Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm OK, you're a shill. (An unsubsidized response to Matthew Yglesias.)

Matt Yglesias starts out well enough in his contribution to this month's Cato Unbound, but by the end retreats to where those with leftist tendencies tend to go when they have nothing to say: accusations that everyone else is shilling. To quote:
it’s striking to me that on what would seem to me to be the simple and straightforward libertarian case that we should make Social Security benefits less generous, Cato has nothing much to say. Instead, it has an elaborate Project on Social Security Choice aimed at restructuring the program into one of mandatory, privately managed savings accounts. It’s not immediately obvious to me what this proposal has to do with libertarianism, but it would seem to offer some prospect of profits for fund managers. Whether monetary contributions from individuals working in the financial services industry, or else a desire to align more closely with the partisan political agenda of the Republican Party (itself largely dominated by the interests of American business rather than free market principles), or some combination of the two motivate the preference is beyond my ability to say.
Maybe it hasn't occurred to Yglesias that there is libertarianism beyond the "straightforward" Mises Institute schoolboy stuff, but I doubt it, as, if his writings for the Atlantic are indicative, he seems reasonably intelligent and well-read. Perhaps this ridiculous "straightforward libertarian" solution is a consciously created straw man and perhaps it indicates that, however well-read Yglesias is, he still doesn't know much about contemporary, cutting-edge libertarianism.

I similarly doubt that he can only envision two "when did you stop beating your wife" reasons Cato promotes Social Security restructuring rather than making payouts less generous, and instead suspect that the disinginuity was a deliberate attempt to hoodwink sympathetic readers into thinking something unsavory is going on at 1000 Massachusetts Avenue. Two other possibile reasons for Cato's position immediately present themselves:
  1. Cato personnel responsible for the Project on Social Security Choice doubt the American people will accept Yglesias's "straightforward libertarian solution", a Social Security phaseout that reduces payouts to current takers without having given them the decades of notice needed to adequately prepare.
  2. Cato personnel think that it is wrong to phase out Social Security by reducing payouts to those who currently or soon will depend on it and seek a more ethical, intermediate solution.

I cannot speak to whether either of these is the case, nor can I rule out other possibilities, but they are much more plausible than "a group of intellectuals changed their mind because unspecified mutual-fund managers possibly made a contribution to their think-tank."

It goes on:
Similarly, the free-market case for a revenue-neutral carbon pricing scheme seems fairly impeccable to me. But instead of organizing its climate change efforts around seeking to ensure that any future carbon pricing plan be as close to revenue neutral as possible, Cato prefers to steadfastly defend the rights of industry to unload air pollution unimpeded.
Yglesias fails to mention one thing: a considerable portion of the Cato crowd still thinks that, concerning the question of the existence of anthropogenic global warming, there are two sides, on reasonably equal footing, at that! Most of them haven't the background (or the willingness) to read technical papers at the level needed to judge them on their merits and are thus incapable of distinguishing the latest from JGR-Atmospheres from Christopher Monckton's "amateur hour" excursions. I suspect that they are suffering from Ronald Bailey Syndrome, that is, that they have chosen their position not due to honest scientific concerns, but rather because it fits more conveniently with their other, perhaps sounder, beliefs on policy.

This is made worse by two factors. The first being the bizarre apoplexy that flares up in elderly libertarians (even those unaffiliated with Cato) when presented with anything that looks "environmentalist". The second being Patrick Michaels's status as some sort of "Policy Scholar" at the institute. I'd entertain the idea that some AGW denialists are shills. It's not unlikely that Robert Balling, for example, goes on talking to nonscientific audiences (he wouldn't dare make some of his claims before a room full of experts) about how wrong climatologists actually working on global climate change are, despite not working in that subfield in years, because it brings in money to support his more legitimate research. Michaels, however, is probably, like S. Fred Singer, deranged. Consider that he (like Singer) was still going on about how CFCs don't cause ozone depletion as late as 2000. It's more plausible that, hearing Michaels's loud contrarianism, Exxon-Mobil sends money his way, than that his position was caused by the receipt of such funds. Again, most people at Cato, and most people in general, cannot critically evaluate science and probably don't know that they are incapable of doing so, nor what doing so entails. They've had Michaels whispering cute nonsense in their ears, and flattering their political prejudices, too, for well over a decade, and are half-convinced that environmentalism has something to do with leftism, Al Gore, and butterfly scientists' concerns about human population. It is more likely by far that they oppose creation of a carbon market because they believe stupid things about the state of atmospheric science--poke them enough and you can get them to say stupid things!--than that they oppose creation of a carbon market because someone paid them to do so or because they expect to be rewarded later.

Consider the following:
  1. Any think-tank scholar exposed as a shill will be difficult to take seriously ever again, on any topic.
  2. If it were truly possible to pay commentators and scholars to change their minds, wouldn't the money be better spent reversing the positions of environmetalists?

One could say that Yglesias must be taking a payment from the labor unions. After all, why would he put in such a good word for them in his Cato Unbound essay even though they are At Least As Evil As Exxon-Mobil? But that would be stupid. It's more plausible that Yglesias genuinely believes that the unions are a source of good. In order to have any reasonable discussion at all, or even to benefit from reading others' writing, we need to acknowledge that intelligent people can disagree and even, like Patrick Michaels, believe ridiculous things for ridiculous reasons.

I propose a new rule for commentators, the Russell's Teapot rule: Do not attribute someone's opinion to having taken a payment or even insinuate that said opinion might be the result of shilling behavior unless you either have compelling evidence for it or have ruled out all other possibilities. To do otherwise makes you seem foolish, dishonest, or malicious. Mr Yglesias, take note!

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