Questioning beliefs, questioning motives

People are often unwilling to accept the fact that other people believe what they claim they believe. In some cases that makes sense, as when analyzing political speeches or statements by attorneys. On the other hand, it seems pretty implausible that a blogger would devote thousands of hours to making passionate arguments for political/economic positions that they do not hold, without being paid for doing so. Why would they do that?

I’ve noticed that some commenters (often conservatives) cannot accept that I actually favor the policies that I say I favor. If I say I favor eliminating residential zoning rules, they are incredulous. They say something to the effect; “You live in Mission Viejo, so obviously you must support anti-apartment zoning laws.” If tomorrow I moved into a high-rise luxury condo, they’d say “Obviously you must now support anti-single family zoning rules.” They cannot conceive that one might have a principled objection to inefficient government regulations that slow economic growth and reduce aggregate welfare. A belief that the market should determine the allocation of resources. A belief that goes beyond crude self-interest.

Similarly, if I say I favor vastly increased immigration, they are incredulous. Surely I must understand (in their view) that such and such an ethnic group is inferior. I must be too politically correct to admit to this fact.

Another group (often progressives) accepts that I really do hold neoliberal policy views, but refuse to accept my stated (utilitarian) motives. “Surely you must be lying when you claim to believe that a higher minimum wage would actually hurt the poor. Surely you don’t believe that eliminating taxes on capital income or inheritance would help working class Americans.” They think I have some other unstated (selfish) motive. And yet not only do I believe these things, I can assure you that there are many serious academic studies that make the same sort of claims.

These cynical commenters on both the left and the right believe that they are reducing my status, but their attacks boomerang. The conservatives who insist that I must be hiding the fact that I am a selfish bigot, are actually revealing their own selfishness, their own bigotry. They are like the punk who gets caught shoplifting and then tells people that “everyone does it”. They can’t imagine other people having a different value system from their own. I’d favor eliminating residential zoning even if it reduced my property value. (It wouldn’t—indeed my house would be far more valuable in a dense city like LA.)

My policy views do not reflect my self-interest. I favor reducing Social Security and Medicare even though I’m about to turn 65. I favor switching from an income to a consumption tax even though I’ll soon retire. And it’s not just me; it’s obvious to me that the vast majority of the bloggers I read do sincerely believe the things they write.

I recall a few years back someone suggested that Bryan Caplan didn’t truly favor open borders. Imagine going through life with so little understanding of one’s fellow human beings. So little imagination. An inability to put oneself into another person’s shoes.

When people question my motives for supporting neoliberalism, they are revealing their ignorance of economics, a field that’s full of counterintuitive ideas. Common sense suggests that the person who pays the tax bears the burden, but that’s not always true. Common sense suggests that price gouging hurts consumers, but that’s not true. Common sense suggests that imports hurt an economy, but that’s not true. Common sense suggests that mandating higher benefits for Uber drivers helps Uber drivers, but that’s not true. Common sense suggests than banning fees for using ATMs will help bank customers, but that’s not true. I could go on and on.

So before you conservatives question my beliefs and before you progressives question my motives, take a deep breath. You might be revealing something about yourself that is better left hidden.



30 Responses to “Questioning beliefs, questioning motives”

  1. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    22. August 2020 at 19:42

    “it’s obvious to me that the vast majority of the bloggers I read do sincerely believe the things they write”

    And obvious to me as well for the reasons you cited. Indeed I wouldn’t believe people would think otherwise if I hadn’t read the comments myself.

    This reminds me of when people talk about “Straussian readings” of things Tyler Cowen or whoever write about. A lot of the time it seems like it’s used as an excuse to warp the post to the commenter’s worldview or to reinterpret flawed logic favorably. Unfortunately Tyler encourages it though.

  2. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    22. August 2020 at 19:52

    Very well stated. Too many of the politically intolerable project.

  3. Gravatar of JonathanH JonathanH
    22. August 2020 at 19:59

    As a reader of your blog for 10 years I’ve learned a lot. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  4. Gravatar of Dwarkesh Patel Dwarkesh Patel
    22. August 2020 at 20:02

    Excellent post! Out of curiosity, if bloggers are usually honest about their motives and beliefs, are there professions that tend to be dishonest? Is there some heuristic to use when judging which systems contain dishonest actors?

