Imagining the button

Via Angus (and do read his snark on TFP), here is Paul Samuelson:

Libertarians are not just bad emotional cripples. They are also bad advice givers.

(Are there "good" emotional cripples?)  Four points should be noted:

1) Paul Samuelson is one of the truly great economists of the 20th century.

2) Hayek did in fact underestimate the robustness of liberty in social welfare states, though it is worth noting that his Constitution of Liberty very much endorses a social safety net and many other policies of the German FDP of that time.

3) This is the same Paul Samuelson who argued, as late as 1989, that the performance of the Soviet economy was a refutation of Hayek’s critique of central planning.

4) When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent.  Because, indeed, that is how one’s brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind.  As you are reading, think "Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!"


I don't know, but it does seem that an awful lot of libertarians have little understanding of human nature.

>> "it does seem that an awful lot of libertarians have little understanding of human nature."

I actually find the opposite to be true in my limited experience.

Very useful advice. Now can you tell me how I can hide the button?

Assuming Samuelson hasn't pushed your buttons excessively, it would be interesting to read how you grapple with the ideas he puts forth instead of (or in addition to) speculating about his psychology.

Are countries like "Switzerland, Britain, the US, the Scandinavian countries, and the Pacific Rim" on the Road to Serfdom?

Or do "citizenries there report high indexes of 'happiness' and enjoy broad freedoms of speech and belief"?

Likewise, is "inequality ... the necessary price to encourage dynamic progress via technological and managerial innovations" or does it breed "dysfunctional shortfalls"?

What's your reading of the evidence?

Wow, Krugman's button must be getting pretty warn down by now.

Point No. 3 refutes point No. 1.

I clicked on the Samuelson link and it's only fair to add that his opinion was based on CIA statistics about Soviet growth that were widely believed. That same passage even quotes a conservative Yale economist to that effect. That said, the emotional cripple remark was certainly uncalled for.

I am aware of Samuelson poking at Hayek over the failure of the social democracies
to have gone on a "road to serfdom" to either command socialism or fascism, but I do
not remember him specifically mentioning Hayek in connection with his discussion of
the "successes" of the Soviet economy. I would suggest you provide an actual quote
on that one, Tyler.

It is certainly true that Samuelson considered the centrally planned command economy
of the USSR to have "delivered the goods" in a basic way, enough military hardware to
defeat Hitler in WW II and no blatant shortages of food or housing or clothing or other
basic necessities by the late 1980s, although he was fully aware of the propensity for
lines to form and quality and variety of goods to be low and the rate of technological
change to be less than spectacular. In that regard, Samuelson was not all that far off
from most observers and pretty much all other introductory textbookd of the day, and
also the CIA.

Regarding the last point, many have hooted over the failure of the CIA to call the
collapse of the Soviet bloc, and there were some folks who did call it, but before
anyone gets too hooty over the CIA, it should be kept in mind that back in the USSR,
the central planners were using CIA numbers to do their own planning, their Hayekian
information problems being so severe that they were counting on those. No wonder they
collapsed, :-).

Oops, that "you're" should be a "your." Kind of undermined my pretense of having any authority on matters of style there. Oh well...

Does the fact that I'd strangle him on sight mean I am or am not an emotional cripple?

I think you'll probably find this place one of the few where you find people making the distinction between quantity versus quality.

Noone else is calling for improved regulation. The reg hawks are all saying "the culture of de-regulation..."

While I would agree Bush was bad, I don't believe Democrats will improve it greatly.

I personally think they can't do quality, because they didn't, so calls for more quantity are really calls for lower quality, couched in opportunistic statist blather, but that doesn't mean I don't make the distinction.

Back to Samuelson, I could use his own logic against him. We have some pretty frickin' large inequality before anyone gets their panties in a knot over it. And, if the economy was still crankin' along, noone would care still.

1) not sure what paul samuelson means by "emotional cripples." he could saying that libertarians lack empathy for others, or maybe that they don't understand human nature. Or possibly both.

2) it's certainly the case that most libertarians are rich people. They are almost never poor. so, like Mr. samuelson, we might question the degree to which libertarianism is a deeply-held ideological commitment, as opposed to a self-justification for the raking in of as much shiny jewelery as possible ("they stole my stuff!!"). does this make libertarians greedy, selfish money hoarders? Of course.

2) on the other hand, are libertarians more greedy and selfish than other people? Or is it the case that most people, in fact, regardless of their professed ideals, are greedy, selfish money hoarders? I'm inclined to agree with the latter point. the poor are socialists because they want more stuff, not because they care about others. libertarians are bad people but not uniquely so.

