Quickly Admitting You're Wrong
By David Henderson
I wrote last weekend about why I find it relatively easy to admit mistakes.
In the week since I’ve remembered one early instance where I admitted a point quickly and surprised the other person and one instance where a famous economist admitted my point quickly and surprised me.
1970 Science Fiction Conference in Santa Barbara
In July 1970, I was on a “libertarian pilgrimage,” as a Canadian friend called it, after graduating from the University of Winnipeg in May. I hitchhiked from Winnipeg out to Vancouver, stopping at various places in between, and then down the coast to San Francisco. In San Francisco, a fellow libertarian I became friends with invited me to drive with her down the coast to a science fiction conference in Santa Barbara. Sci-fi wasn’t my thing, but she told me there would be many libertarians there.
One of the libertarians I found most interesting was Erwin Strauss, aka Filthy Pierre. He was making his case for why anarchism would work and I wasn’t persuaded. I said that a recent piece of evidence was the 1969 Montreal police strike, during which there was a substantial uptick in bank robberies and violence. Filthy, yes, that’s what people called him, said that that wasn’t good evidence because the strike was sudden and the private institutions to replace them couldn’t realistically be expected to develop quickly. I thought about it a second, realized that that made total sense, and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” I remember Filthy’s mouth almost hanging open in shock. I don’t think he was used to people admitting they’re wrong.
1974 First Austrian Economics Conference in South Royalton, Vermont
In one of his talks, Israel Kirzner, probably because he was so upset about Nixon’s price controls that were still in force, made the statement that if price controls were to become permanent, we wouldn’t be able to do economics any more because we wouldn’t have accurate relative prices to guide people’s decisions or our analyses. I thought this seemed exaggerated and immediately thought of a number of counterexamples. One obvious one is that the price controls were pretty clearly affirming our theory about what happens to quantity demanded versus quantity supplied when there is a binding price ceiling in place. But I thought of what seemed at the time to be a more telling counterexample because it involved showing a contradiction in Kirzner’s thinking. So I stood up and said that in making his statement, Kirzner was doing economics and he was doing it in an environment of price controls: he was saying that when the cost of doing good analysis rises, the amount of good analysis falls. I started to go to my second example, sure that Kirzner would disagree or not say anything. Instead, Kirzner said, “You’re right.” I was almost in shock. I thanked him and sat down.