That’s the view of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Wharton MBA, mathematical finance PhD and author of Skin in the Game and The Black Swan.
Taleb, a libertarian, aims his critique of intellectuals yet idiots (IYI) broadly but particularly at the contemporary economics profession. His targets are those described by the Mises Institute:
“The professional economist is the specialist who is instrumental in designing various measures of government interference with business.”
The economics profession in the U.S. today is mostly involved in research and education that broadly investigates “market failures” or is directly engaged in public action – regulation, tax, expenditure and off budget guarantees – to manage industries and the macro-economy purportedly in the public interest. This is the opposite of laissez faire economics, political advice to a 17th century French minister to “let it be” later developed into an economic theory by the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith and popularized by 20TH century economist Milton Friedman, a libertarian and cofounder of FFE (and my advisor, twice removed). How and to what end did the economics profession evolve from a philosophy of leaving economic decisions to individuals in the marketplace with few exceptions to public economic management of the United States and global economy?
From Individual to Collective Economic Decision-making
Benjamin Franklin, considered the leading intellectual and inventor of the 18th century whose inventions are still in use today, admitted to Harvard at age 12, but instead indentured to his brother’s tannery, advised
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”
That’s his rendering of a Confucian saying dating back thousands of years. Taleb, a Wall Street trader prior to his writing and academic career, echoes Franklin’s emphasis on direct experience, arguing that capitalism isn’t an ideology or system but a set of mutually agreeable arrangements worked out over the centuries through trial and error by market participants who bear the full consequences of their decisions.
Exiting the Constitutional Convention, Franklin, a great political theorist, when asked whether the Constitution had created a monarchy or republic replied
“a republic, if you can keep it.”
Taleb argues that if given the choice Franklin would have more accurately described the Constitution as a federation with powers over economic activity limited to promoting free trade among states. But these limits were lost more than a century later when progressive President Woodrow Wilson first created the Federal Reserve System then used entry into the war to “make the world safe for democracy” as the means to create the “modern state” managed on scientific economic principles. A half century later, focusing on the “principal –agent” problem of the modern corporation run by managers who had no “skin in the game” John Kenneth Galbraith in The New Industrial State (1967) argued for public management by an intellectual elite, replacing business experience with academic success.
From Competitive to Crony Market Capitalism and Rent-Seeking
Franklin had warned the Convention delegates that
“We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”
The libertarian U.S. Constitution never mentioned democracy, and principal-agent conflicts are orders of magnitude worse in the public sector. As public choice theorists have since noted, we neither hang deep state managers nor otherwise hold them accountable. Democracy may depend on the deep state as political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued in a recent Wall Street Journal article (12/20/2019), but it can’t hold it accountable, as Michael Lind argued in a subsequent Journal article. Accountability erodes with each additional layer of government as decisions are elevated from “at risk” individuals in the marketplace to private, local, state, and federal governing bodies and is virtually eliminated at international entities (e.g., the IMF and World Bank). In no case is democracy a substitute for markets because the most intolerant minority with the most to gain or lose inevitably dominates.
Market capitalism is the source of all human economic progress. Is there a sufficiently good reason for collective economic management? Adam Smith never argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that the invisible hand was perfect: the actual full quote favored nationalism over globalism. In The Wealth of Nations (1776) he did say:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”
but in the same paragraph admonished government from any attempt to do anything about it. Britain had long been what we now call a crony capitalist economy that heavily favored the political elite, which in Smith’s view further government intervention would only exacerbate.
Taleb’s “idiots” are Galbraith’s inexperienced intellectual elite economic managers and advisors who have no skin in the game. Professional economists are generally smart, rational (many ideologically dedicated ”virtue merchants”) exploiting a one sided trade, in economic jargon crony “rent seekers” – redistributing income (rents) from the generally lower income non-politically connected. (I would argue there is a minority in resistance, primarily in business schools and conservative think tanks.) It’s their statistical analysis and reasoning to justify rent seeking opportunities he often finds idiotic, faux science or scientism.
Public intervention to mitigate downside risk (as do e.g., public pension and retirement systems, housing, school and other entitlements, loan and deposit guarantees and other forms of insurance (e.g., flood) that can supposedly be financed without pain by taxing the idle rich or unlimited debt financed by money printing (Modern Monetary Theory) is a religion promising heaven without the threat of hell. Come Judgment Day when the system fails systemically, well insulated politicians and bureaucrats will subsequently label it “an extremely rare and random “Black Swan” event that nobody could have seen coming” and professional economists will join the chorus. The general public gets fleeced and market capitalism gets blamed.
Name any of sixty economic issues and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has a plan. The lyrics to the Beatles swan song album of a half century ago concludes “whisper words of wisdom, let it be.”
Kevin Villani was chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on how politicians and bureaucrats with no skin in the game caused the sub-prime lending bubble and systemic financial system failure.