3) in regards to the charge that libertarians have a warped view of human nature, i think this probably paints too broad a brush on a very diverse and complicated set of philosophies. there's no doubt that, say, Ayn Rand has completely lost her grip on reality. But ayn rand hardly speaks for all libertarians. And it seems unfair to label Tyler Cowen a "emotional cripple." Especially here in the west, most of us hold certain libertarian ideas. We believe in property and freedom of speech and association, that government ought to stay out of our private lives and that the capitalist free market is one of the great achievements of human society. in this sense libertarianism is very vibrant and, indeed, central to our political conversation.

the charge I would bring against the hardcore Ayn Randian-like ideologues is the same one i'd make about the Marxists or the neoconservatives or the techno-utopists: too much paper theory, not enough attachment to the real world. Too many righteous crayon-scrawlings about the Theory of Everything, and not enough pragmatic common sense. We value the free market, but does that mean we should deregulate everything? If Wall Street collapses, should we let it fall without even trying to do anything, because a Great Depression will be good for us? If you think so, then you are an emotional cripple. You don't understand anything but paper.

Andrew: "Does the fact that I'd strangle him on sight mean I am or am not an emotional cripple?"

it means you're a cowardly liar who can make anonymous threats on the internet but would most likely be licking Paul Samuelson's shoes if you ever met him face to face.

oh, that was a joke? consider this post one too...

At the time Samuelson was using the CIA numbers on the Soviets the major criticism of the CIA was from the right wing and the future neo-cons who argued that the CIA was massively underestimating Soviet growth. Remember team B.

Future events proved him wrong, but at the time he made the statements the actual data supported what Samuelson was saying.

As someone who identifies with libertarians more than the other guys I will say this. For some reason it (along with Objectiveism and Austrian Economics) attracts some of the rudeist assholes you will ever meet online or in person. I am not sure which way the causal arrow runs or what the selection mechanism might be but man is it true.

Dude, if I kept in mind the pushing of the button that would negate virtually every post Alex has ever written.


Okay, I consider you a joke. And no, I lick noone's shoes. We libertarians don't believe in that, get it now?

So was Rothbard's button permanently stuck?

Anyway, it seems clear to me what is going on here. Most people use politics as a means of signaling. Being a liberal typically means you like to signal compassion, empathy, etc. Libertarians typically don't signal these things, or at least not as obviously, and so may appear to be emotional cripples.

Of course, the signal often diverges from the reality; e.g. conservatives in America giving more to charity than liberals.

Thanks for the button-pushing image. I now realise that the late writings of Karl Marx are seriously over-loaded with button pressure. I hope the late writings of Paul Samuelson are not going the same way.

Samuelson writes "Think only of Switzerland, Britain, the US, the Scandinavian countries, and the Pacific Rim..." as if this is a refutation of Hayek and Friedman. This is wrong in one of two possible ways - either it reduces Hayek and Friedman to essentially anarcho-capitalists (which they were not), or it ignores the fact that, by most statistical measures, these countries all qualify as amongst the most libertarian countries in the world. Especially Switzerland, which is arguably the world's most libertarian country.

Of course, libertarian tendencies to inaccurately attack "Europe" as examples of the worst types of socialist excesses don't help. But the fact that these nations are relatively well-off is much more an endorsement than a refutation of libertarianism.


Regarding Team B, they were right that the Soviet economy was more of a wreck
than the conventional data (CIA and other sources) was reporting. OTOH, they
were wildly overexaggerating the level and effectiveness of the Soviet military
establishment. So, they were touting simultaneously the oh so scary Soviet military
establishment, so that we needed to ramp the hell out of our defense spending to
counter it, while also declaring (accurately) that the place's economy was about to
go kaput.

Of course it should be kept in mind that it was not actually its economy that went
kaput. That did not happen until there was the political collapse of the system.
If Andrei Gromyko had voted for Victor Grishin over Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 to be
CPSU General Secretary, it is not at all obvious that either the nation or the bloc or
the economy would have collapsed. Of course, an increasingly pathetic stagnation
would have been almost certainly the order of the day under those circumstances, along
with some awfully bloody putdowns by the Soviet military of various uprisings and
movements that would have been necessary to preserve the system.


