dogs. Conservatives and libertarians need to consistently take the high road, as many of the intellectuals have tried to do in response to MacLean’s book. The hard part is getting right-wing media, both traditional and social media, to do the same. Those of us who care about intellectual standards have to publicly call out our own when they whip up anti-intellectual and anti-higher education frenzies.

Second, implore our left-wing friends of integrity to do the same. The most important thing that can happen to end this arms race is for scholars of integrity on the left to call out people like MacLean, both for their shoddy scholarship and their hyperbolic use of the language of conspiracy and attack. A strongly critical review of her book by a historian or economist of the center or left would go a long way to addressing the specific concerns it raises and could set a necessary example for others.

In the meantime, those of us critical of MacLean will continue to document her errors and press publicly for a response. And we’ll do so with the most proper of scholarly etiquette. I implore those sympathetic to our cause to be on their best behavior on social media as well. She and her supporters need no more ammunition.

Steven Horwitz is the Schnatter Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he also is a Fellow at the John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise. He is the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

The Paradox of Public Assistance – Article by David J. Hebert

The Paradox of Public Assistance – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
January 26, 2014

Let’s put ideology aside for a moment. One might not think it’s morally or politically justifiable to take from one person in order to help another. But for now, let’s ask another question: Does it help?

A lot of people see the existence of “poverty amid plenty,” wherein a few people have acquired a lot of wealth while the overwhelming majority struggles to make ends meet. The standard call is to provide some means of transferring those resources from the haves to the have-nots, either through a progressive tax policy or via some direct transfer program.

The problem with these policies is obviously not in their stated goals. Who could argue against the desire to help people? Nor is it, entirely, the coercive nature of redistribution. The real problem comes in the ability of welfare advocates to actually reduce poverty in an effective and long-lasting manner.

World Coyne

In his latest book, Doing Bad by Doing Good, Chris Coyne discusses problems with delivering effective humanitarian aid to other countries. Coyne identifies two potential problems: the planner’s problem and the incentive problem.

Briefly, the planner’s problem refers to the impossibility of people outside of a society actually to possess the information required to assist in fostering continued economic development. The incentive problem refers to the idea that the planners may face perverse incentives to go ahead and do something that the planner’s problem suggests is impossible to start with.

These points are all well and good, and should be well received at least by readers of this publication. But I think we can go further to urge that the problems Coyne identifies apply equally to issues related to domestic intervention.


The people who advocate most strongly for poverty relief programs are not, in fact, people who are poor. Rather, they are people who are typically either politicians seeking reelection or wealthy people who have some overwhelming desire to do something (usually they want to get other people to give them money to do something). They are not poor, but rather they simply do not like seeing poor people suffer and feel some desire to help. However, because they are not poor themselves, they have absolutely no idea what it is that poor people actually want.

Do they want shelter, clothing, and food? Yes. Do they want education, hygiene, and employment? Of course. But in what order, how much, and of what type? In a world of scarcity, the answers to these questions are of crucial importance if we are to find ways to help the most people as quickly and effectively as possible. And yet, the answers to these questions are wholly unknowable to outside observers.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, the incentive problem that the planners face also applies to domestic intervention. Politicians are people who, just like us, are primarily concerned with helping themselves. Given their position, what is in their interest might sometimes in be the interest of the “general public” (providing genuine public goods, the rule of law, etc.) but as James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock rightfully point out in their groundbreaking book, The Calculus of Consent, this is not guaranteed to be true at all times and in all cases. In fact, it may be the case that as a direct result of political involvement, incentives may direct their behavior in ways that enrich concentrated interests and impoverish poor people even more.

The War on Poverty

One answer is that the disparity might be much, much worse without government intervention—that is, the rich would be even richer and the poor would be even poorer. But another possibility is that the war on poverty directly contributes to a burgeoning underclass. How can we adjudicate between these positions?

On the surface, giving people aid seems like a straightforward proposition. We observe people suffering and then send resources to them to alleviate that suffering. On the other hand, as Buchanan pointed out in 1975, we run into problems in which the aid designed to alleviate poverty actually perpetuates it, creating dependency. This dependency, in turn, means that an increasing number of people derive the majority of their income from aid.

