Economics, Democracy

On John Quiggin’s Sectarian Social Democratic Ideal

Arts and Letters Daily recently linked to this essay by economist John Quiggin arguing that Keynes’s old ideal of the 15-hour working week is both within our economic grasp and a morally desirable ideal that advanced nations should promote. Quiggin, for those of you who are not aware, is a well-known Keynesian economist and ardent social democrat who has blogged prominently at Crooked Timber for a decade. I’ve been reading him for almost as long. In this post, I’m going to criticize the piece on the grounds that its vision of social life is morally impoverished and sectarian

I.  Quiggin’s Keynesian Halcyon Days

Quiggin’s article begins with a fascinating trip down memory lane. Quiggin became an economist in the early 1970s, “at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility.” At this early stage in Quiggin’s life, he was inspired by Keynes’s famous essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” (PDF). Keynes saw that utopia was a plausible future. He expected and hoped that the work week would continue to shorten. Quiggin hoped so too, until the sad and destructive rise of “market liberalism” (Quiggin’s derisive term for the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years).

Quiggin regales us with the tale of the post-war Keynesian golden age of growth, when “the social democratic welfare state, supported by Keynesian macroeconomic management, had already smoothed many of the sharp edges of economic life.” Economic risk was manageable and the thoughts of the people could turn towards cultural and aesthetic rather than mere economic pursuits. “Anti-materialist” attitudes proliferated.

But market liberalism reversed the shortening of the work week and made people more consumerist. Sadly, unlike in the 1960s, “the values of the market have penetrated ever further into every aspect of our lives.” During the period leading up to the Great Recession “avarice and usury … [were] worshipped on an unimaginable scale.”

The economic turmoil of the 70s brought the utopianism of the 1960s to a halt and led to a resurgence of “neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus” the evil “market liberalism” which has as its central theoretical tenet “the efficient markets hypothesis.” The core “ideology” of market liberalism combined the efficient market hypothesis with the idea that “the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer” and that all would benefit via the notorious “trickle-down.”

This view of the world leads us away from Keynes’s dream because market liberals believe that the “mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets … are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us.” Market liberalism thus makes us more money-driven despite the fact that it consists in dead or “undead” ideas (as Quiggin argues in his recent book, Zombie Economics). Because market liberalism is so perverse, it needs not merely economic but moral critique.

Keynes thought the post-scarcity age would come too soon. Instead, we need to add another 60 years to get a sufficient increase of wealth to where no one in the world needs work a long week or needs to suffer from great financial risk. Further, we need some new inventions to help us reduce the amount of housework we need to do.

There is a work inequality that present developed English-speaking nations face, where the rich work long hours and the poor cannot find as much work as they would like. Work should be more evenly distributed, so the poor have better incomes and the rich have more leisure time. But we can only reach this equality if we can substantially reduce the “centrality of market work to the achievement of a good life” and with a “substantial reduction in the total hours of work.”

II. Quiggin’s Social Democratic Vision

How do we achieve Quiggin’s preferred social arrangement? First, we go “back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism.” The social democratic agenda includes a “guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave and expanded provision of health, education and other social services.” If we implement this program, we can produce a society where “even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services.” With such social priorities, societies could allocate investment “according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit” which would thankfully “reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector.”

In the post-scarcity society, everyone will be insulated fully from dangerous economic risk, even those who choose to do nothing but surf all day so long (as they are prepared to perform a small number of public services. People would be free to contribute “according to their abilities” and receive enough from society to meet their basic needs).

More importantly, Quiggin ends his piece asking whether we would want to live in such a society. Or will we always be so corrupt that we must chase “after money to buy more and better things”? He sees some hopeful signs in the more frugal consumer behaviors following the great recession, where conspicuous consumption is less popular and people buy smaller homes and cars.

And in any case, we don’t have a good alternative to Keynesian social democracy, for market liberalism “has failed on its own terms.” During the reign of market liberalism, most households in the developed world experienced less income growth than in the Keynesian golden age.