This was indeed Samuelson's argument, replying to the most fervent (and ignorant) readers
of Hayek's Road to Serfdom. The buzz from that book was that any move towards social support
programs or social democracy would lead to communism or fascism, even though Hayek supported
some limited such programs, including national health insurance. Hayek was very upset at this
characterization of him by Samuelson and wrote to him complaining about it. In the January
issue of the journal I edit, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, there will be
a paper by Andrew Farrant and Edward McPhail going over the full correspondence between Hayek
and Samuelson on this matter. The issue will also contain a paper by Samuelson himself,
giving his side of the matter and what will probably be his final assessment of Hayek, Hayek's
work, and their relationship.

Regarding Tyler's claim that Samuelson used Soviet central planning as late as 1989 to criticize
Hayek's views, I more strongly request that a quote be provided. Very frankly, I do not think
there is one. I fear that this is one of those rare occasions in which Tyler has goofed up, although
I am prepared to accept that he is right if he can prove it. But he needs to prove it or withdraw
the claim.

I dont understand what the hang up is over Samuelson. He spouts off at the mouth with some false religious rhetoric about politicians and social democracy somehow delivering us "better total factor productivity."

I am pretty sure I just saw three of the biggest U.S car manufacturers go before congress yesterday begging for billions of dollars to rescue their inefficient firms. So in light of such evidence, does Samuelson still feel the need to spout off about his social democracy religion and how unfettered-unregulated-red blooded capitalism leads to entrenched unproductive firms?

I mean yesterdays events could not have disproved Samuelson's thesis to any larger of a degree.

I could honestly care less about some tussle between Paul and Hayek. Its largely irrelevant to the topic at hand which is Samuelson's religions can lead to the same inequality that pure capitalism supposedly promotes.

"This is the same Paul Samuelson who argued, as late as 1989..."

Yes, yes--but what month?

Dr. Rosser,

Are you arguing that the quote that Cowen provided (via hyperlink) was not good enough, or was that link put in after your question?

Obviously I am late to the party otherwise I would already know the answer.

And one more thing about Samuelson and the Soviet economy. It took me two minutes to find this quote via Google:

"contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed": "The Soviet economy is proof that ... a socialist command economy can function and even thrive."

Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, Economics, 13th ed. (McGraw Hill, 1989), 837

Who are those skeptics if Hayek is not one? Tyler is completely correct on this one.

"And, again, if there had not been the political collapse,
the economy probably would have survived, if not thrived. It "worked," if not all
that well or efficiently."

Dear Barkley Rosser,

Can I ask again what reference can you give to support such claims?
Of course, one can always lower the standard of what "works" -- if you define "works" by most of the people survived, then the Soviet economy "worked." But if you consider widespread shortages of necessities as sufficient to make an economy non-working, then the Soviet economy did not work.

"And, the more
I think about it, the more I think that he was probably the most influential economist of the entire
20th century. "

That's probably true -- but it doesn't follow that this was a good thing. Too much concern with formalism over substance and all that.

Barkley Rosser,
Thanks for your thoughts on the Nobel prize. You may remember Samuelson's column in Newsweek when he learnt that the first prize was awarded to Frisch and Tinbergen: what an emotional cripple Samuelson turned out to be.

Mainstream neoclassical economics is--there is no other way to put it--garbage, so to the extent that Samuelson stamped his imprint on it and provided the foundation for it, he was digging a sand tunnel that has already collapsed. If you want to learn actual economics, read Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, as well as his Power and Market; ignore the section on money and banking in favor of George Selgin's The Theory of Free Banking.
In 200 years no one except a few historian wonks will read PAS, but Hayek's books on money and the cycle, and the law, as well as his essays such as "The Use of Knowledge in Society" will still matter.

PAS would have been a second rate Scientist; so, not wishing to be a second rater, he became an economist, but alas turned out to be a third rater in that field, and that's generous.

For an excellent analysis of Samuelson and his prediction on the Soviets ability to overtake the US economically see
"The fragility of a discipline when a model has monopoly status" David M. Levy & Sandra J. Peart
The Review of Austrian Economics (2006) 19 p.125-136

Samuelson was very persistent in his less than accurate analysis.

I want to join the (very small!) chorus who point out that #3 completely refutes #1.

Being math-smart or clever and being a good economist are not at all the same.

Hey Fuck you Tyler Cowen

Its big theme was that economic freedom was not just good economics; it was 'a necessary condition for political freedom.'"

To the idiot who wrote this garbage above, you do realize this "link" between capitalism and democracy has turned out to be complete bullshit.

While we are at it, how about a quote from "The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson's Economics"
by Mark Skousen in the Journal of Economic Perspectives?