Paid to Be Poor

That some of the poor get most of their income from the government is not to argue that welfare recipients are lazy or don’t wish to work. Rather it suggests that the incentives they face may make them reluctant to accept employment opportunities at offered wages. We can think through this proposition logically: Suppose I offer you $240 per week in financial aid while you are between jobs. You would be receiving that money for zero hours of work per week. Being an honest person, you go out and look for work, eventually finding a job that pays you $8 per hour, or $320 per week working full time. Should you take that job?

On the one hand, you would receive more money by taking that job than you would by accepting the aid. However, economics teaches us the value in thinking at the margin. Doing so reveals that you would only receive an additional $120 per week in exchange for your 40 hours of work. In other words, taking into account your opportunity cost, you would really only be earning $3 per hour! While I certainly cannot speak for everyone, I feel reasonably confident in saying that few people in this country value their time at only $3 per hour. Realizing this, it is no puzzle why people receiving aid tend to stay unemployed for so long. The Cato Institute recently published a study offering evidence of the work versus welfare trade-off, which can be found here.

Politics and Perquisites

Now that we understand why domestic aid programs may lead to the perpetuation of poverty among the poor, we’re ready to discuss how they may lead to the enrichment of the already wealthy. When politicians decide to try to do something about an issue, one of the first things that they do is convene special hearings about the issue. Here, they call upon the testimonies of experts to try to figure out (1) what can be done and then (2) how best to do it.

The problem here is that the very people who are best equipped to detail how to solve the problem will typically explain that they themselves (or the people that they represent) are in fact the best to solve the problem and should be awarded the contract to solve the problem. We see this in government all the time. Take, for example, the company that was placed in charge of rebuilding Iraq after the US invasion in 2006: Halliburton, which was formerly run by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Is it any wonder why this company was awarded these contracts? Kwame Kilpatrick, when he was mayor of Detroit, would routinely award offices and several perks to his friends and family members. Don’t forget about the legendary William Tweed, better known as “Boss Tweed.” The point here is not that all politicians are corrupt, but that knowing a politician who is in a position to award perks puts you in good stead to be the recipient of largesse. And, of course, if that’s true, you have very good reasons to create incentives for the politician to steer favors in your direction. It is the nature of politics.

What to Do

Evidencing the failure of domestic aid to help combat poverty, Abigail Hall has an excellent article, forthcoming in the Journal of Private Enterprise, detailing the failure of the Appalachian Regional Commission. This line of research might lead one to the sobering conclusion that there is little that can be done to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

We can take away a couple of things from this type of work:

1) The limits of what can be directly achieved through political means of alleviating poverty; and

2) The idea that the expansion of opportunity ultimately drives economic growth and helps the poor.

Rather than focusing on giving poor people the resources to live well, we should instead focus on removing the barriers that prevent people from discovering ways to be productive. Doing so would not only provide them with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty, but would also provide the basis of dignity.

David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
November 6, 2013

But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation. What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude. —Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

A recent article by Wharton Professor Adam Grant has been popping up here and there, most recently in Psychology Today. Grant suggests that studying economics breeds greed, and he cites several studies to support his claim. The studies conclude economics professors give less money to charity than other professions, economics students are more likely to deceive others for personal gain, and people who study economics have less of a concern for fairness and tend to think that “greed” is okay.

To his credit, Grant does consider the alternative: that maybe economics actually attracts greedy people or that greedy people tend to thrive by studying economics. He dismisses these possibilities by noting that “there is evidence for selection . . . but this doesn’t rule out the possibility that studying economics pushes people further toward the selfish extreme.” He goes on to chide practitioners of the discipline for teaching self-interest in the classroom.

Finally, he concludes with four points that are meant to provide evidence of the social harm in studying economics, which can be summarized in two overarching points:

1) Economics justifies greedy behavior, and

2) Studying economics makes people less altruistic.

I want briefly to discuss these two points here.

Economics Justifies Greedy Behavior?

Studying economics, and specifically the role of incentives, teaches us that relying on altruism is a brave assumption that has but limited applicability. For example, among people we know, we can rely on a certain degree of altruism or benevolence. I know, for example, that my family and friends will be there for me not because I pay them to do so, but because they care about me. Similarly, they know I will be there for them. However, I don’t know the same thing about random people I encounter on the street.