III. Quiggin’s Vision is Morally Impoverished Sectarianism

More than anyone in the econoblogosphere, other than Paul Krugman, Quiggin has fought the decline of classical Keynesian and social democratic economic and moral ideals. He has poured heart and soul into outlining a way to return to glory and move beyond. But I think his vision for social life in the developed world is deeply morally impoverished even setting aside his (in my view incorrect) economic beliefs. Let me explain.

I think an ideal is objectionably sectarian when it requires the use of coercion against people who have fundamentally distinct but reasonable worldviews and philosophical commitments. Quiggin seems to think that people who spend all of their time working and accumulating wealth suffer from a kind of false consciousness. In reality, their good would be better promoted if they were to work much less and be less concerned with becoming wealthy.

What Quiggin ignores is the possibility that people in liberal democratic societies work hard and seek high incomes because doing so promotes and embodies personal, moral and religious ideals different than those advocated by secular social democrats like Quiggin. Keynes’s vision of a leisurely life makes sense for a British aristocrat. Of course he’d think such a life was best for all. But one important feature of economic life in industrialized democracies is that while some people could work less, they prefer to work more.

There are a great many reasons why. Some people may accumulate wealth because they want to be beloved philanthropists or because they want to provide the very best lives they can for their families. They may accumulate wealth as the side effect of performing a highly valued service that they find intrinsically rewarding. They may work hard simply because they enjoy working more than leisure or because they think that hard work is more morally virtuous than leisure. A certain style of Protestant might hold that hard work and flourishing in one’s vocation is what God will for his life. He blesses the successful and righteous with riches that they can use to support their churches or charitable causes. Other people of faith may get great fulfillment from exercising their God-given talents.

So we can see many people have deeply moral and philosophical reasons for working as long as they do. Arguably with the decline of manufacturing and agriculture and the rise of service jobs and work in the “knowledge economy,” much work in industrial democracies is less onerous and more customizable than in the past. Some people are able to work at a job that they have dreamed of and so they may well pour sixty, seventy or eighty hours a week into it.

The moral advantage of a market liberal society over a social democratic society is that it does not discourage these forms of life. It allows people to pursue their own work in their own way, giving people the freedom to work less for less pay or to work more for more pay. That is one reason it is essential to protect economic liberties, in order to ensure that people have the right to build the life of their choosing.

Quiggin’s vision of a deeply interventionist and redistributive state would deliberately frustrate the aims of those whose worldviews include hard work and great benefits. His preferred set of institutions would blunt and disincentivize such jobs by design and reward those who prefer extended amounts of leisure. That’s why his vision of social life is sectarian and, I think, morally unattractive, because it not only condescends to those who live to work but it would use state power to actively discourage these forms of life and encourage alternative forms of life that many of these people find worthy of moral condemnation.

In the end, Quiggin is quite similar to mild Catholic establishmentarians in Latin American countries, and European Catholic nations like Spain and Italy. They wish to have the state promote a certain version of the good life by sponsoring certain moral and spiritual ideals via state policy and power, without banning other religions or points of view. Quiggin’s secular vision is no different, no less authoritarian and no more worthy of power.

I suspect Quiggin thinks that a market liberal society is just as authoritarian and sectarian than Keynesian social democracy, if not moreso. After all, market liberal societies reward the hard working at the expense of the leisurely. But in reality it does no such thing. A market liberal society gives people many options. Just because it pays those who work hard and creatively enormous sums does not mean that others are less free to live a more leisurely life.

Of course, Quiggin can trot out the old hard left claim that in a market liberal society people must work to live and have basic amenities, but we do not need a social democratic state to ameliorate this condition, just a modest basic income (which of course Crooked Timber and BHL have argued about before!).

So with that, I think it is fair to conclude that Quiggin’s Keynesian vision is mistaken.

  • Hume22

    “the 15-hour working week is both within our economic grasp and a morally desirable ideal that advanced nations should promote.”
    One of the most basic Rule of Law principles is those who make the rules ought to be subject to them without exception. Is this 15-hour ideal applicable to professors/academics/economists? Part of our job description is research/writing. This would limit teaching/researching/writing to 15 hours per week. Of course, academics will try to respond with “it is my choice to do the research, not my employment.” I find this a convenient response.

