Saturday, March 11, 2006

Gracious in victory.

Over the years I have read Paul Krugman on the far left and Andrew Sullivan on the right. I have frequently disagreed with Sullivan who I thought had liberal tendencies but was still a conservative at heart.

Krugman, however, I found it hard to enjoy anything he wrote. Even when I agreed with his basic conclusion I found him atrocious. I always got the impression that there was something rather unpleasant about him. His writing always had a nasty tone to it.

On a few occasions, very few, he is right. But even when he manages that he usually gets the reasoning wrong and almost always had an unpleasant demeanour about the whole issue. He struck me as someone who enjoyed being unpleasant.

Two areas where Krugman got it right, but for all the wrong reasons, was the US invasion of Iraq and his appraisal of the Bush debacle. Sullivan mainly got it wrong on the same two issues.

But Sullivan learned his lesson and he learned it some years ago. He endorsed John Kerry in the last election, not because of Kerry’s brilliance, but because of the disastrous consequences of a second term for Bush.

And recently Sullivan was one of two speakers at a forum held at the Cato Institute which dissected the Bush disaster. Now you would think that Paul Krugman would find Sullivan’s critique of Bush as something to welcome.

But he doesn’t. Instead he gets nasty about it. Sullivan admits he rallied behind Bush after 9/11. Sullivan is, of course unhappy with the attack. He says Krugman accused him of being “a ‘born-again’ Bush-basher.” But Sullivan notes that his criticism of Bush goes back several years. His presentation at Cato was not a recent dip in the pool of criticism for Bush.

And Sullivan is correct. A read of his daily blog reveals many such criticisms. And sure there are lots of things one can debate from a classical liberal perspective. Sullivan is not a classical liberal. He is a conservative. And one gets the impression that he’d be far more conservative than he is if it weren’t for the matter of him being gay.

So what is the lesson from all of this for classical liberals? We really can’t learn anything from Krugman. Even in his own field of economics the man is amazingly bad. We can admire that Sullivan has recognized some of his errors regarding Bush and wonder why he took as long as he did.

Bush didn’t have anything to offer classical liberals going into the first election except that he wasn’t Al Gore. And soon after his election it became obvious to all but the most blind that he was not an advocate of individual rights or limited government. His policies have been a mixture of Lincoln’s belief in executive power, Johnson’s Great Society and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Add in a touch of Wilsonian illusions about remaking the world and you have a man who is the opposite of almost everything for which liberalism stands.

If Reagan wanted to end the era of big government then Bush has plunged the nation back into that statist abyss. Not only plunged back in but taken the country to new depths.

The Krugman/Sullivan feud does have lessons for us liberals however. And the main one is that when an intellectual opponent concedes a position one should not gloat about it.

It is clear that Sullivan feels insulted by Krugman. And Krugman’s writing is often nasty as I said so this doesn’t surprise me. But what kind of lesson is Krugman trying to teach Sullivan?

He basically punishes Sullivan when Sullivan is wrong and punishes him when he’s right. If someone moves closer to a good position, and if we want to see continued progress, we ought not bash them over the head for their movement.

It is said that one should be gracious in defeat. Untrue. It is far more important to be gracious in victory. When an intellectual opponent shifts his views it is not inappropriate to mention it. But only in a supportive way. Unless, of course, what you want to do is stifle all movement on their part. If you want people to stagnate and cling to bad positions then bash them when they move and accept good positions.

I remember a debate I had in print with an elected official. This politician was all over the place on a specific issue and I wanted to see a principled liberal position being taken. The politician finally replied to my essay by conceding the position. Some supporters of mine were anxious for my final response where I could gloat and do a little victory dance. I did not reply at all and let the debate end.

I did so because I did not want this official to be humiliated by the concession. I didn’t want intellectual movement to stop. I did not want to punish someone by humiliating them because they did something right. All I would have done was reinforce the idea that, even when you know you are wrong, you should still cling to bad view because shifting views is too costly.

It comes back to some economics. There are always costs and benefits. When we shift our views in public there are costs to this. One cost is the embarrassment of having been wrong. None of us like being wrong. And that is one reason a lot of people cling to wrong positions even when they know they are wrong. To them emotional costs of changing their position is too great.

Now when costs go up the demand for something goes down. (Though I suspect Paul Krugman would deny this.) When you raise the cost of an opponent changing their mind you reduce the likelihood that they will change their mind. To gloat or chastise them after such a concession is like a tax that is being added. They already paid the cost of publicly changing positions and now you add this tax on top of the price they paid making it even more expensive. By driving up the costs you guarantee that next time they are faced with this option they will be less likely to change their stance.

Far better to be gracious. If you must say anything at all you can restate their new view, endorse it and applaud their courage in changing their minds. Paul Krugman should have repeated Sullivan’s critique and said how brave it is for one so public to change their position. He should have recognized the good character traits needed for someone to do this. That he didn’t makes Krugman, the victor in a sense, look small, petty and unpleasant.

To see Sullivan’s presentation at the Cato forum go here:

To read Sullivan’s blog go to:

I can not direct you to Krugman as the New York Times has made him “premium” content that one must pay for to read on-line. Somehow calling Krugman’s columns “premium content” seems grossly inappropriate.

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