  5. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    22. August 2020 at 23:24

    “These cynical commenters on both the left and the right believe that they are reducing my status, ”

    Scott, what is this “status” of yours that you mention here?

  6. Gravatar of Cartesian Theatrics Cartesian Theatrics
    23. August 2020 at 00:33

    Great post. But is it a privilege to be able to be principled I wonder? Reminds me of that great chapter in Howard’s End in which Margret couldn’t fathom how Leonard Blast could be so incredulous about her intentions to take his umbrella. She had no comprehension of the anxieties a poor man faces.

  7. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    23. August 2020 at 01:03

    “A belief that the market should determine the allocation of resources.”

    The largest ‘impediment’ to the ‘market’ allocating resources?

    “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens
    Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
    Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. “

  8. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    23. August 2020 at 01:12

    “Another group (often progressives) accepts that I really do hold neoliberal policy views, . . . .”

    ‘This “equilibrium” graph (Figure 3) and the ideas behind it have been re-iterated so many times in the past half-century that many observes assume they represent one of the few firmly proven facts in economics. Not at all. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that demand equals supply in any market and that, indeed, markets work in the way this story narrates.

    We know this by simply paying attention to the details of the narrative presented. The innocuous assumptions briefly mentioned at the outset are in fact necessary joint conditions in order for the result of equilibrium to be obtained. There are at least eight of these result-critical necessary assumptions: Firstly, all market participants have to have “perfect information”, aware of all existing information (thus not needing lecture rooms, books, television or the internet to gather information in a time-consuming manner; there are no lawyers, consultants or estate agents in the economy). Secondly, there are markets trading everything (and their grandmother). Thirdly, all markets are characterized by millions of small firms that compete fiercely so that there are no profits at all in the corporate sector (and certainly there are no oligopolies or monopolies; computer software is produced by so many firms, one hardly knows what operating system to choose…). Fourthly, prices change all the time, even during the course of each day, to reflect changed circumstances (no labels are to be found on the wares offered in supermarkets as a result, except in LCD-form). Fifthly, there are no transaction costs (it costs no petrol to drive to the supermarket, stock brokers charge no commission, estate agents work for free – actually, don’t exist, due to perfect information!). Sixthly, everyone has an infinite amount of time and lives infinitely long lives. Seventhly, market participants are solely interested in increasing their own material benefit and do not care for others (so there are no babies, human reproduction has stopped – since babies have all died of neglect; this is where the eternal life of the grown-ups helps). Eighthly, nobody can be influenced by others in any way (so trillion-dollar advertising industry does not exist, just like the legal services and estate agent industries).
    It is only in this theoretical dreamworld defined by this conflagration of wholly unrealistic assumptions that markets can be expected to clear, delivering equilibrium and rendering prices the important variable in the economy – including the price of money as the key variable in the macroeconomy. This is the origin of the idea that interest rates are the key variable driving the economy: it is the price of money that determines economic outcomes, since quantities fall into place.
    But how likely are these assumptions that are needed for equilibrium to pertain? We know that none of them hold. Yet, if we generously assumed, for sake of argument (in good economists’ style), that the probability of each assumption holding true is 55% – i.e. the assumptions are more likely to be true than not – even then we find the mainstream result is elusive: Because all assumptions need to hold at the same time, the probability of obtaining equilibrium in that case is 0.55 to the power of 8 – i.e. less than 1%! In other words, neoclassical economics has demonstrated to us that the circumstances required for equilibrium to occur in any market are so unlikely that we can be sure there is no equilibrium anywhere. Thus we know that markets are rationed, and rationed markets are determined by quantities, not prices.
    On our planet earth – as opposed to the very different planet that economists seem to be on – all markets are rationed. In rationed markets a simple rule applies: the short side principle. It says that whichever quantity of demand or supply is smaller (the ‘short side’) will be transacted (it is the only quantity that can be transacted). Meanwhile, the rest will remain unserved, and thus the short side wields power: the power to pick and choose with whom to do business. Examples abound. For instance, when applying for a job, there tend to be more applicants than jobs, resulting in a selection procedure that may involve a number of activities and demands that can only be described as being of a non-market nature (think about how Hollywood actresses are selected), but does not usually include the question: what is the lowest wage you are prepared to work for?
    Thus the theoretical dream world of “market equilibrium” allows economists to avoid talking about the reality of pervasive rationing, and with it, power being exerted by the short side in every market. Thus the entire power hiring starlets for Hollywood films, can exploit his power of being able to pick and choose with whom to do business, by extracting ‘non-market benefits’ of all kinds. The pretence of ‘equilibrium’ not only keeps this real power dimension hidden. It also helps to deflect the public discourse onto the politically more convenient alleged role of ‘prices’, such as the price of money, the interest rate. The emphasis on prices then also helps to justify the charging of usury (interest), which until about 300 years ago was illegal in most countries, including throughout Europe.
    However, this narrative has suffered an abductio ad absurdum by the long period of near zero interest rates, so that it became obvious that the true monetary policy action takes place in terms of quantities, not the interest rate.
    Thus it can be plainly seen today that the most important macroeconomic variable cannot be the price of money. Instead, it is its quantity. Is the quantity of money rationed by the demand or supply side? Asked differently, what is larger – the demand for money or its supply? Since money – and this includes bank money – is so useful, there is always some demand for it by someone. As a result, the short side is always the supply of money and credit. Banks ration credit even at the best of times in order to ensure that borrowers with sensible investment projects stay among the loan applicants – if rates are raised to equilibrate demand and supply, the resulting interest rate would be so high that only speculative projects would remain and banks’ loan portfolios would be too risky.
    The banks thus occupy a pivotal role in the economy as they undertake the task of creating and allocating the new purchasing power that is added to the money supply and they decide what projects will get this newly created funding, and what projects will have to be abandoned due to a ‘lack of money’.
    It is for this reason that we need the right type of banks that take the right decisions concerning the important question of how much money should be created, for what purpose and given into whose hands. These decisions will reshape the economic landscape within a short time period.
    Moreover, it is for this reason that central banks have always monitored bank credit creation and allocation closely and most have intervened directly – if often secretly or ‘informally’ – in order to manage or control bank credit creation. Guidance of bank credit is in fact the only monetary policy tool with a strong track record of preventing asset bubbles and thus avoiding the subsequent banking crises. But credit guidance has always been undertaken in secrecy by central banks, since awareness of its existence and effectiveness gives away the truth that the official central banking narrative is smokescreen.’

