Jonathan Chait

Am I Too Tough on Gary Becker?


My friend and former colleague Reihan Salam has a mostly thoughtful post about my recent piece on conservative crticism of Obama and the economy. He makes several good points, which speak for themselves, but I thought this one merited a response:

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic writes:

Becker, Davis, and Murphy are political conservatives, and they badly want you to believe government intervention is counterproductive. 

My understanding is that while Becker, Davis, and Murphy have a libertarian bent, they are not partisan Republicans. The clause that does work here is "badly want you to believe government is intervention is counterproductive," which begs the question of how one should evaluate the work of, say, Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong, two scholars who are held in similarly high regard. One gathers that while Krugman and DeLong, and by extension Scheiber, are honest brokers, Becker, Davis, and Murphy "badly want you to believe" certain things. Of course, it could be that political views are not exogenous, and that Becker, Davis, and Murphy have developed certain policy biases on the basis of their scholarly work. I'd extend the same courtesy to Krugman or DeLong, though of course plenty of economists would push back. ...

One thing that saddens me is that Kevin Murphy has a reputation as an extremely generous and intellectually honest colleague. In any academic department, you have scholars who devote themselves primarily to enhancing their own reputation. In a lucky few, there are also scholars who serve as "public goods providers," i.e., scholars who dedicate considerable time and effort to improving the work of their graduate students and colleagues that could be spent burnishing their own credentials. Murphy is one of those scholars, and he hardly limits his generosity to people who share his skepticism regarding the competence of central planners — quite the opposite. The idea that Murphy is an anti-Obama propagandist or reflexive partisan Republican seems unusually wrongheaded to me, even by the standards of the blogosphere. I'm curious as to what Austan Goolsbee thinks of Murphy.

If the sentence Reihan cites had stood on its own, then these would be fair quibbles. But it comes at the end of several paragraphs explaining how Becker, Davis, and Murphy accuse Obama of stifling the recovery with almost no evidence to back up the charge. (I won't block quote here, but please see the piece if you want more on this--it's basically the central thrust.) If someone insists that various government interventions are hurting the economy, and then offers no evidence that they are, I don't think it's a stretch to conclude they're making the point because they badly want you to believe it, not because the evidence happened to take them there. I think criticism of Brad DeLong or Paul Krugman would be completely justified if they made a point about the government's beneficial role in the economy but offered no evidence to back it up.

P.S. At no point do I accuse Becker, Davis, and Murphy of being partisan Republicans or reflexive partisans, which I don't think they are. I accuse them of being ideologues. Ideological polemics can sometimes be indistinguishable from partisan polemics, of course, but they're hardly the same thing. I'm willing to believe these three economists could make just as flabby a case against Republican policies, though it's obviously less likely given the party's ideological orientation.

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