A simple theory of recent American intellectual history

16 Sep

Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the so-called “right wing” was right about virtually everything on the economic front.  Most of all communism, but also inflation, taxes, (most of) deregulation, labor unions, and much more, noting that a big chunk of the right wing blew it on race and some other social issues.  The Friedmanite wing of the right nailed it on floating exchange rates.

Arguably the “rightness of the right” peaks around 1989, with the collapse of communism.  After that, the right wing starts to lose its way.

Up through that time, market-oriented economists have more interesting research, more innovative journals, and much else to their credit, culminating in the persona and career of Milton Friedman.

I’ve never heard tales of Paul Samuelson’s MIT colleagues mocking him for his pronouncements on Soviet economic growth.  I suspect they didn’t.

Starting in the early 1990s, the left wing is better equipped, more scholarly, and also more fun to read.  (What exactly turned them around?)  In the 1990s, the Quarterly Journal of Economics is suddenly more interesting and ultimately more influential than the Journal of Political Economy, even though the latter retained a higher academic ranking.  The right loses track of what its issues ought to be.  There is no real heir to the legacy of Milton Friedman.

The relative rise of the Left peaks in 2009, with the passage of Obamacare and the stimulus.  From that point on, the left wing, for better or worse, is a fundamentally conservative force in the intellectual arena.  It becomes reactive and loses some of its previous creativity.

Over those years, right wing thought, on the whole, became worse and more predictable and also less interesting.  But excess predictability now has infected the left wing also.  Attacking stupid ideas put forward by Republicans, whether or not you think that is desirable or necessary, has become their lazy man’s way forward and it is sapping their faculties.

Yet I am not pessimistic about discourse.  Our time is a wonderful era for independent thinkers, and many of them are bloggers, too.  It’s as if we have created a new political spectrum in a very small sliver of the world, a perhaps inconsequential eddy in a much larger and often unpleasant vortex.

via A simple theory of recent American intellectual history.


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