  9. Gravatar of Albert Torres Albert Torres
    23. August 2020 at 02:19

    I agree that nobody canceled the boomerang effect … Good luck! Great blog!

  10. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. August 2020 at 04:42


    Let us ask that others not be darkly suspicious and cynical of motives. ulterior or otherwise. And ask the same of ourselves.

  11. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    23. August 2020 at 05:40

    My policy views do not reflect my self-interest.

    I suppose that depends on how you define self interest.
    If you define it as solely your creature comforts in this moment, you may define it one way. If, however, you include in your definition the peace of mind that comes from contributing to and living in a stable, peaceful, prosperous and just society you may define it another way.

  12. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    23. August 2020 at 05:52

    “Signaling” has become the go-to explanation for behavior by a certain cadre of economists – you know who you are. It’s the lazy man’s (or woman’s) explanation. Of course, it questions the motives of the people who are “signaling”. Any economist tied to the “signaling” cadre should be ignored, yet the “signalists” are held in high esteem as truth-tellers.

  13. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    23. August 2020 at 07:14

    @rayward: And the signalers are regarded as the good/nice guys, the ones who are caring/compassionate. Sad!

  14. Gravatar of anon anon
    23. August 2020 at 07:33

    In the job market, the employer offers a position that pays 20K USD/year for certain set of responsibilities and lets say the Cost of a middle-class living in that 30mile radius is 21K. Now, if no one takes that 20K USD/year job the employer has to increase the offer to match the bid price. Whether 20K USD/year is the right and all is besides the point and not subject to the offer/bid. Or if someone in a shit hole country (or county in US) can do the job remote at 10K USD/year, the employer prefers that shit holee.