    • I might get behind it if politicians and the IRS also only worked for 15 hours.

  • I find your comments about the coercive aspects of Quiggin’s Keynesianism plausible, but I think that you are only looking at roughly half (or less) of the people. I think most people would love to work long hours at jobs they find interesting, fulfilling, challenging, etc. But most of us don’t have such jobs. We work at our jobs (if we can find them) to pay for our mortgage or rent, to pay for food and health insurance and maybe college. We don’t find our jobs (at fast food places, at grocery stores, at restaurants, at gas stations, garbage collection, cleaning bathrooms) fulfilling, or interesting. It’s mind-numbing.

    The paradox of market liberalism is that it tends to be the case that the same people who find their work inherently rewarding, are also rewarded financially, and those who find their work humiliating and soul-destroying are often not rewarded very well, financially, either.

    I understand the difference is due to talent and/or education and/or connections. Those who have them can find work that is both enjoyable and profitable, and those who don’t can’t find work that is either.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Daryl, thanks for the thoughtful response. I perhaps could have stressed more than I did that only some people prefer to work more. It’s obvious that a great many people would prefer to work less than they do, many more than who would prefer to work more.

      The problem with Quiggin’s essay, as I read it, is that he thinks part of the agenda of a social democratic movement is to promote the preferences of those who prefer to work less over those who prefer to work more via the coercion involved in creating and maintaining an extensive social safety net. That’s what makes the ideal sectarian, as I stressed in the piece. But I think you agree with that point.

      • No need to apologize Kevin. Even people who have bad jobs will gladly work more, do overtime, take a second job if they want the money badly enough. In fact if the average Work week fell to a low enough threshold of hours then I predict that having more than one full time job would be the norm.


      The different outcomes experienced by workers, then, has nothing to do with hard work, perseverance, ambition, character and other things that are within a person’s control? As someone who spent many years actually working in the marketplace outside of academia, I can only say that this was not my experience.

  • Steven Horwitz

    As someone who loves his work very deeply and probably puts in well over 60 hours a week at it, and as someone who works that hard and travels so much so that I can earn the income I think I need to give my children the life my wife and I wish to provide for them, I could not agree more Kevin. This is just warmed over elitism of the Progressive Era sort, where those who know what’s best for us will rise and save us from ourselves (if I may steal that line). Quiggin and those who agree with him are secular theocrats (pardon the apparent oxymoron) who agree with the Right that it’s proper to push their moral vision by coercion, people’s own judgment of what’s best for them and their familes and friends be damned, but just disagree over which totalizing moral vision will get the ring of power.

    • Peter St. Onge

      “that it’s proper to push their moral vision by coercion… but just disagree over which totalizing moral vision will get
      the ring of power.”

      Very nicely put.

  • John Quiggin

    I’ll respond to Kevin at length when i get some free time (yes, I know!), but a quick request that commenters should do the work of actually reading the piece, rather than endorsing the critique sight unseen. I get the feeling that neither Steven Horwitz nor Hume22 has actually read the essay. OTOH, Daryl’s comments are on the mark, and reflect points made in the essay.

    • Sean II

      Wait, so now you do want us to work? Even though the more leisurely approach would surely be to make do with the summary provided here?

    • Kevin Vallier

      John (may I call you John?), I greatly appreciate your interest in my remarks. After reading your blogs and blooks over the last (eight?) years, I’m most curious to know whether you’ll respond in the style of a liberal perfectionist or the more politically liberal way Ryan suggests above.

      Here’s roughly what I have in mind. The first approach would hold that I’m wrong to think a society really can be structured by institutions attractively neutral between a range of conceptions of the good and that you’re *just correct* that the ideals I describe are more morally defective than the forms of life a social democratic society would promote, perhaps because social democracy better promotes autonomy.

      The second approach would hold that a social democratic society really is relatively neutral in the Rawlsian sense because it blocks institutional structures that compel people to work more than they would like.

