Some Things Never Change
Whatever I feel like talking about.
A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.
Total motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Records, though, also show motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida since Bush signed the helmet law repeal July 1, 2000.
Many years ago, I got into an exchange on Usenet in which I argued that the part of Murray Rothbard's book on the history of economic thought that dealt with Adam Smith was a hatchet job, using selection and deliberate omission to attack Smith. David Gordon recently posted a long rebuttal and I have just posted a comment responding to the rebuttal. I don't know of any way of linking to my comment on someone else's blog, so am including it below. Interested readers may want to read my summary post from eight years ago, then Gordon's piece, then what follows. The controversy may be of interest to those interested in the history of modern libertarianism, in controversies, or both.
I'm not inclined to engage in a detailed rebuttal; interested readers can check the original thread against the account here. I did want to make a few points, however.
1. I wasn't arguing the question of how important Smith was or wasn't in the history of economic thought, however interesting that might have been, or of how pure a libertarian he was. Indeed, I explicitly conceded that Rothbard was correct in pointing out that many of Smith’s ideas appear in earlier works.
I was focussing on a simple question: was Rothbard's account of Smith and his French contemporaries an honest and accurate one or, as I argued, a hatchet job, deliberately distorting by omission and selection.
2. I suggest that readers consider one simple case, where David Gordon and I do not disagree on the facts, merely the interpretation: Smith's views on the wool trade. Rothbard said that Smith advocated taxing wool exports and offered that as evidence of his non-libertarian views. Rothbard did not mention that Smith was proposing the tax as a replacement for the existing situation—an absolute ban, enforced by extensive regulations and ferocious penalties, described in detail by Smith.
Gordon argues that Smith's position was not all that libertarian, since the proposal can be read as imposing a tax high enough to collect most of the gains from the repeal of the ban. Whether that is true or not, he does not deny that Rothbard accused Smith of wanting to impose taxes on the export of wool without mentioning that he was proposing the tax as an alternative to a much less free existing system--a fact that the average reader would not have known.
Perhaps David Gordon believes that an honest writer could have done that. I do not.
3. Gordon thinks I am mistaken in reading Smith as undecided between public and private support for schooling, despite Smith's plain statement that "The expense of the institutions for education and religious instruction ... might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other."
Gordon wants us to read that as making a distinction between the cost of setting up schools and of maintaining them. He may not have noticed that the previous paragraph, on roads, specifically refers to "maintainance." This one does not. There is no basis in the text I have just quoted for separating out the capital cost of establishing a school from the operating cost; both are expenses.
Gordon's response is to quote an earlier passage, where Smith suggests, as one possibility, having the state establish schools, with much of the fee paid by parents. But of course, Smith in his discussion of education considers lots of alternatives. Indeed, Gordon quotes a bit from my lecture notes—where I describe the proposal in question as "Possible public role in the education of the common people." There is nothing in that passage implying that the cost of setting up a school is not part of "the expense of the institutions of ... ."
4. Vincent Cook writes:
"Moreover, Friedman and Rothbard had clashed in other contexts (especially in arguing the foundations of anarcho-capitalism)."
I'm not sure we ever did clash on that, although it's probably the most important and interesting substantive disagreement between us—assuming that what Vincent means is the disagreement on how the legal code of an anarcho-capitalist society gets produced.
But I think the real conflict was something quite different. Rothbard has a piece, webbed somewhere, in which he criticizes me for not hating the state. In his terms, he was correct. In my view, the fundamental conflict is not between bad men and good men but between mistaken beliefs and correct beliefs.
The flip side of that is that, in my view, Rothbard was consistently more interested in whether an argument was on the right side than whether it was correct. I think I have demonstrated that in the context of his attack on Smith—that he was willing to deliberately mislead his readers about the facts in order to get them to what Rothbard considered the correct conclusion. I can think of other examples.
Recently, on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.fandom, someone posted a detailed account of the history of a GM electric car called the EV1, produced in the 90's and then abandoned; the account was based on the poster having seen a preview of a documentary. The obvious implication of the account was that the car had been suppressed by a conspiracy between GM and Chevron, although GM's motive for suppressing it was left rather vague. I was suspicious of the account, which fitted better into the political ideology that the poster seemed to have than into my view of how the world works, but didn't know enough to judge if my suspicion was justified.
It looks as though I am going to be revising my Future Imperfect manuscript for publication, and one thing I plan to add is a chapter on mind drugs: Recreational, performance enhancing, and controlling. I have accordingly started looking into the current controversy over Ritalin and related drugs for controlling ADHD. In doing so, I was struck by a puzzle which nothing I have so far come across seems to deal with.
In high school, I wrote a paper on the controversy over the Second Bank of the United States, c. 1830. I was recently reminded of it listening to Ed Schultz, a leftish talk radio host. He was going on about the horrors of U.S. external debt. After listing how many billions were held by various countries, he suggested that if a few of those countries decided they didn't like our policies on global warming or foreign affairs, we would be in deep trouble. They could call in their loans, U.S. interest rates would shoot up, and the average American homeowner would suddenly find he was paying much more for his mortgage or car loan than he expected (summary by memory, details probably wrong, basic argument I believe accurate).