    Same with the starlet (he or she). If the price is open the legs or mouth + monetary benefits, and if both sides know, consent, and agree to mutually satisfy (holding the nose on the lesser power side), the market clears.

    Keep morality, humanity and the finer aspects of dignity and equality and fairness aside. If you bring all that in, there is no effing way on this rock-with-an-atmosphere-biosphere to determine the “price” on any of those ities.

  15. Gravatar of anon anon
    23. August 2020 at 07:37

    And before the do gooders and moralizers and ehicists and sundry come and say that the person that agrees to the trade in either case is not doing themselves any good, are they more interested/invested in the well being of that said person – refer to

    Is it ideal world. Granted, no. But is hoping for an utopia a good strategy?

  16. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    23. August 2020 at 08:35

    From NYTimes regarding Donald Harris,

    The Stanford Daily, reporting in 1976, described him as a “Marxist scholar,” and said there was some opposition to granting him tenure because he was “too charismatic, a pied piper leading students astray from neo-Classical economics.”

    One of his former students at Stanford, Robert A. Blecker, now a professor of economics at American University, said Dr. Harris’s work questioned orthodox assumptions about growth — for instance that lower wages would increase employment rates, or that lower interest rates always result in increased investment.

    My counterintuitive thought of the day is that reparations to descendants of American slaves (a lump sum one time payment of up to $50k) would simply lead to more demand for products and services with very little downside.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. August 2020 at 08:50

    Todd, I meant “reputation”.

    Carl, Agreed. And of course that’s what my critics claim I am NOT doing.

    Gene, You said:

    “orthodox assumptions about growth — for instance that lower wages would increase employment rates, or that lower interest rates always result in increased investment.”

    God help us if “orthodox” economists believe it’s now OK to reason from a price change.

  18. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    23. August 2020 at 08:50

    Does the Republican turn in favor of NIMBYism now mean that Texas is no longer a desirable place to live? Would they prefer California, New York, or Massachusetts?

  19. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    23. August 2020 at 09:00

    sumner, I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear that that was an excerpt from the NYTimes article.

    Btw, both Kamala and Obama are the children of Black visiting students that came before the landmark Civil Rights and immigration laws of the mid 60s. Plus both of their Black fathers studied economics as graduate students at elite American universities…I guess economics would have been seen as the best way for highly intelligent high achievers to best help their home countries at that time.

  20. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    23. August 2020 at 09:17

    It’s an interesting combination of puritanism and ad hominem attacks. It’s not quite a “No true Scotsman,” argument they’re using but it’s close.

  21. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    23. August 2020 at 10:52

    When you favor mass immigration, you are making the category error of assuming that immigrants share neoliberal and utilitarian beliefs. But that isn’t always the case. Part of what makes American culture (at least up until now, is an abiding belief in individual liberty under the rule of law and respect for the liberty of others. I can definitely understand wanting the Hong Kong protesters who wave the American flag to come here and I probably agree. But if we open the floodgates to those who won’t or don’t speak English and don’t value liberty and don’t want to assimilate, than America will no longer exist. I once believed as you do, but it took me a some time to realise that not everyone in the world thinks as we do.

  22. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    23. August 2020 at 11:30

    @Todd K:

    He’s using that term in the Cowenian sense, who often talks about how so much of politics and blog commentary is about raising or lowering the “status” of ingroups and outgroups. Sumner has a number of commenters who just like to signal they are Trumpy, raising Trump’s “status” and lowering Sumner’s.


    Nice reference, good call

    @Gene Frenkle:

    If the reparations are just Fed created dollars handed out they probably have little economic downside. But that would be very problematic on a sociopolitical and moral axis. Non-recipients would be correctly resentful of being blamed for the actions of people in the far past who they never met and in many cases have no connection to. It would drastically widen the “Us” vs “Them” dynamic.


    The vast majority of immigrants learn English and contribute to society as law abiding workers. Their kids all speak English and are culturally American. Not the narrow type of American you are thinking of but America’s killer app is flexibly absorbing all comers.

