Economics and Crankery

| Mon Dec. 6, 2010 3:45 PM EST

Noah Millman writes a long post today about people — conservatives mostly — who claim to maintain a radical skepticism toward conventional economic remedies for our lousy economy. He ends with this:

What professed skepticism frequently amounts to is a vulnerability to crank theories. The people I know who tend “not to trust” doctors would, of course, go to a doctor if they broke their legs. But they believe that cancer is best treated with herbal remedies — or that vaccinations cause autism — or that mental disorders like depression have no chemical basis — and so forth. That is to say: where scientific knowledge is limited, they prefer the advice of those opposed to the establishment. That’s their heuristic.

And I see the same sort of thing with respect to economics. None of the people I know who profess to believe that “fiat money” is a fraud and that therefore we’re all doomed — and I know, many, many such people, including professional investors — actually behave in their private or professional life in the way that they would if they really believed such a thing. But professing such a believe does make them vulnerable to specific truth claims from specific fellow-adherents in areas where scientific knowledge is limited (such as debates about what the optimal monetary policy might be). Again: the heuristic is: when we are in the gray areas, I listen to the cranks. In neither case does this strike me as a particularly defensible heuristic when exposed to the light of day.

That might be it. But there's also the simple fact that conventional economics suggests that government should take actions that conservatives dislike for ideological reasons. For a lot of them, that's reason enough to oppose conventional economics, with radical skepticism merely playing a role as their chosen justification.