June 2011


Learn to think like an economist” gets about 11,000 Google hits. “Learn NOT to think like an economist” gets 5 (now 7), and every single one of them is by me.* This is cutting-edge stuff. Clearly an endowed chair should be established somewhere so that I can teach the science of non-economic thinking.

* “Learning not to think like an economist” just teaches economists to adapt their language in order to convey basic economic concepts to stupid people. 

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 But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security….. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

In political science the distinction between the politics of governance and the politics of consent is universally accepted. In practice two different groups of people do these two jobs for any given team, and the campaign people often have little idea what the candidates and their appointees really plan to do once in office. It’s also taken for given that many of the goals proclaimed during the campaign will be forgotten once the election is won.  If this bothers you, you’re an untrustworthy idiot who just doesn’t get it.

Most of the liberal heavies agree that direct democracy is a bad thing and that public opinion should have essentially no influence on actual policy;  ideally, the electorate should just choose betwen two competing slates of experts.  E. g., Walter Lippmann and Richard Hofstadter; Karl Popper, Daniel Bell, Edward Shils and the other technocrats; Strauss and the neocons; Hayek and the bipartisan neoliberals (per Mirowski: The Road from Mont Pelerin) — who did I leave out? Anti-democracy is liberal dogma*. The whole argument for the Federal Reserve System is that it will shield financial policy from democratic politics. The range of expert opinion on foreign and military policy is confined to different flavors of liberal interventionism.

Being a political insider always involves being able to tell when X really means not-X.  But most people are outsiders, and every once in awhile they find out that insider games that they didn’t know about have ruined their lives. And they tend not to be good sports about this — though their understanding of what just happened can be wildly wrong, and often they blame the wrong people.

So while the exotic conspiracy theories are usually crap, in a democratic society anyone who takes what their political leaders say at face value is a chump and a likely victim. Everyone in the biz knows this. Especially, above all, more than anyone else, the people who ridicule conspiracy theorists know this, because they’re almost always insiders and almost always have a stake in the insider game.

The anti-conspiracy theory message is “Sit down and shut up. You don’t understand, you’ll never understand, trust us!”

As it happens, I’m an admirer of the American Populists, the original conspiracists smeared by Hofstadter et al. As far as I can tell the Populists were mostly right. For almost two decades there really was a deliberately deflationary policy (“sound currency”), and the tariffs really were rigged against them, and the rail monopolies really were cheating them, the milling monopolies really were cheating  them, and the federal, state, and local governments really were  part of the scam.

Now, every once in awhile an insider will slip and let give the game way. In the case of the Populist wheat and cotton farmers,  it is sometimes argued that this exploitation was a good thing, since by squeezing the farmers until they croaked, the US was able to industrialize instead of becoming an agricultural colony of Britain.

But this isn’t a refutation of the conspiracy theory, it’s a justification of the conspiracy. Sometimes denying that something is happening amounts to supporting it. There are contemporary examples of this.

* Conservatives are anti-democratic too, of course, but liberals have tipped their hand so blatantly that conservatives are able to pick up cheap populist votes for almost nothing.

Adapted from a comment I made at Dsquared Digest

“The Value of Conspiracy Theory”. Ed White. American Literary History, Vol. 14, #1, Spring 2002, pp. 1-31