This is to switch up Mark Lilla’s complaint, which I addressed last week several times, that the left in academia doesn’t read conservatives. (I’m inclined sometimes to think that all we read are conservatives, but that’s another point.) But maybe I’ll ask what Richard Posner is doing writing at all on economics. He has written early and often on the topic, but he never picked up, let alone read the most famous book of the 20th century on the topic. And having read it, he’s converted from his Friedmanism. Note–he literally hadn’t even picked up the book (since he had no idea what was in it, including whether or not it included a lot of mathematical formulae). Now, you’ll say to me, Philosophy in a Time of Error, he works on microeconomic theory, to which I’d say, bolderdash. If you’ve read Posner, he makes a lot of macro-economic claims:
Until last September, when the banking industry came crashing down and depression loomed for the first time in my lifetime, I had never thought to read The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, despite my interest in economics. I knew that John Maynard Keynes was widely considered the greatest economist of the twentieth century, and I knew of his book’s extraordinary reputation. But it was a work of macroeconomics–the study of economy-wide phenomena such as inflation, the business cycle, and economic growth. Law, and hence the economics of law–my academic field–did not figure largely in the regulation of those phenomena [Hi, it’s me, Philosophy in a Time of Error: what else is one to make of an economic “theory of the state”? This was central to two of his major works. What about the “minimal Homeric state”? This is well beyond what is covered in microeconomics]. And I had heard that it was a very difficult book, which I assumed meant it was heavily mathematical; and that Keynes was an old-fashioned liberal, who believed in controlling business ups and downs through heavy-handed fiscal policy (taxing, borrowing, spending); and that the book had been refuted by Milton Friedman, though he admired Keynes’s earlier work on monetarism. I would not have been surprised by, or inclined to challenge, the claim made in 1992 by Gregory Mankiw, a prominent macroeconomist at Harvard, that “after fifty years of additional progress in economic science, The General Theory is an outdated book. . . . We are in a much better position than Keynes was to figure out how the economy works.”
I love that perfect ideological formulation: “I had heard that… it had been refuted…” No one who has read Posner, I think, could doubt his acumen and ability to get through Keyne’s work. Needless to say, whatever leftists may want to critique in Keynes (a far right winger by other standards), he’s a far better choice of predictive value than Mankiw (whose writings on this are on his blog) has been on the current crisis. I know that I’m supposed to finish this with the “we argue in good faith” line about its gracious of Posner to admit, well, just what a poser he’s been on economics, but what am I to make of someone who spends a career making vast arguments about political economics (what else is liberatarianism but macro-economic in many of its central claims?) without having at least going beyond what he had heard? Does this change his views on using market-based approaches to ethics? What is one to make now about his past ouevre on philosophy of law as it pertains to economics? What is one to make that he heard that it didn’t follow his own political views and thus he simply ignored it?
I think it’s time we had a panel discussion, lead by Mark Lilla, on why conservative jurists don’t read liberals.