Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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I want follow up on the previous post by making a side observation on the paleo diet's marked popularity within libertarian circles \(-\) especially anarcho-capitalists. Certainly, prominent libertarians like Lew Rockwell, Tom Woods and even Russ Roberts have gone "primal" in a very public sense.

Now, sure, this makes sense at the superficial level: It probably comes very naturally to many libertarians that they reject government-endorsed advice, take pride in swimming against the tide of mainstream thought, and so forth. Indeed, here is an article from LRC that openly flaunts the "ideological parallels" that underpin the libertarian-paleo connection. (Thanks Google!)

However, doing something simply because it feels "familiar" is likely to produce counterproductive results sooner rather than later. This is particularly likely to be true when it comes to endorsing heterodox thinking across unrelated topics.[*] After all, there's a reason why certain ideas tend to emerge as dominant over time: They explain the world around us better than the competing paradigms. (Obviously, this can change as we gain more knowledge. Science is a process after all and not an end result.)

More fundamentally, it seems to me that the underlying scientific approach of the paleo movement \(-\) as outlined by Gary Taubes at least \(-\) is at odds with much of what characterizes libertarian economic thought of the variety. I've had my say about the dangers of extreme a priorism before and still consider the rejection of empirical testing by some Austrians to be a completely nonsensical dead end. Indeed, the a prioristic approach is antithetical to the empirically-based scientific approach that Taubes so strongly advocates.

Given his popularity among these groups, I wonder what Taubes makes of this?

[*] Rockwell, in particular, seems prone to indulging just about every crank,conspiratorial, anti-science theory around. (They're all there, by the way. HIV/AIDS, evolution versus creationism, vaccines and autism, climate change... Even David Icke, alien technology and unlimited energy!)


Speaking of libertarian-based economic research, a good example of why experimental design is so important can be found by looking at Selgin, Lastrape and White's (2010) much-circulated paper, Has the Fed has been a failure?. The study itself is a great piece of historical writing that makes an important contribution to the literature. It also uses some fairly advanced empirical techniques such as GARCH time-series modelling. However, SLW don't provide a compelling counterfactual and, as such, their work can at best be described as a "pre-post" evaluation. Despite some overzealous reviews in libertarian circles then, this study was never meant to provide a definitive answer to the question that it asked. To their credit, SLW actually emphasize right at the outset (p. 1):
These findings do not prove that any particular alternative to the Fed would in fact have delivered superior outcomes: to reach such a conclusion would require a counterfactual exercise too ambitious to fall within the scope of what is intended as a preliminary survey. The findings do, however, suggest that the need for a systematic exploration of alternatives to the established monetary system, involving the necessary counterfactual exercises, is no less pressing today than it was a century ago. 

UPDATE: Dan Kuehn weighs in with some thoughts here.  He's not completely convinced that SLW heed their own warning...