      I read the essay twice before summarizing it and I (obviously) gave it the perfectionist reading, which seems to me far more natural. But you wrote the essay!

      • John Quiggin

        Kevin, thanks for this. It helps a bit, though we do seem to be having a lot of trouble understanding each other. I’ve replied here

        • Kevin Vallier

          I appreciate the reply, and now I think perhaps I was importing my general sense for the views you endorse into the essay based on claims like the following: “The social democratic welfare state, supported by Keynesian macroeconomic management, had already smoothed many of the sharp edges of economic life.”

          I take this to include the full gamut of policies typical of such views, not merely a minimum income, but national health insurance, strong protections for collective bargaining, sharply redistributive income taxation, extensive demand-side management of the economy which in itself requires a great deal of coercive taxation, and maybe even capital controls and perhaps some nationalization of industry. I know that in the essay you did not spell out these policies, but you are widely known for defending (many of) these policies, so I thought it more than fair to impute them to you.

          With all that said, I think the objection is clear: you advocate a great many forms of state coercion. And my claim is that it is hard to see how such coercion can be justified if the state is not out to promote a more specific set of values than a more politically liberal state would promote, specifically values in tension with consumerism and acquisitiveness, etc.

          That is how I interpreted the tag line and your general question (“Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?”). The implication seems plain: we *should* be prepared to endorse Keynes’s less consumeristic vision. Part of the reason to have a Keynesian social democracy is that people have, one way or another, come to value *the wrong things in life*, namely the economic rat race, keeping up with the Joneses’, etc. And the fact that people have come to value things wrongly (perhaps through no fault of their own) is *part of the justification* of social democratic institutions.

          • John Quiggin

            You’re welcome to criticize my views, but it would have made better sense to do so with reference to, say, Zombie Economics, rather than using this essay as a peg. To take an obvious example, while I support collective bargaining rights under current conditions, it’s not obvious they would matter much if people were free to work as much or little as they liked, and could get a decent income without doing any market work. I took this line in the BHL-CT dispute about GMI, as a matter of fact, though I was in the minority on our side of the fence.

  • Ryan Muldoon

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Kevin. However, I wonder if this is an interesting case where Quiggin is sensitive to one kind of economic coercion and you are sensitive to another kind of economic coercion. You worry that the state is going to tell you that you aren’t allowed to work more than a certain number of hours, and that can block certain forms of life that you deem morally worthwhile. Quiggin is worried that the market forces people to work in jobs that they don’t want to work for longer than they’d like, and this can disrupt forms of life that he deems morally worthwhile.

    What’s notable about this dispute is that both parties are claiming that their posture is more neutral to choice of comprehensive moral doctrine. But, really, each one is going to favor a certain kind of life (and in fact, benefit a certain demographic over others). Quiggin is (plausibly) claiming that market liberalism can create a certain kind of commons dilemma – since the prices of goods are based in part on ability to pay, others working a great deal with drive up prices for me, and thus compel me to work more than I find optimal. Lots of goods are positional goods, and so what you do alters my ability to get them. Quiggin is offering a solution to the commons dilemma, which in part helps to convert positional goods into normal goods. (Or, at least, he can suggest that all that matters with positional goods is the *position* not the absolute value. So we can make moves that preserve position, but limits the absolute value.) This is an attempt to *remove* coercion from people’s decision-making about what life plan they would like to pursue.

    You’re sensitive to people that value hard work in of itself. I can imagine that Quiggin can respond to part of your objection by saying that ‘leisure’ can still be work. Lots of work can be non-economic. For instance, you’re writing on BHL, and I assume you’re not getting paid. I’m certainly not getting paid for my response to your post. But this is not terribly unlike the work that we do for our actual jobs. Likewise, wikipedia is a massive example of millions of person-hours of labor, for which no one really makes any money. When I was growing up, my father would work on the house, or take on small projects. If I ever end up with a house with a yard, I’d like to take up gardening. These all involve work – you can get really into these things, and work to hone your talents – but none involve any particular market transaction or any economic incentives. So while people might engage in a bit *less* of these things in the absence of market incentives, that is their *choice*. The state hasn’t told them to stop perfecting themselves, or using their God-given talents, or otherwise frustrated their comprehensive moral doctrines (unless the moral doctrine focuses on mere wealth accumulation). The state just doesn’t subsidize them at the expense of other people’s pursuit of their preferred comprehensive moral doctrines.

