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Scott Sumner Sweepstakes

Summary:
OK, before I post these links, you have to know the context: When I’m traveling, I basically read the whole internet on my phone. And when I see something that I want to comment on, I save that page. Since I read EconLog and TheMoneyIllusion, I end up accumulating things from Scott Sumner. The reason I pick on him, rather than, say, Robert Reich, is that everybody who’s free market knows the problems with Reich. In contrast, Scott is very influential in libertarian and even some Austrian circles, and so when he writes things that jump out at me, I feel it’s my duty to flag them. Sort of like, “OK kids, if I can’t convince you that the Fed didn’t have a super-tight monetary policy in 2009 the way Scott claims, just by appealing to charts, what if instead I

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OK, before I post these links, you have to know the context: When I’m traveling, I basically read the whole internet on my phone. And when I see something that I want to comment on, I save that page.

Since I read EconLog and TheMoneyIllusion, I end up accumulating things from Scott Sumner. The reason I pick on him, rather than, say, Robert Reich, is that everybody who’s free market knows the problems with Reich. In contrast, Scott is very influential in libertarian and even some Austrian circles, and so when he writes things that jump out at me, I feel it’s my duty to flag them. Sort of like, “OK kids, if I can’t convince you that the Fed didn’t have a super-tight monetary policy in 2009 the way Scott claims, just by appealing to charts, what if instead I show you his reasoning in other areas?”

(To be sure, Scott could in response tell people I like Intelligent Design theory. Fair enough.)

==> Way back in December, Scott had a post on the claim that China was stealing intellectual property, and along the way he dealt with the trendy catchphrase, “Taxation is theft.” Now, there are plenty of ways one could go in this discussion, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting from Scott was this:

As an analogy, some people argue that “taxation is theft”. My response is “so what”? That doesn’t make taxation bad; you’d want to evaluate taxes on a case-by-case basis, on utilitarian grounds. Is it good theft or bad theft?  Don’t let words do the thinking; look past them to the underlying concepts.

==> I bookmarked this Sumner post on “In search of monetary equilibrium,” and I think it was because I liked it. Or at least, Scott made me think through some new things because of it. (So I’m tough, but fair, like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.)

==> In March Scott had a post entitled “Who’s Afraid of Taxing the Rich?” Uh oh. As bad as you think it might be, it’s worse. He writes:

The fallacy that “taxing the rich” is about getting rich people to write checks to the government, rather than reducing the consumption of the rich.  Any tax that does not reduce consumption by rich people is not taxing the rich. If Warren Buffett writes a big check to the Treasury and reduces his charitable giving rather than his consumption, then you have not taxed Warren Buffett…

There are much worse things than countries that bend over backwards to favor the rich, as we currently see in Venezuela.  So I don’t regard the lack of luxury taxes as a huge problem for America, in and of itself.

My biggest complaint is that our failure to tax the rich in a reasonably sensible way (by taxing high levels of consumption) will lead us to attempt to tax the rich in a highly inefficient and destructive fashion, say with a tax on capital income, and not even succeed in our objective.

==> I liked this Sumner post on “how to sell a new idea in macroeconomics.”

==> Oh boy, this Sumner post on utilitarianism was a doozy. After he kinda sorta takes a swipe at the Sermon on the Mount, Sumner argues:

Critic:  Utilitarianism implies people should do X in situation Y.  That would lead to a nightmarish society.

Me:  You are not thinking holistically enough.  You need to go beyond the direct effect of doing X, and consider the broader ramifications on society.  Activities that create a “nightmarish society” are almost certainly not creating a happier society.  For instance, if hedonism leaves one with a sickness in one’s soul, then it’s not making you happy, is it?  So stop blaming utilitarianism for bad ideas.

This is almost literally the reductio ad absurdum that I said Leland Yeager flirted with, in my review of his book on utilitarianism. But back then, I knew Yeager wouldn’t have actually written out the absurdity; my point was, his actual argument was pretty close to it, and hence suspect.

So back to Sumner: No, if someone argues that a straightforward application of utilitarianism would lead to horror, you can’t merely say, “People don’t like horror, so actually, utilitarianism doesn’t lead to that.” That’s a terrible argument. Bernie Sanders could just as easily say, “It’s not very ‘social’ if people don’t get universal access to high-quality health care and food, so stop pointing at Venezuela as if that proves something.”

(There are other problems with Sumner’s arguments, which commenters pointed out at his post. It was borderline nightmarish to watch.)

Robert Murphy
Christian, Austrian economist, and libertarian theorist. Research Prof at Texas Tech and author of *Choice*. Paul Krugman's worst nightmare.

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