Is Economic Conservatism A Straw Man?

by Jonathan Chait | February 22, 2010

The conservative movement has a lot of beliefs that are at odds with consensus positions within economics, social sciences in general, and even the physical sciences. Those few conservatives who who don't disagree with the consensus therefore find themselves in an excruciatingly difficult position. I think that dilemma has been on display in the back-and-forth I've had with my friend Reihan Salam.

To review, David Leonhardt's New York Times column made the case that the stimulus worked. Reihan criticized Leonhardt by insisting that nobody believes otherwise:

If Leonhardt intends to knock down a straw-man argument — ARRA has had no impact and the economy would be in the same shape without any fiscal stimulus program — he succeeds. ... I don't thing that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth.

In response, I pointed out that, in fact, the leaders of the Republican Party and the conservative movement all believe that the stimulus has exerted no positive effect on the economy. Indeed, the full revival of pre-Keynsian economic beliefs on the right has been one of the disconcerting developments of the past year. Skepticism that fiscal stimulus can succeed at all has been a constant theme of conservative commentary over the last year, including a the publication where Salam works. Indeed, just since I wrote that post, Brian Reidl of the Heritage Foundation wrote another post at National Review reiterating his belief that fiscal stimulus provides no short-term economic benefit. What's more, such beliefs have had a deep resonance with public opinion. Among other things, it has shaped the current political landscape in which any additional fiscal stimulus of more than token scale is impossible.

Now Reihan reiterates his belief that the Times was refuting what he calls "straw man arguments." I'm surprised that such a smart guy does not understand the definition of a straw man argument. A straw man argument is not simply a ridiculous belief. A straw man is when you set up, in opposition to your own beliefs, a caricatured argument that no serious person advocates. A ridiculous argument that has numerous, influential advocates is not a straw man.

Reihan then proceeds to suggest, without quite saying so directly, that refuting this "straw man" is a partisan exercise:

The beauty of engaging over-the-top, hyperbolic arguments is that it allows you to advance half-baked ideas. Were you to engage serious, nuanced arguments, you might discover that the policies you've been advancing don't meet their stated goals very well. 
Rooting for a professional sports team is a gas. But rooting for a team of professional politicians is, for the pundit class, even more fun — in a sense, you can participate in the fun by maligning your political "enemies."

I don't think it's worth David Leonhardt's time, or mine, to refute myths promoted by obscure cranks. It is worth our time to refute ridiculous beliefs that are widespread, highly influential and advocated by powerful people. I also think it would be extremely useful if those conservatives who understand how ridiculous these ideas are would use their position of influence within the movement to refute these ridiculous ideas rather than deny their existence. I understand the difficulty of Reihan's position and why he has very good reasons not to do so. But we should be clear that it's not David Leonhardt or me that's allowing his writing to be driven by partisan loyalties.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/economic-conservatism-straw-man