    From the end of your essay, I take it that you just don’t buy that the market can give rise to the coercion that Quiggin is sensitive to. But I think you might want to be a bit more open to the idea that not everyone that works 60 hours a week loves it, and perhaps they feel compelled to do it. Similarly, I think you’re rightly sensitive to the worry that the state can stop people from doing what they love. But perhaps the more productive approach is looking for hybrid approaches that satisfy a Keynesian as well as a libertarian, rather than suppose that the Keynesian story is just morally bankrupt. It could well be that libertarians have some insights that Keynesians don’t always immediately see, and likewise Keynesians are sensitive to some issues that libertarians don’t naturally see.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Ryan, thanks for the thoughtful reply. But I can’t see how to plausibly read the essay as offering a tragedy of the commons argument rather than what is partly a cultural criticism of a market-driven society. If Quiggin wants to make the tragedy of the commons argument, I’m happy to address it.

      Without going into detail (we’ll see where Quiggin wants to take the conversation), I’d be interested to understand who is doing the coercion in the market liberal case. Is the idea that the state’s enforcement of market liberal property rights is the source of coercion? It seems to me what you’re describing is a kind of “proletarian unfreedom” argument developed most recently by analytic Marxists like G. A. Cohen. But supposing you’re right that there is a commons problem, that’s just pointing to an unattractive equilibrium everyone would prefer to get out of but can’t do so unilaterally, rather than a coercively imposed states of affairs.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Also, and I know this is an additional point, it looks like this discussion is going to have to sort out what counts as “real work” and what’s “leisurely work” and what’s just “leisure.” I can imagine drawing the first distinction as a continuum between jobs where you collect little rent (real work) or jobs where you collect a lot of rent (leisurely work). The former job is drudgery (you wouldn’t do it for a whole lot less conversation), whereas the latter job is fun (you’d do it for a whole lot less). I can see problems with drawing the distinction in this way, though.

        • greg byshenk

          One possible distinction could be based on the source of value of the “work” in question. At one end of the continuum is ‘real work’, which is done for purely extrinsic reasons, such as to earn money. At the other end is ‘real leisure’, which is done for purely intrinsic reasons; the activity itself is its own (and only) reward.

          Of course, almost all activities would fall somewhere in between: most ‘leisure’ activities tend to produce something, and most paid work is not pure drudgery.

  • good_in_theory

    While Quiggin dicusses the implementation of work hour maximums, at no point in the essay does he advocate for them or suggest them as a solution. When he talks about a return to a Keynesian social democratic program, limiting the length of the work week or day is not mentioned.

    The whole essay strikes me as chiefly concerned with enabling people to enjoy leisure time, not preventing people from working a lot.

    The ‘coercion’ suggested here is redistribution by taxation and government provision of services which empower (some) people to make choices they might not otherwise have available. The focus seems to be on *entitlements* to leisure, not *restrictions* on working. Work is discouraged as progressive taxation and redistribution exacerbates the declining marginal utility of a pre-tax dollar; it is not restricted.

    Otherwise, the focus is on cultural values and changes in value. Quiggin is talking about a shift in the utopian conceptions of society at large, whereby a tendency towards increased leisure has been replaced by a return to chrematism/conspicuous consumption/avarice and usury/crass materialism.

    What’s being rejected by Kevin (and Steve) strikes me as the notion that (certain, privileged kinds of) industriousness should be decoupled from high remuneration in order to enable other people to make the choice not to work.

    This could be sectarian on Kevin’s view, but not between the binary work/leisure, but between the binary leisure/luxury or leisure/accumulation. This affects the salience of particular motivations to do work. It does not impact the desire to do work *as leisure* (and Quiggin gestures towards making all work more leisurely); it does impact the desire to do work *as wealth accumulation*.

