Tabarrok v. Tabarrok

by Henry Farrell on July 11, 2011

As a quick addendum to John’s post, it’s worth remembering that Alex Tabarrok got “quite upset”: a few years ago, when Dani Rodrik “suggested”: that he and other libertarians were anti-government ideologues who had immunized themselves against countervailing evidence.

bq. Dani Rodrik responds here to my pointed remarks on his argument for industrial policy. Rodrik’s response, however, is along the same lines of his earlier – “I’m sophisticated, you’re simplistic” – post on why economists disagree. In this case, it’s ‘libertarians are ideologues who are immune to evidence.’ Rodrik, however, has painted himself into a corner because he cannot at the same time say that the “systematic empirical evidence” for market imperfections in education, health, social insurance and Keynesian stabilization policy is “sketchy, to say the least” (also “difficult to pin down” and ‘unsystematic’) and also claim that libertarians are ideologues who are immune to evidence. Say rather that libertarian economists are immune to sketchy, unsystematic, difficult to pin down evidence. Rodrik is thus right that he is “not as unconventional as I sometimes think I am. The real revolutionaries here are the libertarians.” The libertarian economists are revolutionaries, however, not because they are immune to evidence but because they respect evidence so much that they are unwilling to accept “conventional wisdom” simply because it is conventional.

I’m trying really, _really_ hard to reconcile the argument that Alex and his mates are not anti-government ideologues, and indeed have far greater respect for evidence than their opponents, with his more recent “claim”: that:

bq. As Bastiat said, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” What Rampell et al. want to do is to make people believe in this great fiction.

It seems to me difficult to maintain the claim that government is necessarily a communal fraud (and that the people who you disagree with are trying to make people believe in this fraud) and at the same time argue that you and other libertarian economists are open-minded individuals happy to go wherever the evidence about politics and markets takes you. But then I’m not a “libertarian economist”:

The Aqueduct?

by John Holbo on July 11, 2011

Alex Tabbarok has written an odd post, whose reasoning, were it sound, would seem to license the following inference. Since, as Bastiat says, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else,” John Cleese’s fatal mistake in this debate is to admit the existence of Roman aqueducts. (That really puts him on an ontological slippery slope to sanitation and education and all manner of entification.)

But seriously. I guess I can see arguing that tax credits aren’t, per se, social programs – but aren’t they social engineering, hmmm yes? (Wouldn’t it follow that they couldn’t be faulted for being the latter, if they can’t be credited with being the former?) But I find it hard to see how 529 plans could, strictly speaking, fail of bare existence. (If you think otherwise, I’ve got a Pentagon you might like to levitate.) Arguing that if something didn’t exist, the private sector could take up the slack is one thing. But arguing that because you could – oh, say, hire a private protection outfit – that therefore the police actually don’t exist … ?

Finally, I have a feeling that Tabarrok would not, if caught in another mood, express a preference for a tax code pockmarked with various and sundry breaks, giveaways and loopholes over one lacking these features, commonly regarded as unlovely by economists. But since Tabarrok’s stated position is now that such things are rightly regarded as precious islands of civil freedom, in a socialist sea of serfdom … oh I give up.