Yglesias's Off-Target Critique of Caplan and Bastiat
By David Henderson
In a critique of both Bryan Caplan and Frederic Bastiat, Matt Yglesias badly misses his target.
First, on Caplan, Yglesias writes:
in a second and much worse post, he kind of posits a broad conspiracy theory as the reason.
But Bryan posits no conspiracy theory. For there to be a conspiracy, people have to get together and, you know, conspire. Instead, Bryan posits a motive for people on the left not to love Bastiat. Specifically, Bryan writes:
So what are friends of the modern welfare state to do when confronted with Bastiat? They can’t really argue with him. They know what he says is largely true. Yet if they make a big deal out of Bastiat, they risk destroying popular support for the policies they favor. Sure, they could run a big economic education campaign to explain, “Stop making terrible arguments for great policies. The intellectually serious arguments are as follows… Blah blah blah.” But what’s the point? It’s far easier to trivialize Bastiat – to pretend that everyone (or “everyone who counts”) already knows what Bastiat’s trying to teach. If you only discuss policy with your fellow wonks, this pretense might even convince you.
Do you see any evidence in there that Bryan thinks people on the left are conspiring? I’ve pointed out here and here that many people now use the word “conspiracy” to mean something that has nothing to do with conspiracy. Ironically, in the second of my posts cited above, it is none other than Bryan who misuses the word “conspiracy.”
On Bastiat, Yglesias writes:
The best example of this is probably “The Candlemaker’s Petition” which is a pretty hilarious satire of rent-seeking. And obviously rent-seeking is a real thing, worthy of being satirized. But there are no political controversies for or against pure rent-seeking. The candlemakers’ petition is a devastating satire of pharmaceutical companies’ endless lust for patent rents, unless you happen to think that pharmaceutical patents and the monopoly rents they generate are a crucial engine of R&D funding and life-saving research.
Somehow I don’t see how Yglesias gets from “The Candlemakers’ Petition” to Pharma going after patents. “The Candlemakers’ Petition” is pretty clearly an attack of a particular form of rent-seeking, namely protectionism. Indeed, I first read an excerpt from the petition, not by reading Bastiat, but by reading the chapter on free trade and protectionism in Paul Samuelson’s classic textbook, Economics. (Actually, it was the Samuelson and Scott, the Canadian edition, that I studied at the University of Winnipeg.)
And there certainly is political controversy about pure rent-seeking. Look at all the battles about restrictions on imports, battles in which the proponents make the same arguments that Bastiat satirizes.