Paul Krugman, the Princeton Nobel Laureate economist and regular pundit at The New York Times, along with other contemporary defenders of mercantilism — the idea that the state is the most suitable agent for making economic decisions in society — are fundamentally opposed to a principled public policy that rests on the renunciation of coercion among human beings. Indeed, Krugman repeatedly ridicules those who do renounce coercion. He considers them ideologues, people wedded to a mindless dogma.
At first inspection, Krugman's fierce opposition to principled free-market public policies may appear sound. He makes such thinking appear to be mindless, dogmatic, unchecked by experience or history, merely a matter of churning out slogans. Yet, Krugman is on remarkably weak footing in his stance. This is because principled thinking about public and indeed any policies is the hallmark of intelligent and civilized human approaches to problem solving — from engineering, farming, psychiatry, all the way to epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics or politics. The scientific method, for example, deploys principled thinking in distinguishing between sound and pseudo-science. In law it is also remarkable how procedures depend upon principled thinking, due process!
But to illustrate the pervasiveness and significance of principled thinking, consider the nearly universal opposition to rape by decent people. This opposition rests squarely on the principle that sex with anyone must be voluntary, uncoerced (thus, those unable to give consent must not be sexually approached). There is no exception to this idea. The fiercest commitment is required of all, a commitment that according to Krugmania amounts to ideology. By his view of what kind of thinking must go into the forging of policies, public or private, in human affairs, each case of rape would need to be considered individually, divorced from any fundamental — opposition to rape on principle!
Those whom Krugman ridicules for holding to principles thinking in public policy decisions, especially pertaining to economic affairs, hold that the principle of voluntariness also applies to economic relations among people, not just to sexual ones. This approach is, indeed, not different from the common sense idea that under no circumstances is it permissible to use people and what belongs to them without their consent.
This is what free market economics stresses, ultimately. And this is what professor Krugman considers infantile, ideological.
Now ideological thinking is often denounced without really understanding it. In some cases there is nothing wrong with using a well-examined ideology to guide one in making decisions, including in public policies. It merely means that there are general ideas that apply and not every single action one takes has to be treated as a new one. In other contexts ideological thinking amounts to something insidious. This is when someone desires to do something and invents a set of phony idea to justify it, post facto. This is the kind of ideological thinking that most serious scholars and researchers consider fallacious, objectionable.
For Krugman, however, all principled thinking amounts to ideology. This spares him the trouble of having to actually examine the principles being deployed. They can just be dismissed out of hand, never mind any arguments in support of this dismissal. Yet, as already noted, a great deal of the thinking done by human beings — be this thinking that guides one's driving or cooking or child raising — involves using principles that have been tested and found sound and useful.
That, in fact, is what prompts many people to oppose not government per se but the use of government's major tool, namely coercive force as the economy is dealt with. Governments use force because their role, as the American Founders made clear, is to secure the rights of all citizens. That is why governments exist, not for all the reasons so many statists, mercantilists — in short, meddlers in human affairs — keep bringing up. This, at least, is the idea behind preferring public policies that follow free-market principles rather than interventionist ones. And it will not do, however much Krugman keeps repeating the idea, to dismiss such thinking as some kind of blind fundamentalism.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. Most recently, he is author of "The Promise of Liberty." E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com.