There is something grimly amusing at reading Matt Yglesias, purveyor of conventional (ie, wrong) thinking on matters economic, getting a bit sniffy about the way in which certain commentators, such as Bryan Caplan, cite the great insights of the 19th Century French thinker, Frederic Bastiat (well known to this blog, of course):
“Bastiat’s alleged broken windows fallacy involves simply assuming that there’s no such thing as genuinely idle resources or an “output gap.” In that context, yes, it’s a vibrant intuitive depiction of crowding out. But this doesn’t counter any Keynesian or monetarist points about the viability of stimulus during a recession induced by nominal shocks, it involves assuming that no such recessions can occur even though they plainly do. In defense of Bastiat, at the time he was writing the modern industrial business cycle was a very new thing and the vast majority of economic ups and downs were caused by things like bad weather which—as you can see in the corn futures market today—is indeed a decisive consideration in an agricultural economy. But that’s no excuse for people sitting around in 2012 to be pounding the table with an old book that’s non-responsive to modern issues professing to be baffled why people don’t find it more persuasive.”
The point is that the issue of “idle resources” or an “output gap” only makes sense if you start from the position of assuming that there is an optimum amount of economic activity to be had, and that supposedly clever central bankers (try not to laugh please) know what this “gap” is and have the skills to fill it. Given the manifest failings of Keynesianism – and arguably also some of the cruder forms of monetarism – it seems those who want to push this approach are under an onus of proof.
Yglesias also writes about one of Bastiat’s most famous satires of businesses, the one where he mocks firms that ask for protection against competition: the “candlemaker’s petition”:
“The best example of this is probably “The Candlemaker’s Petition” which is a pretty hilarious satire of rent-seeking. And obviously rent-seeking is a real thing, worthy of being satirized. But there are no political controversies for or against pure rent-seeking. The candlemakers’ petition is a devastating satire of pharmaceutical companies’ endless lust for patent rents, unless you happen to think that pharmaceutical patents and the monopoly rents they generate are a crucial engine of R&D funding and life-saving research. Are the pharmaceutical companies right? I think it’s questionable, but I also don’t think you’ll find the answer in Bastiat.”
That is quite cute and he has a decent point – not all requests for protection of a business are, ipso facto, wrong, but this does not really work as a smackdown.
The argument for patents (and as we know, classical liberals have sharp disagreements about intellectual property rights, as shown by the likes of Greg Perkins, say, or Tim Sandefur, or this guy), is that they are incentives to capture the commercial use of an idea for a specified period of time on the basis that creating such property rights in commercial inventions increases the likely existence of said in total, which is different from tariffs, where there seems to be clear evidence that such things reduce the overall economic pie. (Critics of IP sometimes argue that it stifles overall innovation, but I have seen no conclusive evidence either way.) Thinking of Bastiat’s satire, it does not really, in my view, mean that I would scorn a firm or individual for seeking to protect an original idea from being copied by someone else without payment. In any respect, the presumed “rent seeking” failings of IP (and there are problems) can be seriously reduced by reforms, such as granting patents to independent inventors of a gadget, greater disclosure of invention processes in patent filings, an efficient secondary market in IP, shorter IP durations, and so on.
It is good that those of us who venerate Bastiat are forced to think through how his ideas apply to such matters, even to the point of working out if he has any weak spots. But I don’t see that Yglesias has landed the killer blow that he thinks he has. And he cannot just write Bastiat off as a witty Frenchman whose insights are out of date. They are screamingly relevant, just as Adam Smith and others of that vintage are.
I suppose it is good that Mr Bastiat is getting up the noses of some folk. That counts as progress. There’s plenty more where that came from.
(I realise that this is the second time in a row I have written something with a French angle. A pity that French president Francois Hollande does not share the wisdom of Bastiat.)
Update: Caplan responds with some more observations on how policy wonks live in the sort of bubbles that need to be pricked.