It will not surprise readers to know that I’d enjoy a good smash of Paul Krugman’s book Conscience of a Liberal but historian David Kennedy’s negative review in the NYtimes is more trash than smash. First, there is a bizarre attempt to argue that Krugman is not an economist because he is not laissez-faire!
And yet maybe Krugman is not really an economist – at least not
according to the definition offered more than a century ago by Francis
Amasa Walker, the first president of the American Economic Association,
who wrote that laissez-faire “was not made the test of economic
orthodoxy, merely. It was used to decide whether a man were an
economist at all.”
Most modern economists continue to celebrate
Walker’s orthodoxy, and behind it, the classical doctrines of Adam
Smith, whose fabled “invisible hand” regularly works wonders of
production, distribution, innovation and efficiency, provided it is
kept free of the meddlesome “nanny state.” Against the constant threat
of encroachment from that benighted quarter the free-market faithful
are ever vigilant.
Admittedly, even though this view is nonsense it’s nonsense that is repeated often enough so that an outsider could be forgiven for drinking the heterodox cool-aid. At this point I was willing to forgive.
Unfortunately, the rest of Kennedy’s review has very little meat. If the best that historian Kennedy can say against Krugman’s "factually shaky" history is that "Kansas, whatever its other crimes and misdemeanors, is not customarily
regarded as the birthplace of Prohibition; the Voting Rights Act passed
in 1965, not 1964." then maybe Krugman is on to something. (For the record, the first point is arguable the second point is a trivial error.)
Worse yet, Kennedy agrees with Krugman when Krugman is wrong. It’s not true, for example, that Americans "have become markedly less [secure] in
recent decades." Nor is it true that "A tidal wave of risk-shifting – from defined-benefit to
defined-contribution retirement plans, and from employer-financed to
individually-paid health care insurance, to cite but two examples – has
set millions of American families anxiously adrift on a sea of
uncertainty." (See e.g. Tyler here and here).
I don’t understand the divisions within the liberal fold which explain Kennedy’s review (he is no right-winger) but I know something is up when Tyler says "The Conscience of a Liberal is um…not that polemic. It’s not that shrill." While liberal Kennedy says "Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore,
Krugman’s shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do
little to persuade the unconvinced or to advance the national
discussion of the important issues it addresses."
My ultimate response to Kennedy’s review? I bought the book.
Addendum: Brad DeLong points out that Kennedy blows the Walker quote as well. Walker, in 1889!, was pointing out that economists were not doctrinaire proponents of laissez-faire.