Monday, November 25, 2013

Bastiat's Conundrum: Communication is Key to Engaging Society

Not only is Frederic Bastiat a brilliant economist who wrote with extraordinary logical reasoning and depth, but also he clearly communicated to the layman. His works are not for the intellectual and academia, although I would hope both would appreciate his insights nonetheless. No, his works are written in a simple way that can communicate an introduction to economics for any layperson (including myself). Indeed Bastiat's most famous essay, The Law, is not a large conglomeration of economic jargon which only a few economics professors could decipher after a few years of study. On the contrary, it is a book that a high school senior could read and understand in about one or two hours.

So clear and profound is Bastiat's work, but he is little known. Evidently, being simple and clear is not a winning philosophy in the world of academia. As Donald J. Boudreaux explained in July, 2013,
"Bastiat was Keynes’s opposite in more ways than one.  Not only was Bastiat’s substantive economics poles apart from that of Keynes – and not only is Keynes, unlike the obscure Bastiat, still celebrated as one of history’s greatest and most influential economists – but Bastiat’s prose is always crystal clear, entertaining, and accessible.  As in the past, no reader must struggle to grasp Bastiat’s meaning.  But even professional economists must tussle with and tug at Keynes’s prose in The General Theory to uncover its meaning.  Reading Bastiat’s works and grasping his meaning gives no scholar any sense of accomplishment.  It's all so easy and enjoyable! The typical scholar’s conclusion, therefore, is that Bastiat was an intellectual lightweight.  That conclusion, of course, is wholly mistaken."

As sad as it is that scholars will write off Bastiat as shallow because of his clear and understandable writing style, we must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that sometimes we think in the exact same way. If we can easily understand a point someone is making, we might be quick to assume that we already knew that point in the first place. But this is not necessarily true. A great communicator is one who can make a new and complicated topic seem like one you've known your whole life.

The more important takeaway from Bastiat's lack of renown though is a simple dilemma. It appears, that in our writing today, we have to choose whom we wish to engage, the scholars or the layperson. This conundrum, which I like to call Bastiat's Conundrum, is touched on in the Foundation for Economic Education article, "On Being a Catalyst."

In this article, Max Borders explains why instead of staying in an abstract world, economists should try to engage with people and persuade them to action. He uses the word "Catalyst" because in chemistry these are the substances that start a chemical reaction. He asks us simply what reaction to advance liberty are we starting by our words and actions. The best way for me to further explain his article is by letting you see the climax of his position. He writes,
"Being a classical liberal, the old way is seductive. We can spend our days sanctimoniously nitpicking other libertarians’ M.O.s on Facebook. We can craft our seamless syllogisms. We can write yet another journal article or whitepaper that will be read by friends who undoubtedly agree with us. We can rant and rave about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or we can become catalysts."

Mr. Borders wishes economists to catalyze action among people, and indeed this is the key to the answering Bastiat's Conundrum. Being a catalyst starts by first deciding that it's the layperson who needs to be affected, not the academic scholars. Although I have nothing against academia (indeed, I oft had dreams of entering into such a profession myself), I must say that in bringing about real political change, what we need is the layperson on our side.

Liberty advances not based on the abstract works of academia unreadable by all but a select few, but rather through the actions of the population. The most obvious example is seen in the events surrounding the American Revolution. The Revolution was fought by a group of laypeople. The Boston Tea Party was executed by a group of laypeople. Thomas Paine's Common Sense was written for laypeople. It would be amiss to try to imagine an American nation "conceived in liberty" without these events. It wasn't the abstract works that made all the difference, but rather the common people who applied those abstract ideas in the real world.

Thus, the world needs more writers like Bastiat (and Max Borders), who are profound writers who know how to communicate and engage the world. But as Max Borders mentions, this is not enough. I'm sure Thomas Paine's Common Sense would not have been as impactful had he not suggested that America take specific action. It's time to engage the common people. It's time to persuade people to action. It's time to be catalysts.

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