The never-ending libertarian quest to appear clever

I have been following an amusing back-and-forth between Bryan Caplan (I, II, III) and Matt Yglesias about Bastiat’s That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen. Initially, Caplan points out that individuals often support left-leaning economic policies for wrong reasons, and that he likes Bastiat because his tidy little stories (e.g. the parable of the broken window) show why those reasons are bad. Problematically for Caplan, Bastiat’s tidy little stories don’t ultimately work out: although they defeat certain simple arguments, they fail when confronted with more intellectually sophisticated ones.

Caplan himself gives the example of the minimum wage:

Take the minimum wage. Normal people like it because the government waves a magic wand and makes mean employers give helpless workers extra money, with zero blowback. So inane, yet so convincing to a psychologically normal human. An intellectually serious argument, in contrast, begins by conceding the theoretical possibility of a disemployment effect, then defends low estimates of labor demand elasticity. This is a huge improvement in intellectual substance, yet persuades only wonks.

Because Bastiat’s arguments are actually failures — or at least not clearly winners — they are irrelevant in sophisticated debates. Caplan really does not like this. His dislike is apparent in his second post when he puts forward a conspiracy theory about the way left-wing intellectuals are made:

It’s admittedly conceivable that wonks discovered intellectually serious substitutes for almost all of the mock-worthy arguments the public loves. But a more plausible story is that few wonks truly free themselves from their emotional attachment to popular policies. So instead of weighing whether e.g. Social Security is genuinely a good idea, they use their powerful intellects to defend Social Security to the best of their abilities.

Caplan is obviously just shooting from the hip here. But I thought it would be fun to also shoot from the hip and theorize on why libertarians like Caplan behave as they do as youths and later in life, especially regarding Bastiat. Young libertarians are smug, arrogant, and contrarian. Above all else, they love to be the smartest and cleverest guys in the room. So they latch on to simplistic arguments that cut against what most people think in order to mock others as stupid and unlettered. I’ve met plenty of libertarians in my life, and a good 90% of them seem to regard themselves as the smartest and cleverest person in any room they happen to be in.

Bastiat is super-helpful for those pursuing contrarian cleverness. His little stories are comprehensible and allow you to laugh heartily at someone who supports things like the minimum wage. The problem arises when the dumb minimum wage supporter actually ends up being right for a more complicated reason. That enrages the libertarian because even though he was clearly cleverer than the average minimum wage supporter, he is ultimately wrong. That insufferable reality drives the ashamed libertarian to clutch on to Bastiat even as Bastiat is shredded. Bastiat still allows them to point out how stupid the reasoning of the bulk of minimum wage supporters is even if their policy conclusions wind up being right. In that way, Bastiat allows the libertarian to preserve his status as super-clever even if he is actually wrong.

Libertarians love really flashy simple arguments that ultimately fall to pieces. A sophisticated debate doesn’t score the big humiliation points because it’s so complicated. Since Bastiat is truly irrelevant when it comes to modern debates on the kind of issues he discusses, the libertarian is in a bad spot. He wants to pretend to be clever and better than everyone else in his grand powers of reasoning, but he cannot really do that anymore. So instead the modern libertarian brings up Bastiat to show how clever he is and how stupid everyone else is, and then makes up some post-hoc bullshit about how discussing Bastiat is actually meaningful when it isn’t.