Way to own goal the team, dude...

>> Thursday, March 06, 2014

I like Digby's Hullabaloo, and I like Digby's brother-in-arms, David Atkins, who posts as "thereisnospoon".  So I have Hullabaloo in my Dashboard feed and regularly pop over to see what they're saying.  Usually good stuff, which is why it's not just disappointing but also kind of awkward and embarrassing and even a little painful when one of them manages to say something numbingly stupid and wrong.

Case in point today: Atkins has a post up today, "Let's play a game: libertarian professor of economics, or crazy man on street corner?", pointing out some stupid and cruel things that have been written by Professor Bryan Caplan, who (spoiler) is evidently not a crazy man on a street corner, but rather is a Professor of Economics at George Mason.  (I make certain assumptions here, clearly: "libertarian professor of economics" and "crazy man on street corner" are obviously not mutually exclusive, and for all I know Professor Caplan moonlights as a crazy man on a street corner, or perhaps even vice-versa.  Indeed, given the beliefs and protestations of many extremist libertarians, one might even suspect Professor Caplan doubles as both Professor and crazy man on street corner every time he comes to intersecting streets.)

Caplan appears to be a fan of the usual anarcho-libertarian pathological fetishes re: forcing strangers to pay for things they don't want.  E.g., in one piece, he writes:

However, the fact that a person deserves his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him low priority when weighing how to allocate help, and (b) a strong moral reason not to force a stranger to help him.

That all government is basically a mechanism to force people to take care of strangers probably hasn't passed Caplan by, but the realization that this is actually necessary for human beings to have things like, you know, civilization, apparently hasn't penetrated.  There may or may not be any particular reasons for me to care whether Professor Caplan's home is burned to the ground by the Unreconstructed Godless Castroites (UGC), but whether or not I care, my taxes pay for a military that keeps the UGC from cruising up the coast to the Chesapeake Bay, navigating the Potomac to the capitol, and committing acts of vicious arson against capitalist running dogs before disappearing into the night.  (Note for the record that sailing up the coast to the Chesapeake and navigating up the Potomac will still leave one many, many hours' drive from my neighborhood.  It may or may not be a free country, but it's certainly a big country.  One where dreams stay with you--oh, never mind.)

Professor Caplan might well retort that as goes the beams and roof of a capitalist running dog, so will go those of a small-barrel-bourbon socialist's (doesn't have the ring of champagne socialist, but I can hardly afford champagne).  But of course the same argument could be applied to helping the poor and sickly, if Caplan cared about rigorous logical consistency more than he cared about his tax bracket: aside from all the moral reasons for which one might want a strong social safety net--reasons I find compelling enough, but that clearly don't impress Professor Caplan very much--it shouldn't be too hard to notice that throughout history the most consistently-found leading cause of bloody revolt, pandemic plague and civil collapse has been economic disparity.  People who have a stake in civil government have no reason to rebel against it.  States that invest in the health of their poor--providing them with housing codes and sanitation, f'r'instance--suffer more rarely from disease outbreaks and weather them better.  Et cetera.  The moral argument is certainly nicer than the rational-self-interest argument for a strong government that has the funding to support and protect its constituents, but that doesn't mean the rational-self-interest argument is absent.

Indeed, although no one likes much to admit it, the rational-self-interest argument has been the more compelling argument over the course of human history.  I don't mean to imply that wealthy big government regulatory types like the Roosevelt cousins weren't insensitive or heartless: people do things for lots of reasons, and I'm sure Teddy and Franklin were motivated to some degree by things like compassion and noblesse oblige and whatnot.  But d'ya really think the rise of a stronger Federal regulatory regime during the first half of the Twentieth Century had everything to do with bleeding hearted suckers waking up one morning full of Christmas cheer and love for mankind and nothing to do with the fact anarchists and labor radicals were throwing bombs at textile mills, shooting up shoe factories, marching in the streets and generally making a nuisance of themselves?  I don't effing think so.  We got serious liberal reforms in the Twentieth Century in large part because the wild west, laissez-faire, business-is-business, anything goes cesspool of late Nineteenth Century America created a situation in which a lot of poor and sick people were justifiably enraged that nobody cared about burning seamstresses and buried miners, and got angry, vocal and violent enough that a lot of very rich men started noticing they had an incipient French Revolution on their hands and rammed through a lot of legislation that not only benefited the poor, but not-at-all-coincidentally placated them, too.

