Economics, Liberalism

Yes, Brad DeLong, You Are Mistaken (About Hayek)

On this blog, I’ve sometimes defended Hayek against unfair attacks (see here, here and here). And I’ve recently read that Brad DeLong has repeated the falsehood that Hayek understood himself to be arguing that “regulatory intervention was in the long run incompatible with a free society,” in The Road to Serfdom. I don’t usually fool with replies to posts that are so quick and unfair but DeLong repeats a misconception that irks me, so I thought I’d say something quick about it (quick for me, anyway).

DeLong adduces an old quote from the 1956 Preface to RTS that refers to the effects of the 1945-1951 Attlee Government to support his claim:

[S]ix years of socialist government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points: that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people. This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations…. [E]ven a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit…. [T]he change undergone by the character of the British people, not merely under its Labour government but in the course of the much longer period during which it has been enjoying the blessings of a paternalistic welfare state, can hardly be mistaken. These changes are not easily demonstrated but are clearly felt if one lives in the country….

For DeLong, that’s that. Hayek saw himself as arguing that “regulatory intervention” leads to serfdom. So when Ramesh Ponnuru commented that Hayek was largely concerned in RTS to argue that “central planning was incompatible with a free society” and not “‘regulatory intervention’ per se,” DeLong decided to lay the smack down on Ponnuru with this quote.

Those familiar with Hayek will note the smack down fail.

Let’s begin with the obvious. The phrase “regulatory intervention” is capacious. It can refer to small or modest regulatory environments comparable to the economic regulations imposed by the US federal government in 1910, or to more intensive regulatory environments like the US in 1970, or according to Hayek, a very intense regulatory environment like the post-war Labour government in the UK which nationalized numerous industries, including coal, healthcare, civil aviation, railways, cable, wireless and steel. According to Wikipedia, by 1951, the British government owned and operated 20% of the entire British economy.

So if “regulatory intervention” can refer to US regulation in 1910 and UK regulation in 1950, Ponnuru cannot be so easily refuted. Hayek was concerned largely with planning but did not resist regulation as such in RTS, nor did he later interpret himself as such. That should be obvious from the text of RTS which defends all kinds of regulatory practices. Further, Hayek’s work as a whole backs up this view, especially in The Constitution of Liberty where Hayek outlines a regulatory framework for a free society at great length. It would be truly bizarre for Hayek to claim something in the preface about the book that was flatly inconsistent with what he wrote before and after it.

As I’ve argued in the past, Hayek endorsed a robust welfare state, but one where regulations were simple, general, consistent and predictable. What he was most concerned about was the “welfare state of administration” which requires constant, unpredictable state tinkering. Hayek did think certain extensive patterns of regulation would lead down the road to serfdom, but by no means all of them.

  • Alexander Bradford

    Is there any regular reader of the economics blogosphere who doesn’t recognize Brad DeLong as a dishonest and unethical man?

    Who is that person and why is that person so clueless?

    • ThaomasH

      Is there any regular reader of the economics blogosphere who doesn’t recognize this as ad hominem?

      • Russell Nelson

        If you think that hammers are mostly used for hammering, is that an ad haminem argument?

        “ad hominem” is used for a type of argumentation which posits that one’s argument is advanced by criticizing the person you are arguing with. Exactly what argument is Alexander making? I don’t see it. He’s just warning us that Brad DeLong is consistently dishonest and unethical. He doesn’t claim that that will cause him to prevail in this argument, or in any other argument.

        ThaomasH, you need to google for “ad hominem fallacy fallacy”, with the quotes.

        • ThaomasH

          Let’s look again at the comment I was retorting to, “Is there any regular reader of the economics blogosphere who doesn’t recognize Brad DeLong as a dishonest and unethical man?”
          There was no argument made in the comment to show that Prof. DeLong had been dishonest or unethical on occasions x, y, and z, just a personal attack.  I think that fits the definition of “ad hominem” or does that make it sound too intellectual?  Maybe its closer to schoolyard name calling.

          Thomas L Hutcheson

          • Sean II

            See, you’re just willfully misunderstanding Alexander’s purpose in that comment.

            The original post offered an example of Brad DeLong being wrong (and silly) about something. Alex, no doubt satisfied that the orignal post made its point in the particulars of the case, chimed in to note that this was hardly an isolated incident for DeLong.

