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Paul Krugman's war on fools, knaves and lunatics goes too far

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman speaks during a symposium in Malaysia in 2009.

LAI SENG SIN / Associated Press
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.

Could I say a word about Paul Krugman? A recent blog post by the eminent economist and New York Times columnist struck me as out of the ordinary, even for him. Krugman was responding to critics who accuse him of seeing everybody who disagrees with him as either a fool or a knave. He says that’s not right: Many of those who disagree with him are sociopaths.

The point is not that I have an uncanny ability to be right; it’s that the other guys have an intense desire to be wrong, he says. And they’ve achieved their goal.

Before I examine this mindset and where it leads, I should mention my boundless admiration for Krugman as a scholar. As a young economist many years ago, I was in awe of his ability to examine an economic problem in a new way and find something simple and crucial that others had missed. He did this again and again. A remarkable talent, humbling to watch.

These days, when I read his column or his blog posts (such as one on April 29, which boasted that he’s more popular on the Web than celebrity gossip), I sometimes feel as though I were watching Albert Einstein on the Cooking Channel. Is this, I wonder, the best use of his gift?

He would say it is, I’m sure, and the reason is the danger posed by the fools, knaves and sociopaths who disagree with him about fiscal policy and the proper role of government. Nothing is more urgent than to confront this threat, he believes, which demands all hands on deck as long as it persists. Krugman sees his mission as telling people the truth or as much of it as they can handle so the liars and lunatics don’t have it their way all the time. This might not be enough to save us, but it’s his duty to try.

I think Krugman’s been right about U.S. fiscal policy the stimulus was too small, and it’s being withdrawn too soon. But he’s wrong about many of the people who disagree with him and about the best way to guide opinion. He’s enormously influential with those who need no persuading, which is to say not very influential at all. He would have more influence where it would actually make a difference if he developed or at least could feign some respect for those who aren’t his disciples.

Krugman says his opponents are motivated by politics. Am I (and others on my side of the issue) that much smarter than everyone else? No. The key to understanding this is that the anti-Keynesian position is, in essence, political. It’s driven by hostility to active government policy and, in many cases, hostility to any intellectual approach that might make room for government policy.

Talk about lack of self-awareness. Does Krugman imagine that he isn’t motivated by politics?

His own views are equally driven by support for active government policy; in many cases, they are also driven by support for any intellectual approach that might make room for such government policy. Like any politician, he expresses certainty where he knows there is doubt. He’s more than happy to simplify and exaggerate as the cause demands.

And that’s fine. Vigorous debate on the subject is not just desirable in a healthy polity but also essential. Reverence for scientific niceties belongs in academic journals, not the public square. But it shouldn’t need saying that reasonable people can disagree about how big a role the government should play in society and about where the burden of proof should lie in discussing proposals for more or less government intervention.

A line has been crossed when the principal spokesmen for contending opinions have no curiosity whatsoever about their opponents’ ideas and radiate cold, steady contempt for each other.

That’s dangerous. Civil society depends on a minimum threshold of tolerance and mutual respect. Fall too far below it, and the seething paralysis you see in Washington could soon be the least of your concerns. This is America’s biggest political problem and Krugman’s not part of the solution.

Meanwhile, for the side that thinks it has the better arguments, naked contempt for dissenters is plain bad tactics.

That isn’t how you change people’s minds. Better to fire up the base with a little demagoguery (such as calling conservatives racist, as Krugman is wont to do) than reach out to the uncommitted?

I don’t think so. The enthusiasm you inspire on your side is canceled out by an equal and opposite reaction on the other. Krugman stirs up the right in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh, for instance, inflames the left.

Granted, if you’re going to have a spokesman, better a Nobel laureate than a talk-radio clown. The fact remains that Krugman’s weary disdain for roughly half the country is self-defeating.

Really, I just wish he’d meet a wider range of people. It’s true that the modern Republican Party includes a growing number of extremists who have no interest in the kind of discussion I’m recommending.

In their case, attempts at outreach would be so much wasted breath. But if Krugman got out of his bubble a bit more, he’d find that the other half of the country contains no more than its fair share of knaves, fools and lunatics and a lot of thoughtful, public-spirited Americans whose views on the proper scale and scope of government are different from his, yet worthy of respect.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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