I don’t often on this blog write from a position of professional expertise. Mainly I’m writing about things I’m not expert in, but am interested in, and am trying to think through. I post these thoughts here not because I have anything to teach anyone but because posting them to the interwebs requires me to form my thoughts with a at least a little more care and precision than they would have if they were rattling around in my brain pan. And maybe they’ll help a handful of people who, like me, are trying to figure a few things out. Which leads me to….
A great many people think they’re interested in politics when they’re only interested in news. I have in recent years grown more and more interested in politics and economics, which is to say, the whole long history of all the ways in which we human beings have tried to live together without killing one another but instead, perhaps, finding some arena of mutual benefit. I think our current obsession with news makes it far harder for us to think about politics, so I have stepped away from the daily grind of “And Now This!” to try to inquire into the principles of political economy, and politics more generally.
I don’t see any of these matters as First Things. For some people they are. For some people the ownership of firearms is not a good that may be weighed against other goods, and in that weighing perhaps found wanting, but a primal indicator of Freedom — not to be negotiated away at any price. For others inequality is not one factor among many in political economy but rather the Original Sin of our common life, and as such must be eradicated no matter how high the price. There is no political or economic consideration that rises to that level, for me. I try, instead, to think empirically about what conduces to our common welfare, and what does not. If I thought that communism did that better than other systems of political economy, I’d be a communist.
The big problem for people like me who want to look at these matters empirically is this: almost everyone who writes with expertise about political economy is a True Believer in something, and that often determines how the stories get told. For instance, Thomas Piketty’s famous book is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but right from the first paragraph of the book he explains that what he’s concerned with is “the distribution of wealth” and more specifically the unjust distribution of wealth. But that is only part of the story of capital and capitalism. As I commented in that post I link to above, Deirdre McCloskey thinks that wealth creation is the fundamental problem of economics and the history of economics. Piketty shows no interest in that. It’s hard for me not to think that Piketty ignores wealth creation because that would disrupt the clean lines of his story, while McCloskey largely dismisses the agitations created by inequality because that would disrupt the clean lines of her story. Though at least McCloskey has responded to Piketty’s argument, in an essay that strikes me as generous and charitable even though severely critical.
But here’s what bugs me: Can you imagine McCloskey saying, “Having read Piketty’s book, I now see that the argument I made in the two thousand pages of my Bourgeois Trilogy is fundamentally flawed, and I need quite thoroughly to reconsider my position”? I can’t. Can you imagine Piketty saying, “Now that I’ve read McCloskey’s trilogy I see that the Euro-neoliberalism that I’ve been committed to my whole career is fundamentally flawed, and I need to learn to embrace the creative powers of the free market”? Me neither. You’re not even going to hear a scholar say, “The evidence cuts both ways, but I think the preponderance of evidence is on my side.” That’s not how academic life works. That’s not how human life works, generally.
So the experts stake out their positions and defend them to the death, leaving the rest of us to try to sort out the evidence. But that sorting is hard work, and not many will willingly take it on, when it’s so much easier to pick a side and stick with it. Evan Davis of the Spectator thinks that maybe 1% of us will be willing to be confused about Piketty v. McCloskey. That estimate might be on the high side.