Bryan Caplan asks,

Question for you: When was the last time you openly worried about “your side” treating “their side” unjustly?

He gives three ways that one side could unjustly treat the other. The one I think is most relevant to my area of interest — Austrian economics — is the first one, “‘Your side’ intellectually misrepresenting ‘their side.'”

You see a lot of misrepresentation of other “schools of thought” amongst amateur Austrians, although those who really are interested in understanding economics tend to progress, or grow, out of this stage. Unfortunately, a lot of established Austrian economists oftentimes go down the same road. Of course, these are the same economists who have an enormous influence on young Austrians, and probably a major reason why many of these young Austrians close their mind to alternative viewpoints. For the sake of clarity, an “open mind” doesn’t mean you have to accept the other position, but you should at least be able to understand it — a good metric to know whether you really understand something is to test whether you can distinguish between positive and negative aspects of a particular idea.

Here are some red flags (examples of misrepresentation) that come to mind, but the internet is full of them,

  1. Here is an amateur internet Austrian responding to me on what makes someone an “anti-capitalist.” He’s someone I’ve seen commenting on Austrian blogs for years, so he’s been exposed to quite a few ideas. Yet, he compares “Keynesian” and “Monetarist” economic doctrine to the economics of fascist Germany — three concepts that, on their own, are so different from one another that one wonders what exactly this person has in mind. He then goes on to classify J. Bradford DeLong as a socialist, which from an Austrian perspective makes no sense (socialism is the collectivization of the means of production, which is the near opposite of what DeLong advocates);
  2. It’s much worse when professional economists commit the same intellectual infringement. In a recent blog post on free banking, Joseph Salerno categorizes certain ideas as “Keynesian.” Of course, this has no basis in the history of economic thought and is simply an easy way to discredit an idea by attaching a word holding a negative connotation to those within the narrow circle of Austrians that read that blog.

I spend some time on this blog singling these examples out. I don’t do it to attack the Austrian school, or the people who commit the error. While I rather not be associated with any school, if I had to I’d say I’m an Austrian — whether some people think I’ve deviated or not (as if advocating the Selgin/White model of free banking makes me a “Keynesian”). But, I am interested in promoting intellectual integrity, which includes getting those you disagree with right. Unfortunately, many Austrians have a tendency to not take the time to really dissect “opposing” ideas (which, more often than not, are not “opposing” in every sense). Or, they slip when they write popular pieces which don’t necessarily reward intellectual fairness.

Some have argued with me, wondering why they should spend the time to learn theories they consider erroneous. First, if you clearly don’t understand something, how can you know it’s erroneous? Second, you can make the decision to not learn something, but then you have to agree to avoid attacking that idea or comparing yours to it — if you don’t understand it, then you’re in no position to talk about it, especially with a critical attitude. Third, you can argue that you prefer to rely on third party sources, but if the evidence suggests that these third parties are obscuring the details, a red light ought to be flashing pushing you to search for alternatives.

It’s not just Austrians that misrepresent the “other side.” Intellectuals from all quarters do it; the perfect example that comes to mind is the horrendous butchering of Ludwig von Mises by DeLong. But, I don’t care about the economists on the “other side,” because ultimately they only make themselves look bad. I do care about those on “my side,” because I’m interested in bettering our intellectual position relative to others. As such, treating other intellectuals unjustly by misrepresenting their views is something I’m always worried about. It should be something everyone is worried about, but all too often this isn’t the case and it’s a detriment to all.

5 thoughts on “Misrepresentation

  1. Danny Sanchez

    If you’re going to accuse Salerno of misrepresentation, back it up. Explain why the affinities he points out make the characterization unfair. Simply putting “of course” in front of your conclusion doesn’t cut it, especially when you’re using such a conclusion as justification for presuming to lecture him on how to conduct himself so as to be a better member of “your side”.

  2. Blue Aurora

    I’m glad that you strive to do your best in accurately representing your opponent’s argument instead of providing a strawman, Jonathan. However, do I detect a hint that you are becoming disillusioned somewhat with certain people in the Austrian School? Are you reconsidering whether you should call yourself an Austrian or not? Just curious.

    1. JCatalan

      No, I don’t have any strong inclination to reconsider my ideological orientation. But, I do think that strong, unwarranted rejected of “opposing” ideas harms intellectual progress. Not only that, but it’s an endogenous tendency to reinforce the Austrian School’s marginalization from the rest of the profession.

  3. Beefcake the Mighty

    It may well be more accurate to characterize the Selginistas as Walrasians rather than Keynesians, since the essence of their system is the classical dichotomy between “real” and “monetary” economies, but in truth they sufficiently conflate liquidity with purchasing to warrant this latter interpretation.
    But anyway JFC, remind us again: why are we supposed to take your commentary on AE seriously when you haven’t even read MES? As I’ve noted before, you’ve got a reading list as long as my dick, and apart from that fact that you never seem to finish what you intend to start, somehow you’ve missed out on seminal works in your chosen school of thought. Can you clarify please?


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