Some Arguments Deserve to Be Uncivil

2014.9.25.Krugman.Brainworm.main(Image: MEDI; Albania / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)Noah Smith, a finance professor at Stony Brook University, recently wrote in Bloomberg that one should not be rude about people you disagree with because they might turn out to be right. Indeed; what possible purpose could be served by, say, referring to Austrian economics as a “brain worm”, as Noah did in a Bloomberg column earlier this year?

Actually, I think that Noah was doing the right thing when he brought up brain worms and is off on the wrong track with his civility argument. So let me make the case for brain worms.

First, picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. “Words ought to be a little wild,” wrote the economist John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.” You could say, “I’m dubious about the case for expansionary austerity, which rests on questionable empirical evidence and zzzzzzzz …” Or you could accuse austerians of believing in the “Confidence Fairy.”

Which do you think is more effective at challenging a really bad economic doctrine?

Beyond that, civility is a gesture of respect – and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect. Noah felt (and was) justified in ridiculing the Austrians because they don’t argue in good faith. Faced with the devastating failure of their prediction about inflation, they haven’t conceded that they were wrong or tried to explain why. Instead, they’ve simply denied reality or tried to redefine the meaning of inflation.

And if you look at the uncivil remarks by people like, well, me, you’ll find that they are similarly aimed at people arguing in bad faith. I talk now and then about “zombie” and “cockroach” ideas. Zombies are ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but keep shambling along – for instance, the claim that all of Europe’s troubled debtors were fiscally irresponsible before the crisis.

Cockroaches are ideas that you thought we’d gotten rid of, but keep on coming back, like the claim that Keynes would never have called for fiscal stimulus in the face of current debt levels (Britain in the 1930s had much higher debt to gross domestic product than it does now). What I’m doing is going after bad-faith economics – economics that keeps trotting out claims that have already been discredited.

Nor are zombies and cockroaches the only kinds of bad faith; the worst, as far as I’m concerned, involves refusing to take responsibility for your actual statements. “The failure of high inflation to materialize doesn’t mean that I was wrong, because I only said that there was a risk of inflation.” “When I said that Obamacare spending adds a trillion dollars to the deficit, I wasn’t misleading readers, because I didn’t actually deny that the Affordable Care Act as a whole reduces the deficit.” And of course, people who engage in that kind of bad faith screech loudly about civility when they’re caught.

When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate – say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing – by all means let’s be civil.

But in my experience, demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited their right to the respect they demand.