    This all brings to mind a presentation I saw by a Princeton grad on a chapter from her dissertation on leisure. I think I asked about leisure minimums and work maximums. Looks like she’s at Brown now:

    • Kevin Vallier

      I found the following remark rather strange: “Work is discouraged as progressive taxation and redistribution exacerbates the declining marginal utility of a pre-tax dollar; it is not restricted.” I grant that there is a difference between a legal restriction that incurs penalties like jail time or fines and the use of taxation. But surely they’re both coercive, and my concern in the essay was with the justification of coercion generally.

      • good_in_theory

        I suppose my point was that none of the following are demeaned by JQ’s society, and accordingly one should disentangle industriousness from accumulation: “They may accumulate wealth as the side effect of performing a highly valued service that they find intrinsically rewarding. They may work hard simply because they enjoy working more than leisure or because they think that hard work is more morally virtuous than leisure.”

        Only the following are: “Some people may accumulate wealth because they want to be beloved philanthropists or because they want to provide the very best lives they can for their families.” (I’m not sure about the Protestant predestination folks)

        This gets followed up on when ‘working 60-80 hour weeks’ is run together with ‘providing for one’s kids’. The problem is the aggrandizement of one’s private capacity to bestow resources, and the capacity to engage in leisure, upon oneself and others. That’s what, it strikes me, Quiggin is implicitly sectarian about. Giving everyone the option to choose not to engage in work doesn’t do anything to people who like work – other than give them the option to change their mind independent of their success.

        If I’m right, then the thought that we need to distinguish work from leisure, as you’ve since suggested, is off base. Rather, the problem is distinguishing between living well and living acquisitively – the art of happiness and the art of chrematistic.

        • Either way, he is advocating the reduction of people’s choices in the service of an unspecific “good”, which many would find had a dubious desirability in the first place.

          In fact is is almost a laboratory example of the kind of old school over reaching leftism that has been so thoroughly discredited.

          • good_in_theory

            Everyone is implicitly advocating the reduction of people’s choices in the service of unspecific “goods” which many find of dubious desirability in the first place. So?

    • ThaomasH

      There is a prisoner’s dilemma argument for creating a parental leave / longer vacation norm in that everyone might want to take the leave, but be reluctant to do so if their income falls relative to their peers by taking it.

    • Sean II

      The means by which you defend Quiggin also indicts him. His avoidance of certain specifics – the fact that he doesn’t explicitly deal with maximum hours legislation, spread-the-work schemes, etc. as a logical consequence of his vision – is a weakness in his argument, not a strength.

      That weakness in turn draws attention to his central weakness, which is that he acts as if he has no idea why anyone ever developed doubts about Keynesian macro management in the first place. His little narrative makes it seem like Maggie Thatcher simply popped out of a cake and seduced everyone into market liberalism, just when the whole beautiful system was hitting its stride. He mentions what he calls the “economic turmoil” of the 1970s just once, as if it was some meaningless fluke to which policy makers of the time nervously and tragically overreacted.

      Here are some things he doesn’t mention even once: stagflation, the calculation problem, public choice, One Lesson, etc. He wants a return to a previous way of thinking, but he fails utterly to deal with the things which first prompted a turning away from it.

      That he should accuse his opponents of Zombie Economics is either a symptom of psychological projection or a display of world-historical chutzpah. He’s the one using necromancy to retrive a dead vision from its grave.

      • good_in_theory

        I’m not really sure what the point is of bringing up one’s disagreements with the economic interpretation Quiggin uses when Kevin’s criticism, which I was discussing, starts off like this:

        “But I think his [Quiggin’s] vision for social life in the developed world is deeply morally impoverished even setting aside his (in my view incorrect) economic beliefs.”

        I was talking about the content of the moral vision, and whether it entailed work hour maximums and a hostility to “work” per se. I see a hostility to compelled drudgery and conspicuous consumption, and a desire to create an entitlement to leisure and to non-miserable work. This would require taxation, and taxation necessarily entails discouraging acquiring income, if not directly, then by one step removed.

