2012-08-14

Polemics Good And Bad (Boudreax Good, Rothbard Bad)

I wrote yesterday that a challenge in the information age is learning to differentiate between good information and bad. Another challenge I think we face is learning to differentiate between a passionate argumentative defense and a mere demonization of the other side.

We are often tempted to say that anyone who takes a side on the issues, rather than simply presenting both sides "dispassionately," is being "biased" in a bad way. I disagree, and would like to flesh that idea out a little bit here.

Rothbard's Unreasonable Polemics
I concede that I have, so far, only made it through the first two hundred pages of Man, Economy, and State, which covers only the preliminary chapters. Nonetheless, I have already identified some major shortcomings of Rothbardian economic analysis.

In the revised version of Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard wastes no time in attacking the rest of economics community for neglecting the old-fashioned economic treatise. Indeed, it is the very first issue he raises, right at the beginning of his Preface to the Revised Edition:
One of the unhappy casualties of World War I, it seems, was the old-fashioned treatise on economic “principles.” Before World War I, the standard method, both of presenting and advancing economic thought, was to write a disquisition setting forth one’s vision of the corpus of economic science. A work of this kind had many virtues wholly missing from the modern world. On the one hand, the intelligent layman, with little or no previous acquaintance with economics, could read it. On the other hand, the author did not limit himself, textbook-fashion, to choppy and oversimplified compilations of currently fashionable doctrine. For better or worse, he carved out of economic theory an architectonic—an edifice. Sometimes the edifice was an original and noble one, sometimes it was faulty; but at least there was an edifice, for beginners to see, for colleagues to adopt or criticize. Hyperrefinements of detail were generally omitted as impediments to viewing economic science as a whole, and they were consigned to the journals. The university student, too, learned his economics from the treatise on its “principles;” it was not assumed that special works were needed with chapter lengths fitting course requirements and devoid of original doctrine. These works, then, were read by students, intelligent laymen, and leading economists, all of whom profited from them.
It seems remarkable, then, that Rothbard makes liberal use of supply and demand schedules and Cartesian diagrams (including stepwise supply and demand functions) throughout the first two chapters of his treatise.

Rothbard is correct that laymen-friendly economic treatises were often published in the pre-war days. Having made my way through a small number of these (The Communist Manifesto, Human Action, Epistemological Problems of Economics, and so on), I am compelled to remark that while Rothbard's use of language is quite a bit more approachable, his treatment of the material is far less laymen-friendly than even Mises' or Hayek's works.

True, a lot of this is personal preference. I am admittedly a more linguistic and aural learner, as opposed to being a visual learner. So I will tend give Mises' use of language higher marks for intelligibility than Rothbard's step-functions.

Still, if Rothbard chooses to polemicize his opponents, he would be more convincing if he himself avoided the same pitfalls he chooses to criticize.

Is There Any Space At All For Polemics In Economics?
If polemics of this kind weaken Rothbard's work, what does that imply about polemics in general? Are they ever called for?

Tyler Cowen certainly doesn't think so. Over at Marginal Revolution, he writes:
A while ago a few people drew a contrast between a more dispassionate style of (blog) analysis and a more explicitly moralizing approach.  I would frame it differently.  Pluralism reigns and there are many different moral values of import.  The moralizing approach tends to leave a writer stuck in emphasizing a single value or a single comparison of values.  The so-called dispassionate approach is more likely to lead the writer to see a broader range of values and moral trade-offs.  The moralizing approach is most of all impoverished when it comes to…morality.
Yet, there is no denying that Ludwig von Mises often engaged in polemics. Marx did, too, as did the entire "German Historical School" of economic thought. Paul Krugman is famous for his polemics, as is his cheerleader Brad DeLong.

If polemics are out of bounds, you wouldn't know it by observing the behavior of the many great economists of today and yesterday. To some extent, it is expected.

I myself would even go so far as to say it is useful. Plato, after all, wrote his philosophical treatises as though he were observing an argument. True, this gives the overall impression that Plato was a mere dispassionate observer, but this is only a superficial point. Socrates is the clear hero of The Republic. The other characters quickly fall into reverent adoration of his expositions throughout the tale. The tale itself unfolds as the story of a pair of passionate arguments.

Human beings are accustomed to processing information this way. Our political and judicial systems are based on the hearing of all sides of an argument - passionate, biased arguments - before an ultimate determination of "the facts." If you know your neighbor is an avowed Republican, you will take what he has to say accordingly. If he suggests that such-and-such talk show host is part of the liberal media conspiracy, you will be able to understand that, as a passionate Republican, he may be seeing evidence for conspiracies that don't exist.

But that doesn't mean your neighbor doesn't have a point. It might just mean that such-and-such really is biased, or at least might be, notwithstanding any broader conspiracy.


So, to a large extent bias is ubiquitous and unavoidable; but it is also not much of an obstacle toward learning. In the case of your neighbor's argument, it is a bias that must be accounted for, just as statisticians account for biases by revising their models accordingly. In the case of Plato, Mises, Marx, and so forth, the bias is a rhetorical tool that can be used to make a point. So polemics in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. They turn a lot of people off at an emotional level, but they need not impede an argument or prevent a robust discussion.

Polemics: Good And Bad
They need not; that does not mean they do not. In many cases, as in the Rothbard case above, polemics are used not to passionately defend one's case, but to omit the other side's argument from consideration.

To wit, Rothbard's preface proclaims that the economic works of his contemporaries are too technical for the average person. The impression left on the susceptible reader is that Rothbard's treatise is aimed specifically at the layman, as if to say, "Don't bother with those other, more technical expositions. Everything you need to know is right here in this easy-to-understand book." So when Rothbard himself engages in technical complexity over the course of a nearly 1,200-page magnum opus, his criticism of other economists is disingenuous. He simply aims to captivate his audience and discourage them from looking at other outside sources.

And judging by the breadth of knowledge held by the average Rothbard fan, the polemics worked. Many self-educated Austrian School economists trained in the Rothbardian tradition know only talking points, canned responses to non-Austrian theories. They do not really know the non-Austrian theories themselves. This is unreasonable.

Polemics become bad when the writer or the reader avoid the arguments made by the other side entirely.

Compare that behavior to, for example, Donald Boudreax's many excellent letters to editors. Boudreax uses his sharp wit to ably turn the tables on many fallacious arguments. Polemic? Of course. Poor reasoning or bad analysis? Absolutely not.

It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Sometimes what polemics enable us to do is attempt to defend our positions with a worthy opponent, and thereby sharpen our own understandings of our own positions. We start to see the holes in our own reasoning, and we endeavor to fill those holes.

One can always go too far, as Rothbard does. One can engage in ad hominem attacks and lazily hand-wave away any legitimate criticism by simply demonizing opponents. But that is an altogether different thing than passionately defending one's own position in an unapologetic way.