Which brings us to another item on Caplan's list of inanity: he writes, "Like it or not, much-maligned U.S. Gilded Age poverty policies--minimal government assistance combined with near-open borders--were close to ideal."  Ah yes: well, logically, then, we'd still have those policies if they worked, yes?  This being a representative democracy and all, no doubt everybody looked around and said, "Why did some smartass call this the 'Gilded' Age--it's a Golden Age, goddammit!  Respect!" and then they all voted in the same people who were responsible and paid no heed to all the horrible socialists and progressives running around whining about nothing.

Of course, that isn't what happened at all.  Pointing this fact out is hardly a naturalistic fallacy, it's merely an explanation: it's not that things ought to be the way they ended up, it's that they ended up this way because the Gilded Age was a colossal failure as a social experiment and America basically went tits-up, or started to, so people started trying other ways of governing (with varying degrees of success or lack thereof).  The Gilded Age was petty, corrupt, tyrannical, filthy, sick, and ugly, to such a point people felt obligated to try everything from amending the Constitution to zealously shooting a fat man in the gut to fix it, replace it, or obliterate it from history.

Describing the Gilded Age as "much-maligned" carries with it a whiff of imputed slander--an implication that the Gilded Age is wrongly impugned or misunderstood; folks, the Gilded Age is "much-maligned" because it deserves to be.  For crying out loud, it was such a terrible epoch in American affairs, they called it "The Gilded Age".  At the time.  To its face.  In public.  The mere name was a snarky insult.  And the era didn't have the wherewithal to fight back because it had no excuse for itself in the very day, so what kind of schmuck do you have to be to try to make an excuse for it now?

So it's all well and good for David Atkins at Hullabaloo to give Professor Caplan's thoughts wider exposure so we can all point and laugh and call him a tool.  This is all well and good.  This is exactly why we have freedom of speech and a marketplace of ideas and so on.  Which is why it is just utterly appalling that Atkins wraps up his piece with this:

This nutcase is actually teaching impressionable students economics of all things, and getting published in all the big papers.

This is part of why we can't have nice things. A person this morally insane and ignorant of both history and economics shouldn't be anywhere near a classroom or a publishing house.

And then my head hits the desk.  Seriously, Atkins?  You're going there?  You're making the same total tool argument people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh make whenever they get in a twist about the state of academe?

Way to carry the ball into our own end zone, buddy.  Thanks for nothing.

The nicest thing we have, or one of them anyway, is that a person as morally insane and ignorant of history and economics as Professor Caplan can get his ideas into general circulation, whereupon those of us who, say, took a History class in college at some point can say, "Whoooooa--hang on there, pardner," and pick him to pieces.  Thereby reminding others of history and economics and common sense and logic and whatever else they may have learned and forgotten, and/or educating those who managed to sleep through the day some poor harassed TA blew through the Progressive movement or the history of organized labor before 1940.

Nor is it necessarily a bad thing he's teaching "impressionable" college students.  Like everyone else, I had great professors and lousy ones, and sometimes the lousy ones are the ones who made me think the most; sometimes the lousy ones were even the ones I learned the most from, generally in spite of themselves.  Learning, you know, isn't just being able to regurgitate alleged facts during final exams and trivia nights at the local watering hole: learning is also about being able to think, cross-link, critique and challenge.  Getting into classroom arguments with idiots who happened to have advanced degrees despite being idiots was frequently educational.  Of course, there were fellow-students in some classes who complained that students arguing with a professor kept the professor from telling them what would be on the mid-term; but those students, as uninterested in discourse as they might be, weren't even present and aware enough to be called "impressionable", I think--calling them "impressionable" implies they remembered enough of the professor's nonsense to recall it after finals, much less believe in it.

Thoughtful students, whether they publicly call out Professor Caplan on his home turf or not, are perfectly capable of recognizing that Caplan's ideas are out of step with other classes they took, books they read, and everyday experience.  Less-thoughtful students were likely damned to begin with: if his classes are like his blog posts, anyone who walks away "persuaded" most likely walked in already in agreement and hopeless.

If Atkins were to write that Caplan has no business in government, I'd most likely agree.  He has no business drafting legislation, for instance, or overseeing regulations.  But the academy?  The university is exactly where a well-informed idiot belongs.  He can exchange words with other people, who hopefully aren't idiots, and everyone can listen and work out whatever vital truths can be filtered out of the flow back and forth.  Hell, even if his interlocutors are idiots, the university is still the proper forum, giving students the opportunity to listen to a pair of idiots and realize it, and work something out themselves.

For Athena's sake, publish Caplan in the big papers, and put him in front of a classroom, and give him a blog that David Atkins can link to, that I may throw 1,888 pointed darts at Caplan and his ilk, and that my aim be true!









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