        That may still count as an interesting discussion among dispeptic Libertarians who start sputtering insipid platitudes about Peter and Paul, the seen and the unseen, taxation being theft, and their inviolable liberty at any mention of the word tax, but it’s not really interesting to me.

        • Sean II

          Being accused of dyspepsia by you is a bit like having W.C. Fields tell me to lay off the sauce. I’d have to be pretty far gone…

  • ThaomasH

    Keynes’s vision is interesting in part because it has nothing to do with
    “Keynesianism” as commonly understood as a recommendation that
    government run deficits when there is high unemployment and surpluses at full
    employment (or even as commonly misunderstood that governments should always
    run deficits).

    • Peter St. Onge

      In a sense they are related. Both are based on the idea that the experts should command our lives because we’re too stupid to do it ourselves.

      • ThaomasH

        I don’t see how a recommendation about how governments should manage the budget deficit (deficit when there is unemployment, surplus when there is full employment) is based on “the idea that the experts should command our lives because we’re too stupid to do it ourselves.”  Of course the execution of Congresses decisions about deficits is done by “experts” but the recommendation is no different from any other economic policy recommendation such as free trade is better than protection or that rent controls increase the cost of housing.

        Thomas L Hutcheson

        • Sean II

          Thaomas…the idea that rent control increases the cost of housing is not a recommendation, it’s an observation, or perhaps an a priori claim. Now, that observation may strongly suggest one policy over another, but that is a different matter. The same goes equally for the observation or claim that free trade is better (on net balance) than protectionism. Neither requires putting any special faith in experts. The observations are either valid or not, the claims are either true or not, and that’s that.

          Keynesianism really is different, because it requires placement of faith in experts who will determine, from moment to moment, when and how much to apply the gas of stimulus or the brakes of surplus to an economy. The principle itself does not tell us that, and so an expert is needed to manage the controls.

          Now, to return to your earlier example: if I said “improper rent control causes housing shortages”, that would imply a faith in experts, because I would be suggesting rent control is okay in itself, so long as a the central planner who fine tunes it doesn’t make mistakes. But abolishing rent control altogether does not require a faith in experts.

          Do you see the difference?

          • ThaomasH

            I think you are right in that I did not exactly draw the parallel.  The theory that deficits during periods of high unemployment can reduce the unemployment but that in periods of low unemployment does not is not the same as the policy of what Congress should do in any specific circumstance.  And of course breaks breaks down in that Congress always has to decide on a size for the deficit or surplus whereas a city does not have to decide on how to control rents.  But I don’t see how price theory empowers experts less than Keynesianism or any other macroeconomic theory, of which Keynesianism was but one tendency.

            Thomas L Hutcheson

  • God save us from Utopias.

    • good_in_theory

      Especially Libertarian ones.

      • J D



        Just to be clear, if one follows the work of Nozick (as I do), then there is no such thing as a “libertarian utopia” (see ASU, Part III). Rather, the (minimal) state exists as a “framework” for a potentially infinite number of “utopias” by providing a secure environment in which any person or group can form and live in a community that appeals to them. These would include communities whose rules would have no apeal to libertarians, i.e. socialist or communist ones, as well as religious lifestyles. The state would simply assure that one group does not aggress against others, and that individuals are able to exercise their right of exit.

        I discuss this in more depth here:

        • good_in_theory

          But then any procedural political theory is capable of supporting a potentially infinite number of utopias, though perhaps some infinities are larger than others. Deliberative democracy supports an infinite number of utopias.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Yes, but your prior comment indicated that there was something “especially” troubling about libertarian utopias–which I responded to above. I don’t actually see how your most recent comment is at all respsonsive to mine. I have noticed that you always like to get in the last word, so perhaps it was not intended as a response, but simply the product of this tic.

          • good_in_theory

            Well, my original post was more pithy than substantive, as per what it was responding to. But I think that the substantive visions of society (and many, maybe most, libertarians do have substantive visions, not just procedural commitments) of many Libertarians are odious, in particular *as utopias*.

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