            He did not set himself the task of refuting DeLong’s argument, because in his estimation that had already been done. Thus he was not even eligible to commit the fallacy of ad hominem.

            @Everyone – this exchange has really been the last, um, straw for me. It seems that anytime anyone mentions a logical fallacy by name in the blogosphere, there is about a 9/10 chance it is being used incorrectly or unjustly. Even on those rare occasions when it is correctly used, it adds very little to the discussion.

            Therefore I call on all of you – join my petition today! Let’s urge our hosts to use their DISQUS settings to automatically ban any comment which contains the terms: strawman, tu quoque, ad hominen, ad populum, etc.

            In the interest of free discussion, only the tags themselves will be banned. Anyone who wants to invoke one of these fallacies may still do so, but he must spell out what he means in long form. He cannot say “ad hominem much?” he must say “I think you are confusing the character of the man with the quality of the argument here”, or some such thing as that.

            I believe the inability to use mental shortcuts and the need to express thoughts in full will go a long way toward curbing the misuse of these concepts.

            Who’s with me?

          • ThaomasH

            Alexander made a claim that DeLong is “a dishonest and unethical man,” which in context is offered as a reason to agree or disagree with DeLong’s argument.  That kind of reason, to attack the person making an  argument and not the argument itself is, in my understanding, the essence of “ad hominem.”  I believe I used the word correctly and did so becasue I assume people reading this thread understand it.  In the future if I see an example of an attack on the person making an argument instead of disputing the argument itself, I’ll try to remember to use that or a similar locution rather than the word “ad homimen.”
            And, as this exchange demonstrates, an attack on the person making an argument instead of disputing the argument itself is unproductive as it distracts from the original argument by introducing a new claim, in this case, about the honesty and ethics of the person making the argument.  We are better off to avoid that kind of attack.  The original post has it right, claiming only that DeLong is “mistaken” and showing why he holds that opinion.  Alex, on the other hand did not offer any reason to suppor his claim, not that DeLong is mistaken, but that he is “a dishonest and unethical man.”

            Thomas L Hutcheson

          • Sean II

            Still not getting it.

            In the original post, Vallier put forward the idea that “Brad DeLong is mistaken as to this particular thing he believes about Hayek.”

            Alexander, in his comment, put forward the separate but still very much on-topic idea that “Brad DeLong is more than just mistaken, and about more than just this. He is dishonest and unethical in the general cae.”

            The second of these CANNOT be an ad hominem, because a general criticism of “the man” is the whole point of the comment. The logical prohibition against ad hominem is not, and should never be mistaken for, a general prohibition on talking about people and their character.

          • ThaomasH

            Taken as a part of the discussion of DeLong’s views, to say he is dishonest and unethical isan attack on the person making an argument instead of disputing the argument itself.
            It is also a thesis having nothing necessarily to do with DeLong’s views on Hayek that could be discussed, but as such it was put forward as bald assertion with no evident support, not the best way to begin a discussion.
            I do not think, in the context, it was unreasonable to take the comment as being offered in the first sense, as oblique support for the thesis that DeLong was incorrect in his stated views on Hayek, although the implication of the “dishonesty” and “unethical” claim would be that DeLong was not “mistaken,” but knowingly misstating Hayek’s views.  On that understanding, the comment isan attack on the person making an argument instead of disputing the argument itself.
            This must be some sort of record at least for this page for hermaneutical disputation; you are commenting on my comment on Alexander’s comment on Vallier’s comment on DeLong’s comment on Ponuru’s comment on Hayek.  Is there a Golden Talmud award we could apply for?  🙂

            Thomas L Hutcheson

          • jacksmind

            Give it up Sean. This is a pretty standard ad hominem.

          • Sean II

            And saying “give it up” instead of responding to the substance of a comment is pretty standard content-free noise.

          • jacksmind

            Oh I wasn’t making an argument, just an opinion claim of raw belief that I don’t need to justify. You know, like, the kind of comment that you are defending ;).

