Friday, February 8, 2013

Was Bastiat an economist?

Unlike a lot of free-market economists, I don't worship Bastiat. I like him sure, but he didn't really generate any new economic insights. (Of course, the same could be said of almost all of us.) I don't really consider him an "economist" and frankly neither do most "economists". I just did an EconLit search and came up with a grand total of just 48 citations to Bastiat! It is fair to say he has had no impact on the economics profession. For a nice summary of Bastiat's status, read Braun and Blanco's article in the Independent Review, where they attempt to resuscitate Bastiat as a scholar.

So if I assume the standard view that Bastiat was no economist, why do I like him? The answer is that I do like me a good polemic! And he was one helluva polemicist. And God knows, we need more polemicists in this business.

In one of Jim Buchanan's last works, Why I Too Am Not A Conservative, he laments the lack of "heat" among free-market economists.  In my review of Jim's book I summarized his views:

If you go to almost any economics department in the land, you are likely to find a number of individual economists who would advocate limited government, free trade, private property, rule of law, open markets, etc. There are probably thousands of such economists in the United States alone. Yet few, if any, of these economists will ever take part in any public attempt to advance the classical liberal cause. In one chapter, Buchanan contrasts “those whose advocacy stems from an understanding of the very soul of the ideational entity and those whose advocacy finds its origins primarily in the results of scientific inquiry” (p. 53). The classical liberal enterprise will not carry the day solely on the backs of the latter group. Scientific economists can provide a lot of light on the subjects of free trade and private property, but what is needed for widespread public acceptance is heat not light. Buchanan appears largely at a loss in explaining why some economists like Hayek had both heat and light and what might be done to create more passion (i.e., heat) among economists with classical liberal instincts.

Bastiat had heat! The Candlemaker's Petition is a masterful piece of satire far, far more powerful than Ricardo's absolutely dreadful Principles. (Ricardo has thousands of EconLit citations.)

In my view, staid, boring academic arguments will not arise enough passion in lay people to achieve anything. We need more Bastiats!

For the same reasons, we need more Rands, but that's for another day perhaps.

Questions for Thought:
Who are the modern day Bastiat's?  (Cite your work.)

Is there a conflict between being a "good economist" and an advocate for freedom?

N.B.: My old teachers Rich Vedder and Lowell Gallaway published a really nice article titled, "The Tullock-Bastiat hypothesis and Rawlsian distribution strategies" in Public Choice. This is worth the read for those of you interested in Rawls.

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