The Subtle Value-Added of Frederic Bastiat
By Bryan Caplan
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. Are the
pharmaceutical companies right? I think it’s questionable, but I also
don’t think you’ll find the answer in Bastiat.
I completely agree – and I’m confident that Bastiat would as well. The point of Bastiat isn’t to evaluate complex economic policies. The point is to dispel belief in popular but inane arguments that prevent most people from seriously evaluating complex economic policies.
If you suspect I’m reading too much into an old book, carefully read what Bastiat says at the end of Economic Sophisms:
After all, my aim is not to inspire convictions, but to raise doubts.
It is not my expectation that when the reader puts down this book he
will cry out, “I know!” Would to heaven that he might honestly say to
himself, “I don’t know!”
“I don’t know, for I am beginning to fear that there may be something
illusory about the alleged blessings of scarcity.” (Sophism I.)
“I am no longer so enthusiastic about the wonderfully beneficial effects of obstacles.” (Sophism II.)
“Effort without result no longer seems to me so desirable as result without effort.” (Sophism III.)
“Therefore, without considering myself altogether satisfied by his
arguments, which I am not sure whether to regard as well reasoned or as
paradoxical, I shall consult the experts in this science.”
Bastiat’s essential claim: the economic arguments that the public habitually makes are “non-responsive to modern issues.” Indeed, the economic arguments that the public habitually makes have always been “non-responsive to modern issues.”
Bastiat’s primary mission is to take popular but inane economic arguments off the table of democracy. If there are good arguments for the minimum wage, Social Security, or the FDA, they aren’t the arguments that convince the public. Before we can even begin to earnestly consider the case for these policies, though, we must intellectually reboot. We have to thoroughly purge popular but inane arguments from our thinking, then suppress the residual emotions that popular but inane arguments initially inspired in us.
No offense (clearly!), but Matt lives in a Bubble. He’s a policy wonk. He spends a lot of time thinking deeply about complex economic issues. He spends a lot of time talking to other people who do the same. Why should he read Bastiat? To step outside his Bubble and see the ludicrous ideas that rule the world. Outside of Matt’s Bubble, people think about complex economic issues in utterly simplistic ways. They love a long list of arguments that are truly absurd.
Bastiat’s value-added: He elegantly exposes popular arguments’ absurdity, then reminds us that public policies are based on popularity, not truth.
My value-added: Building on Bastiat’s giant shoulders, I point out that most wonks used to be normal people. They initially embraced popular policies for absurd reasons. It is remarkable, then, that wonks continue to largely support the same policies as normal people.
It’s admittedly conceivable that wonks discovered intellectually serious substitutes for almost all of the mock-worthy arguments the public loves. But a more plausible story is that few wonks truly free themselves from their emotional attachment to popular policies. So instead of weighing whether e.g. Social Security is genuinely a good idea, they use their powerful intellects to defend Social Security to the best of their abilities.
As David Henderson points out, there’s nothing “conspiratorial” about my story. Imagine a society where almost everyone believes in God because “Someone had to create the universe.” In his youth, the typical intellectual in this society found this argument convincing. Now that he’s older and wiser, he sees the popular argument’s absurdity: “If someone had to create the universe, didn’t someone have to create God?” Yet these same intellectuals are almost as religious as the rest of the population, and spend their days fine-tuning subtle arguments for God’s existence.
My hypothetical hardly suggests a conspiracy. But the intellectual culture I describe is extremely suspicious nonetheless. Yes, the subtle arguments for the existence of God might be incredibly compelling. But isn’t it more likely that these intellectuals are just rationalizing and mutually reinforcing the religious viewpoint they’ve loved for as long as they can remember?