You're Not Fooling Anyone: The Futility of Libertarian Euphemisms
By Bryan Caplan
Yesterday GMU had a mini-debate between Dan Klein and Pete Boettke on “Is It Time to Retire the Label ‘Austrian Economics?'” Dan said Yes; Pete said No. Dan’s proposal, roughly, was to (a) expand the set of heroes to include not just Menger, Mises, Hayek, etc., but virtually all libertarian-leaning economists minus Dan’s nemesis George Stigler, and (b) call this tradition “Spontaneous Order Economics” – sponecon for short. Pete, in contrast, (a) emphasized the distinctiveness of the Austrian tradition, and (b) argued that Dan’s new label wasn’t very catchy.
Neither Dan nor Pete directly addressed what I see as the critical question: Do the Austrians have an original and true approach to economics, or not? But the subtext of Dan’s argument is that they don’t; the Austrians are just a part of a great tradition of libertarian economists, and ought to broaden their horizons. As a libertarian critic of Austrian economics, I think that’s great advice. (Of course, if I’m wrong, it’s terrible advice, because Austrians would be selling the One True Way short!)
Dan loses me, however, when he tries to label this great tradition Spontaneous Order Economics. When you look at Dan’s list of sponeconomists, it’s just a bunch of libertarian-leaning economists. Calling them Spontaneous Order Economists isn’t going to fool anyone. Regular economists will either think “That’s a codeword for libertarian,” or “I don’t know what that is, and it isn’t worth my time to find out.”
In his talk, Dan considered a number of alternative labels. “Liberal economics” is hopeless, since hundreds of millions use the word as a synonym for “leftist.” “Classical liberal” is scarcely better – as I told Dan, it sounds like someone who prefers Kennedy to Clinton. Students at the debate suggested a number of other possibilities. But it fell upon me to suggest what I think is the obvious name for the tradition Dan admires: libertarian economics.
The virtues of this name are plain. It’s descriptively accurate, and means something to educated outsiders.
What’s wrong with it?
Too political? One of Dan’s main goals is to get economists to pay more attention to policy; there’s no use hiding the fact.
Too dogmatic? There’s nothing dogmatic about saying “I’ve studied economics, and decided that libertarian policies are usually better.”
Non-libertarians won’t like you? They won’t like you no matter what you call yourself.
You won’t get tenure? Then don’t use a label at all. Calling yourself a “sponeconomist” rather than “libertarian economist” won’t save you.
Bottom line: If you think that the Austrians have an original and true approach to economics, keep calling yourself an Austrian. If you think that the Austrians are just one part of a great tradition of libertarian economists, call yourself a libertarian economist. If you don’t want to alienate non-libertarians, use the label sparingly.