"Over the years, Samuelson has gradually given more space in his textbook to non-Keynesian schools. By the eighth edition (1970), Milton Friedman was cited a half dozen times. In the ninth edition (1973), he recommended Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom as a 'rigorously logical, careful, often persuasive elucidation of an important point of view'"

"Paul Samuelson is one of the truly great economists of the 20th century."

Ha, ha, and so was Keynes, Alan Greenspan, and Ben Benarke. This is certainly true in the sense that Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Mao, and now Clinton and Bush were great politicians. Doesn't matter that they were right and screwed things up so long as they got to the top.

Many of you economists are just enablers for grand scale theft. Like this bailout.


"I don't know, but it does seem that an awful lot of libertarians have little understanding of human nature."

Yeah, and it seems that a lot of non-libertarians also suffer from the same problem. Like the belief that the government could be put in charge of running the monetary system and the individuals involved would let their greed, fears, and mistaken beliefs allow them to screw it all up.

Seems like it's "pick on the libertarians" season. Why? Because you guys need a scapegoat for the consequences of your ridiculous policy advice. Like the libertarians were ever remotely in charge of anything.

Right now I'd take Libertarian policy over Republican and Democratic policy any day. At least libertarians wouldn't screw up the economy by following bad monetary policy.

"Oh, try Paul Gregory and Robert Stuart, _Russian and Soviet Economic Performance and Structure, 6th edn. 2001, Addison-Wesley, or any earlier edition of that authoritative book."

Thank you for the reference, I probably need to read more on the "outsider" perspective of communist economies.

"However, in terms of what people got after their waiting, there were not broader shortages of necessities. People were indeed reasonably well fed, clothed, housed, and so forth. The material condition of their lives was superior to what it had been some decades earlier"

As someone who lived in a formerly communist country, I must say that this account sounds eerie. I remember a deep shortage of meat products, periods of bread rationing, horribly made clothes -- and things were actually worse at the end of the regime than some decades earlier. One of the alleviating factors was the trips we took to my grandparents country house, where they had a small parcel of land allotted for private use -- and where sacrificing animals (illegally) was a way to compensate for meat shortages.

In industry, there was a deep lack of coordination between different industry branches: constructing a new production facility, when it was relatively obvious to those on the ground, that what was more urgently needed was a facility for depositing already made --and unsold-- products; importing new machinery, when importing some new materials without which the machines could not work, was the more stressing problem. I took those examples from a book written by an "indigenous" critic of the system who was nevertheless sympathetic to socialism. ( _Socialism, Subjectivism – Notes of a †Farmer† Under the Ceauºescu Regime_, by Gheorghe Dragomir))

That's not the picture of a working economy in my opinion.

I did not live in the Soviet Union, so maybe things were different there -- but I know that the "official statistics" were actually better in Romania than in many other communist and non-communist countries, though that may not mean much. I would be curious what kind of sources are used by the authors you mention.


I spent time in various locations in the former Soviet bloc
under the ancien regime, and my wife is from Moscow. Romania
was worse off than the USSR, or at least the Russian part of it,
and it was worse off than some of the satellite states such as
Hungary. I am not surprised that things actually got worse at
the end in Romania. Of course there were always floating
shortages of this or that, on which people would focus, but
there were other things to consume. Even in Romania, people
were not starving, even if they were having trouble getting
meat, although, of course people have been starving in the last
decade in North Korea. There is a place where the economy
does not work, and there was starvation in earlier periods
in the USSR and China.

Part of the problem with the revision of statistics has to
do with the quality issue. The CIA et al were not all that
off on quantities. Back in 1961, in his "we will bury you"
scary speech, Khrushchev forecast that the USSR would surpass
the US in wheat production, steel production, and oil production.
He was right. However, this was a "who cares?" outcome. They
had more, but much of it was crappy, and the real question was
what were they doing with it?

So, the more dramatic comparison is East vs West Germany. Official
data had the GDR nearly up to the FRG in real per capita income as
of the wall falling in late 1989. However, after unification,
suddenly it was discovered that real per capita GDP in the former
GDR was only about a third of what it was in the FRG. It was not
that all those potatoes and loaves of bread and Trabant cars
were not there, it was that they were worth very little when
valued against the much higher quality competition with the western
goods. The symbolic good was the Trabant car, one of the worst
ever made. It was a pathetic joke compared to a VW or a BMW or a
Mercedes. However, the darned things did work, sort of, and there
are still people driving the darned things around in the former
GDR. I saw some when I was there this past summer.

So much fuzz over what a 93 year old man said? $hi7, you should have heard the things my grandma said when she was only 70. I loved her very much but I didn't take her words seriously, she was not in her right mind.