  23. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    23. August 2020 at 12:49

    msgkings, I agree with you about the sociopolitical issues but that is why we have activists now making the case which is quite frankly a pretty easy case to make and now is the perfect time to make it…and then for economists to explain the big winners aren’t necessarily the people receiving reparations but the productive Americans that will eventually end up with those dollars in their pockets along with current homeowners who will see the value of their homes rise even more as recipients of reparations have money for home down payments during this time of record low mortgage rates. I think the less desirable cities could try to attract the recipients of reparations because housing prices are more affordable in those cities and these people would end up being future taxpayers…so maybe a city like Memphis gets in on the action by having a year of no property taxes to new homeowners knowing they will grow their tax base with more people moving to their city.

  24. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    23. August 2020 at 13:19


    Getting more cash to consumers is fine, doing so on a racially polarized basis is madness.

  25. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    23. August 2020 at 13:45

    msgkings, from my perspective it is just a pretext to inject money into the economy at a time when that money could make a huge difference thanks to an economic reboot along with record low mortgage interest rates. I think those $50k payments to low income Americans could be life changing and I do think directing it to descendants of slaves rights a very clear wrong. We have all of these half ass programs like Opportunity Zones and Section 8 housing and SNAP and Obamacare and EITC…why don’t we try doing the easy thing for once instead of having programs that just allow people to tread water. I think it was Jesus who once said give a man a fish and he eats for one day, give a man $50k and he has money for a house down payment in a city with affordable housing and little breathing room to start a new life.

    And couple the reparations with help to less desirable cities with cheaper housing and you start to solve multiple problems for much less money than trying to solve problems like underfunded pension plans and decaying infrastructure as the problems come up over time.

  26. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    23. August 2020 at 15:01


    How do you know what type of American I am thinking of? 🙄 I literally said I favored admitting Hong Kong protesters into America, because I think since they wave our flag, they would be good for us.

    As for the rest, the only reason why the children of immigrants assimilate is because we carefully select their parents. If we allowed everyone in, America as we know it would no longer exist. There are geographical limits and political limits Scott’s policies. Americans favor a welfare state. You can either have that or open borders, and my fellow Americans seem to have made the choice. Instead of insulting them, as Scott, seems to have done, I try to understand them, especially since Obama voters who voted for him TWICE voted for Trump.

    I think the riots and the lockdowns might also create another backlash and get him re elected again. The greatest concentration of deaths happened in BLUE states.

  27. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    23. August 2020 at 16:03


    I think I agree with every one of your policy views. I also think the republicans with Trump in charge are (on average) a much better fit for your policy views than the democrats with Biden in charge and Bernie driving the agenda.

    I think you should reconsider and vote for Trump!


  28. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    23. August 2020 at 16:05


    I know Sumner and other libertarians favor “open borders”. I do not. We need some limits. But unlike you I have no preference for where immigrants come from. We need more new Americans, especially as natives’ fertility rates are plummeting.

    It’s either that or Japanese-style stagnation.

  29. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    23. August 2020 at 16:37


    It seems we might agree a little more than what I originally thought. I too, don’t care that much about color, only that said immigrants be high skilled, speak English, love America, be willing to assimilate, and not arrive in such high enough numbers to cause public systems to collapse.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. August 2020 at 08:18

    Jason, You said:

    “When you favor mass immigration, you are making the category error of assuming that immigrants share neoliberal and utilitarian beliefs. But that isn’t always the case. Part of what makes American culture (at least up until now, is an abiding belief in individual liberty under the rule of law and respect for the liberty of others.”

    Then why does Trump have more support for his authoritarianism from native born voters. Trump’s exactly the sort of demogogue that gets elected in banana republics like Guatemala. We were told that letting in Hispanics would turn us into a banana republic, but most Hispanics voted for Hillary.

    And no, I don’t assume that immigrants have utilitarian beliefs, I assume that they’d benefit from moving here.

    I would add that support for immigration to America is surging, if you believe the polls. Obviously 100% open borders is not practical for a single country like the US at the moment, but we could easily absorb 3 million immigrants a year, instead of 1 million. Relative to population, Canada and Australia have far higher rates than the US, and do fine.

    You said:

    “Instead of insulting them, as Scott, seems to have done, I try to understand them,”

    Why do you complain about me insulting Trump voters right after you insult foreigners? Have you ever tried to understand foreigners?

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