And yet in order to enjoy the immense wealth that the division of labor affords us, society demands that we have interactions both with people we know well and people we do not know at all. These two distinct spheres of activity require two distinct forms of cooperation, which one might get from reading Adam Smith’s twin pillars of economics: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

More tidily, perhaps, F. A. Hayek describes this situation in The Fatal Conceit by noting the difference between the macroeconomy and the microeconomy. Macro, in this context, refers to society as a whole, while micro refers to just the people to whom we are close. Hayek says that if we were to apply the same rules of the family unit to the macro, as would be the case if we were to allocate resources altruistically, we would destroy the macro. This is because there would be a complete lack of economic calculation, resources would be misallocated, and plans would fail to be coordinated (see these articles for more on economic calculation).

Hayek also notes that the reverse is true: If we were to apply the rules of the market to the family, we would destroy it as well. We don’t need prices and incomes at the dinner table to allocate the food. Even the most ardent defender of markets would agree that having prices and such as the means of allocating food at the dinner table would be wrong, just like paying your friends to help you move across town would be strange. (Beer and pizza don’t count.)

Instead, students of economics recognize not that greed is good, as the saying goes, but that greed can be transformed into the service of others given the proper institutional setting. That institutional setting, which has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, is one that celebrates the role of property rights, prices, and profits (and losses) and recognizes their role in creating the incentives to properly husband resources, generates the information about the relative scarcities of various goods and transmits this information to consumers and producers in a quick and efficient manner, all of which provides a feedback mechanism to drive continued innovation.

Economics Makes People Less Altruistic?

Grant cites a 2005 article by Neil Gandal et. al. as concluding that “students who planned to study economics rated helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, and responsibility as just as important as students who were studying communications, political science, and sociology,” but that by the third year, economics students rated these values “significantly less important than first-year economics students.”

While the Gandal study does include such conclusions, it also includes much more. For example, economics students attribute less importance to fairness. Evidencing this, Gandal points out that, when questioned about the allocation of radio frequencies to different mobile-phone service providers, students who study economics are more likely to advocate selling the rights to the highest bidder while students of other disciplines are more likely to advocate for allocating the rights to “anybody who meets some minimal eligibility criteria.”

Students of economics do not advocate for property rights because we are greedy; we advocate for property rights because we understand and take seriously potential incentive problems in politics. The notion of minimal eligibility requirements may sound nice, for example, but problems may lie in who gets to draw that line, by what process that line gets drawn, and the incentives faced by the line-drawers. As Madison points out in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Economics students know men are no angels. And as Nobel laureate James Buchanan points out, government officials are human beings, too, with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations—and yes, forms of avarice. Supporting the allocation of resources to the highest bidder sidesteps the issues raised by these potential incentive problems. This means that the choice of how to allocate resources fundamentally comes down to a choice of institutions.

We can have a central authority establish guidelines by which anyone who wants can use the radio frequencies, or we can let the market decide. The former leads to a standard tragedy of the commons problem, whereby the radio frequency gets overused. In the case of cell phones, this means that the frequency would be crowded with multiple conversations simultaneously; imagine trying to shout to your friend across a crowded bar. The latter leads to the frequencies being allocated to the person who is best able to utilize them to serve the general population. So AT&T, for example, gets exclusive rights to a certain bandwidth and then tries to figure out how to best serve its customers. In this case, the customer gets to enjoy a clear phone call without the distraction of several other conversations in their ear simultaneously.

In any case, these are not examples of quelling altruism, but of keeping it in its place.

Less Greed, More Cooperation

Viewed in this light, economics does not so much teach greed but rather the beauty of cooperation. How else could we explain how a woolen coat gets made, how Paris gets fed, or how a pencil gets made? And if allocating, say, radio frequencies based on highest valued use makes people learn to discard fairness, well, how exactly is that a bad thing?

David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.


Editor’s Note by Gennady Stolyarov II: Mr. Hebert’s article is excellent in focusing on the true significance of economics and the need for private property rights. In one important respect, though, my position differs from his when it comes to the allocation of radio frequency to highest bidders such as AT&T and other entities exercising similar coercively granted monopoly and quasi-monopoly powers.