Expect more slanders of this kind. The political atmosphere is ripe for "right-thinking" comments and increasing one's stock with the empty headed liberals.

Barkeley Rosser said:

"However, in terms of what people got after their waiting, there were not broader shortages of necessities. People were indeed reasonably well fed, clothed, housed, and so forth."

This also depends on what you consider a necessity. There was a time when a mud hut, rations that kept most of the family alive (except some infants), a life expectancy of 40, and so on were considered "the necessities."

In the West today we consider to be "poverty" conditions that 50 or 60 years ago were "middle class." You pointed out East and West Germany, there is also North and South Korea, and a lot of other similar comparisons. Each Soviet and East European state had different amounts of market transaction allowed (all more than North Korea, China during the Great Leap Forward, the Soviet Union during collectivization / Stalin, and Vietnam during the early years). The fewer market transactions allowed the more famine and poverty resulted.

Even those relatively "wealthy" communist countries had much worse economies than is at first obvious from aggregated statistics. Their problems were in fact due to planners trying to use aggregate statistics to plan the economy! So, looking to GDP or median income, with purchasing power estimated by any regular technique tells one little.

The point about the opening of East Germany to the West was a great resource for this realization. However, even that does not tell one everything. You'd need to add up the hours spent on line, the lack of products which could have existed, the lack of medical care that could cure disease, and so on and so on. How do you measure loss of freedom? etc.

But, it was clear to see - though it was not captured in aggregates - that it was a failure. Looking to aggregates instead of opening one's eyes is the only way that anyone could think it was working.

This is why any economist that could not see the failure of planning (by 1989!!) could not have been a good economist. Any good economist should know that aggregates would miss the problems suggested by theorists who said it could not work and was not working.

How many had explained it in theory over and over (Barone, Mises, Hayek, etc) and how many had documented the failures in practice (Nove, Rutland, Gregory, Harrison, etc). All one had to do was read Soviet Studies - it was obvious.

Only one who wanted to believe in the system could still believe in it by 1989. That is not good economics. That is pure ideology, without rationality.

I am at a loss to know why this post showed up twice: I only loaded it once. Hopefully, Tyler will be kind enough to delete the second one.



Actually, Paul Samuelson has used language of this sort during his entire career to attack- cutting, pointless, almost inhumane and, of course, unintentionally and unknowingly ironical.

raft at Nov 20, 2008 2:17:03 PM

You are an a++hole! I am as libertarian as anyone you are going to find. My last job was cleaning and stocking produce at Walmart - I AM RICH?? It is the pseudo-libertarian rich sh*ts like Megan McCardle who SUPPORT the Wall Street bailout.


"using markets is not the same thing as unregulated capitalism so beloved by libertarians. Such systems cannot regulate themselves, either micro-economically or macro-economically. Wherever tried they systematically breed intolerable inequalities."

What is he referring to as real-life examples?

The answer will shed a lot of light of his mastery of proper mastery of terms, definitions and understanding what libertarians actually say...all of which I will show his mastery of such terms to be quite poor.

It's discouraging to see a PhD in economics speak in such a sloppy straw man pronouncements. When people like Samuelson are willing to say things in major magazines that are better suited to the gutter Daily Kos, you know integrity is in short supply even among the great thinkers when it comes to scoring ideological points in public.

John V. wrote this shit. You fucking dirtbag, how dare you question the intellectual integrity of Samuelson.

This from a non-partisan investment site

"The second sector I’m looking at is the government †¦ for the simple reason that it’s one of the few sectors that are growing today. Furthermore, it looks as though the trend toward increasing government involvement in our lives may continue, bringing us a system somewhat closer to those in France and Germany. Some people applaud the change, some don’t. I say acknowledge it so you can invest accordingly."

This guy has no reason to lie, in fact he makes clear his intention at objective analysis. I'm sure the French are quite happy with their Frenchness being, after all, quite French. But, is France not a stop or two down the road to serfdom?

Oh, and by the way. Anonymous dipshit above, it is the libertarians, and only the libertarians such as Peter Schiff, Ron Paul, etc. etc. who have warned of this economic downturn fueled by credit. So, consider yourself clued.


Dean Baker, Paul Volcker, Nouriel Roubini, and me, among quite a few others. And Ron Paul's call to go back to the gold standard would be a total disaster.

Just for the record, I also support pursuing nuclear power, but I could also see some high speed rail networks and some other useful public works projects that would improve the future productivity of the US economy.

The wild west was an unregulated market. Evolution is an unregulated market (within the confines of the earth). Men have regulated it by imposing inane rules such as marriage and monogamy.

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