…is from page 14 of Mancur Olson’s 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations:
Although we should not be satisfied with any theory that fails to explain a lot with a little, we need not of course expect any one theory to explain everything, or even the most important thing. Absolutely nothing in all of epistemology suggests that valid explanations should be monocausal.
JMM: It’s typical to hear opponents of this theory or that theory be dismissive of the theory because it fails in some way (“Economics is broken because it failed to predict the 2008 recession!” or “Socialism is broken because it failed to predict Venezuela!” etc). But the world is a complex place. Few things, if any, are monocausal: Did the Red Sox win the World Series because they had the largest payroll? The best players? Luck? A favorable schedule? Some kid in Maryland was watching them? All of these factors played in (well, almost all of them). They’re all part of the cause (and some even in more ways than one).
When evaluating a theory, we always need to remember to evaluate it on its own terms. Does it make sense doing what it is trying to do? Three great examples of this are Adam Smith’s examination of mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations (see Book IV) and Hayek and Mises’ critiques of socialism in the Socialist Calculation Debate.
…comes from pages 86-87 of Bruno Leoni’s 1961 work Freedom and the Law (3rd Edition, emphasis added):
Common citizens were the real actors in this respect [the formation of common law], just as they still are the real actors in the formation of the language and, at least partially, in economic transactions in the countries of the West. The grammarians who epitomize the rules of a language or the statisticians who make records of prices or of quantities of goods exchanged in the market of a country could better be described as simple spectators of what is happening around them than as rulers of their fellow citizens as far as language or the economy is concerned.
JMM: The economist as a scientist is one who observes, records, and explains phenomena. Our models and metrics work best when they are describing these outcomes. To use them to be prescriptive fundamentally changes the nature of the being. For example, to try to manipulate the price system to get higher wages (eg, a minimum wage) causes distortions: less labor is purchased, overall wages may drop, etc. Tariffs, as a means to produce more profit for firms, lead to overall poverty. It’s easy to boost some metric merely by monkeying about with its components. But do not fall into the mistake of thinking that now higher metric is comparable to the metric one observed before. GDP manipulated is not the same as GDP arisen from market transactions even though they superficially look the same.
The good economist, like the good jurist or the good grammarian or the good scientist, observes the world. He does not try to impose his own viewpoints onto the data. He is a discoverer of economic relations (or legal relations or grammatical relations etc), not a creator of one.
Somewhere along the line, this simple fact was lost. Economists are all about “policy recommendations” now. Optimal tariff this and carbon tax that. They have ceased being economists and have become applied mathematicians. Likewise, judges, lawyers, and legislators have ceased trying to discover the law (that the law is) and have moved toward telling us what the law should be. As such, they have ceased being judges, lawyers, and legislators and moved into being commanders of humanity. What they do can no longer be called law; it is a farce wearing the guise of law.
…is from Adam Smith’s 1783 letter to William Eden, Lord Auckland, to which Prof. Smith responded to a question on whether or not England should have preferential and different duties on other nations (page 271-272 of the Liberty Fund’s Correspondence of Adam Smith):
I shall only say at present that every extraordinary encouragement or discouragement that is given to the trade of any country more than to that of another may, I think, be demonstrated to be in every case a complete piece of dupery, by which the interest of the State and the nation is constantly sacraficed to that of some particular class of traders.
JMM: Indeed so. As I wrote before, when there is ambiguity of purpose, when multiple excuses may be given for various government handouts, we must expect that there is going to be abuse and “dupery” and firms and individuals vie for such handouts.
…is from pages 101-102 of Paul Krugman’s 1997 book Pop Internationalism:
There is no question that in many cases comparative advantgae arises from self-reinforcing external economies rather than as a result of underlying national resources. In such cases international competition may exclude a country from an industry in which it could have established a comparative advantage, or drive a country from an industry in which comparative advantage could have been maintained. In these cases, a [sic] intellectually respectible argument can be made for government policies to create or preserve advantage.
The fact that an argument is intellectualy respectible does not mean it is right. Concerns over competitiveness that are valid in principle can be and have been misused or abused in practice. Competitiveness is both a subtler and a more problematic issue than is generally understood.
Absolutely. Some folks like to justify Trump’s economic policies based on obscure or particular economic arguments: optimal tariffs, or increasing terms of trade, or forcing other nations to lower tariffs and subsidies, or national defense. All of these arguments are intellectually respectable (if not consistent with one another). The internal logic of them holds.
But just because something is possible does not mean it is probable. It is possible that a tariff could improve the well-being of a nation (subject to some key caveats). But how probable is it that government could effectively create and enforce such a tariff and not face public choice concerns? How probable is it that there would be no additional costs to the process, or that it won’t get hijacked for self-interested uses?
It’s trivially easy to come up with some theoretical reason why something can happen. Translating that into reality, however, is a totally different beast.
…is from page 22 of Paul Krugman’s 1996 book Pop Internationalism:
So let’s start telling the truth: competitiveness is a meaningless word when applied to national economies. And the obsession with competitiveness is both wrong and dangerous.
Although this sentence was written over 20 years ago, not much has changed. The arguments of Clinton Krugman refutes in this first chapter of his book are identical to ones being put forth now by Trump: concerns about “competitiveness,” bad mathematics, incorrect claims of the trade deficit destroying jobs, etc etc etc. The scarcityist fancies himself a “practical” man, but he deals in false and long-dead ideas.
…comes from page 29 of “Modern Principles of Economics” (4th Edition) by my GMU professors Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen:
The most important tools in economics are supply, demand, and the idea of equilibrium. Even if you understand little else, you may rightfully claim yourself economically literate if you understand these tools. Fail to understand these tools and you will understand little else.
Amen to that.
…is from Chapter 3 of Frederic Bastiat’s final work Economic Harmonies (page 499 of the Mises Institute Edition):
Can we concieve a time when man can no longer form even reasonable desires? Let us not forget that a desire that might be unreasonable in a former state of civilization–at a time when all the human faculties were absorbed in providing for low material wants–ceases to be so when improvement opens to these faculties a more extended field. A desire to travel at the rate of thirty miles per hour would have been unreasonable two centuries ago–it is not so at the present day [or 70mph in Bastiat’s time! -JMM]. To pretend that the wants and desires of man are fixed and stationary quantities, is to mistake the nature of the human soul, to deny facts, and to render civilization inexplicable.
JMM: What we take for granted were once unobtainable wants because we had to focus on growing food. As that food was automated (thus destroying a lot of farmer jobs) and became cheaper and taken for granted, more desires, once unobtainable, became obtainable. Desires like kitchen appliances, faster transportation, recorded music, etc. Then, as more of those desires became taken for granted and cheap (displacing lots of manufacturing jobs), we moved to other desires, like better health, better medicine, more diversions (theatre, movies, sports, TVs, etc).
Shift happens, but it happens because desires are being met, which in turn allows new desires to come about. Human desires are indefinite.