My position, arising out of similar libertarian principles, is that the allocation of radio frequencies to AT&T (and similar local/regional telecommunications monopolies) through the political process would not result in an economically optimal allocation, even if AT&T were the highest bidder. The reason for this is that AT&T’s very bidding ability arises out of (1) its decades-long history as the telephone monopoly in the United States and (2) the protections from competition that it enjoys in certain jurisdictions as a local or regional monopoly provider of certain services wrongly considered “natural monopolies” – such as high-speed cable services. In a pure free-market system, there would likely need to be some sort of allocation process for radio frequencies, so long as the use of radio frequencies by some parties has the physical ability to interfere with the use of the same frequencies by other parties. However, the outcome of such a free-market allocation process would differ considerably from the outcome of a bidding process in today’s status quo, conditioned by decades of deleterious path-dependency arising out of the privileges granted to AT&T and similar local/regional monopolists. Probably, an auction of radio spectrum on a purely free market would result in many smaller firms buying up many smaller ranges of spectrum and competing with one another more vigorously to provide superior customer service than do a handful of large, politically privileged telecommunications companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al.) today. In this path-dependent, partially unfree environment it may be, in some cases, that allocations to lower bidders would result in better uses of resources and improved consumer outcomes, as long as institutional political privilege (e.g., enforced monopolies or historical insulation from competition) of the higher bidders can be incorporated into the bidding process in the form of some reasonable handicap used in considering their bids.

Sunk Costs: There’s No Crying Over Spilled Milk – Article by Steven Horwitz

Sunk Costs: There’s No Crying Over Spilled Milk – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
July 29, 2012

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan is fond of saying, “It takes varied reiterations to force alien concepts on unwilling minds.” That aphorism is surely true. Many basic ideas in economics require repeated attempts at explanation, and a variety of applications, before people fully grasp them and their importance. The one I want to focus on today is the concept of sunk costs and the related sunk-cost fallacy.

Understanding the concept of sunk costs first requires that one understand that, for economists, what matters for decision-making is what we call “action on the margin.” By “the margin” we simply mean the action we will take with respect to the concrete choice before us. When deciding whether a particular choice is worth making, the economic way of thinking tells us to compare the additional benefits that will come from that choice to the additional costs it will entail. This type of thinking then counsels: “Choose the option that delivers the greatest net additional benefits.”

Focusing on the additional benefits and costs that come from that specific action is what economists mean by acting on the margin. To forestall one objection, I will point out that what counts as a benefit or cost is of course subjective to the chooser. You and I could be in the identical situations but appraise the costs and benefits differently, and thereby end up making different choices. Economics says nothing about what should count as a benefit or cost, only that, whatever one chooses to count as benefits and costs, one should focus on the additional, or marginal, benefits and costs of a particular option and go with the one delivering the greatest net marginal benefits.

Irrelevant for Next Decision

An implication of this point is that costs that have already been incurred and that will not change with any of the specific choices now at the margin should be irrelevant to one’s decision. These are what we call sunk costs: The resources cannot be recovered, hence the costs are sunk. Such sunk costs should not matter for one’s next decision; only the costs now at the margin of choice count. No matter what we choose next, we can’t change the fact that we spent those resources in the past.

The idea of the irrelevance of sunk costs is all around us in folk wisdom and other places. For example, good poker players understand the idea when they say, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Sometimes novice players will think, “Well, I’ve already bet five dollars on this hand, so I might as well see it through.” Good poker players know this is bad thinking: What matters is whether your hand is worth making the next bet. That you’ve bet five dollars already is beside the point. Bygones are bygones. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. There’s no crying over spilled milk.

People who understand the sunk-cost fallacy know to beware when they hear people use phrases like, “You should get your money’s worth” or “You should finish what you started.” For example, suppose you pay a hundred dollars for a gym membership and never use it. Someone says to you, “You really should go to the gym and get something for your hundred dollars.” The problem, however, is that the money is gone whether you go to the gym or not. The relevant question is whether on any given day the benefits of exercising are worth the costs of going to the gym (or giving up your next best alternative). That’s action on the margin. The money spent is irrelevant.

Additional Costs Worth It?

The same is true of the argument that we should “finish what we started,” say, in Afghanistan or Iraq. We can’t change the past and undo the deaths and financial costs of those wars. The real question is whether the benefits of continued intervention are worth additional costs, regardless of what happened in the past. Are billions more spent and many more dead Americans and their victims worth it for the supposed additional gains of continuing those wars?

Sunk costs are sunk. Eventually, of course, in facing new decisions, we can rethink the old decision that sunk those costs in the first place (such as, should we renew the gym membership, or should we enter a new war?). But until then, the past is irrelevant because whatever we choose, we can’t change it. What matters for the economic way of thinking is decision-making on the margin: the additional benefits and costs of the options in front of us right now.

Understanding that choice is always on the margin and that sunk costs are sunk can help you make better decisions in your personal life and spot fallacious reasoning by politicians. This is just another illustration that good economics is the key to critical thinking and good citizenship.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.