  • ThaomasH

    “Hayek endorsed a robust welfare state, but one where regulations were simple, general, consistent and predictable.”
    In today’s parlance, Republicans would call him a “Communist” and Democrates would call him a “policy wonk.” 🙂

    • Fallon

      Not really. Republicans would invoke Hayek positively for their economic-fascist means to ends. While Democrats would invoke Hayek negatively for their economic-fascist means to ends.

  • j_m_h

    Is DeLong simply confusing “extensive government control” or “paternalistic welfare state” with regulation? Seems silly.

    This discussion seems to also beg the question “Where is the line between Rule of Law and Regulation?” Seems like the old confusion about planning and central planning when people suggested Hayek must be against planning with businesses because that was clearly “central planning” given the command and control nature of most business activities.

    DeLong is just being silly.

    • Kyle Nearhood

      DeLong is engaged in a favorite pursuit, the hunting, vetting and then eradication of a strawman. “You see! Silly Libertarians think that any amount of government regulation will result in the gulag!”

      • Russell Nelson

        I’m allergic to straw.

  • Regis Servant

    I think it is appropriate to distinguish between regulations and
    interferences. According to Hayek, the distinguishing criterion is the
    Rule of Law (equality before general laws).

    For example, a
    government can limit working hours and prohibit the use of certain
    poisonous substances in productive activity (Hayek takes these examples
    in his 3d chapter). These regulations apply to all. They do not create a
    disequilibrium which would drive society towards more state

    On the other hand, interferences do not respect the
    Rule of Law, since they are temporary and localized interventions (for
    example, to favor one segment of industry by government subsidies), that
    produce a desequilibrium in society: people that are harmed by the
    interference (the other, non-subsidised segments of industry in competition with the subsidised segment)
    are induced to influence the government, and this behavior
    disadvantages other people, and so on (public choice analysis). In this
    context, each movement in the economy initiates another movement. There
    is no clear point of equilibrium that would stop the growing of state

    Hayek, chapter 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty : “If you do not mend your principles you will go to the devil.”

    Regis Servant.

    • Sean II

      That distinction sounds good enough, but I don’t believe it holds up.

      Let’s take the example of maximum hours legislation. If you’re the type of person who finds himself wanting to work 5 12-hour shifts per week, it’s probably because you need the money.

      When a regulation comes along and takes that option from you (and a few millions like you), it’s perfectly true that there is no obvious interest group for you to join for the purpose of retaliating. But that doesn’t mean you’re just going to take your lumps, and read some Hayek until you feel all better. On the contrary, your situation is still undesirable; a piece of state intervention has just moved your from the category of “getting by” to the category of “discontented”.

      Once you’ve joined that category, you may find yourself blaming any number of different scapegoats, and supporting any number of different measures. Indeed, your misfortune – deeply and personally felt – may drive to reconsider the entire system in which you live, and in the final result you may even become something truly awful like a socialist or a Rawlsian.

      There is no distinction between a regulation and an interference, and there is no such thing as a neutral regulation.

      I feel safer saying this: “Most economic intervention brings with it a strong tendency to further intervention, at the urging of injured parties who are easily identified and capable of acting self-consciously and collectively. All economic intervention carries some risk of giving rise to further intervention, at the urging of injured parties who may not be capable of acting self-consciously, but who may nevertheless join some collective action once they have become discontented.”

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  • As a side point to emphasize the extent of postwar British regulation, I will note that the “Utility scheme” regulating *furniture designs* continued into the postwar period. A government that deprives citizens of comfy upholstered chairs to save materials (during wartime) and improve taste (postwar) is a government that might spark thoughts of creeping totalitarianism–although, in actuality, the British public finally had had enough and the Utility scheme was abolished in 1952.

    (Since gender issues have lately been popular on this blog, I will note that British women in particular felt oppressed by this design paternalism. See Penny Sparke, “As Long As It’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste.” The plot of Paul Gallico’s 1959 novel “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris,” about a London charwoman who buys a Dior dress, also turns on capital controls of a sort unimaginable today.)

    As for Hayek, he argues in RTS that full-on economic planning is possible “only if the planning authority can effectively shut out all extraneous influences; the result of such planning is therefore inevitably the piling-up of restrictions on the movements of men and goods.” In the postwar period, the opposite happened, as Cold War competition and democratic pressures led to the reduction in restrictions on trade and immigration (and capital movement as well), making economic planning less feasible.

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