11 Feb 2014

Don’t Ask George Selgin to Dance

Austrian School, Bryan Caplan 72 Comments

In a post full of his trademark pugnacity, George Selgin explains why he doesn’t consider himself an Austrian economist:

I don’t want to belong to any economic school of thought, or to “do” any sort of economics. I just want to “do” my own sort of economics.

And what sort of economics is that? I can’t tell you–I’ve never thought much about it. But perhaps that’s just it: I don’t “think” about writing any “sort” of economics. I don’t want to have to think about whether what I’m up to qualifies as “praxeology” or not, or whether Mises would mind my using terms like “money” and “inflation” the way most contemporary economists use them, instead of the way Mises himself used them a century ago. Nor am I any more inclined to trouble myself over whether my work fits neatly into any other economic school’s pigeonhole.

OK, but then I wonder: Does Selgin consider himself an economist? I mean, what if his scholarly interests take him into areas that fall outside the traditional boundary lines of this field? I wouldn’t want Selgin to get tripped up in the midst of a great flurry of writing, worrying about whether it qualifies as “economics” as opposed to “the great American novel.”

Then Selgin drives home his position with this flourish:

But if there’s one thing I truly believe concerning the “methodology” of economics, it’s that thinking about it is as helpful to actually doing economics as contemplating one’s steps is to dancing the rumba. In short, having to look over my shoulder while I think or write, at any methodological strictures at all, cramps my style.

Huh? That sounds hilarious, unless you actually think about it. (But maybe that’s the point? Selgin’s post is an ode to not having to consciously reflect on what it is we’re writing…)

If somebody is a newcomer to dancing, he sure as heck has to contemplate his steps in order to dance the rumba. And if even a professional dancer starts doing the foxtrot, and someone says, “Umm, I thought you were going to do the rumba?”, what recourse do we have except to contemplate the steps and see if the dreaded “label” fits?

But don’t worry kids: Even if you can’t dance, Bryan Caplan has the game theoretic tools by which you can avoid the deadly Friend Zone.

P.S. This post itself is pugnacious, but that’s because George and Bryan are big boys. I comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Wherever there is a smug economist, I’ll be there! (And you can reverse it too: Wherever I’ll be, there will be a smug economist.)

72 Responses to “Don’t Ask George Selgin to Dance”

  1. Ken B says:

    How about being a marxist economist? Or a feminist physicist?
    The question is are you committed to the adjective? Then it’s a bad thing.

  2. Ken B says:

    Can one be an ID biologist? I think in terms of your answer you have to say yes. ID is, let us be generous here for a moment, a disputed idea, that can be used in drawing inferences from biological structures and observations. You could use this idea to draw inferences in biology; you could elaborate arguments similar to the way Darwinists do. I think this is a conceptually possible thing to be. And I think it would qualify as a separate school of biology. If ID was not disputed idea but was agreed by everyone to be either right or wrong then you could no longer sensibly have a separate school here.
    But until thr ID dispute is resolved you can have schools of biology.

    Austrianism is based on a few contentious ideas. Praxeology and Say’s Law for example. Until these disputes are resolved you can have schools of economics.

    • Ken B says:

      Now of course the ID debate is resolved. ID is a crock, and no person advocating it deserves to be taken seriously on that issue.

      I think prax is a crock too, but there’s more to Austrianism than prax.

      • Bob Roddis says:

        Why don’t you take an incident that someone claims is self evident and run some tests on it?

        • Ken B says:

          Incident? I don’t get what you mean here Bob?

          • Bob Roddis says:

            Take some event that you claim Austrians claim is “praxeological”, run your empirical tests on it and prove that it really isn’t self evident at all.

            • Ken B says:

              Praxeological event? You mean like Mises themed dinner party?

              • Major_Freedom says:

                It’s funny that you can’t distinguish ideas from names of people.

              • Ken B says:


      • Matt Tanous says:

        “Now of course the ID debate is resolved. ID is a crock”

        Says the non-biologist. Certainly, if one is simply examining the evidence, there is a heap of fraud and blind assertion on the Darwinist “side” and some at least logical rationale for ID. Among that logical rationale that lends it credence is such diverse information as string theory.

        And for biogenesis, what does the Darwinist have? Assertions that amino acids must have been formed in the atmosphere (a questionable point), sustained themselves (more questionable), and spontaneously arranged themselves into complicated proteins according to randomly created RNA strands that somehow coded for sensible proteins, despite all laws of physics leading to the idea that this is virtually impossible (odds higher than the number of atoms estimated to even exist….). So… yeah. THAT right there. That’s a believable theory.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          Oh, and then those proteins have to spontaneously be arranged according to a pattern that actually formed a living cell. One that could both survive and reproduce, and so must have had multiple irreducibly complex basic systems simultaneously.

    • andrew' says:

      Ken b
      I don’t think you understand biology. At least not as I do. I am sort of a biologist. I don’t have time for inferences. I believe what my eyes see. And barely that. I’d is as useful to me as evolution is. That is not at all.

      Your debate is a straw man. To me.

      • Ken B says:

        This is a puzzling and weird comment andrew. All molecular biology is built on inferences! You think Crick SAW a double helix? You think homeobox genes are labelled, and you can just read what they are for? You think Krebs WATCHED his cycle?

        • andrew' says:

          You definition of inference is overbroad I think. If you don’t want to understand I’ll stop trying to explain.

          • andrew' says:

            I should say the practical definition.

            For example, I’m no historian, but it appears Mendel began his genetics research a decade before the origin of species was published. To me I might infer heheh that Darwinism is more cause than effect in practical science.

            Crick did not see a helix but his laboratory observations and Inferences did not depend on a faith in a hypothesis of Darwinism.

            • andrew' says:

              Also, I have inferred that science progresses largely on advances in what the scientist can see. YMMV.

            • Ken B says:

              Do you realize how scattered an incoherent your comments and thoughts are? Are you drunk?
              You denied the role of inference in biology. Period full stop. That is … Wrong.

              • andrew' says:

                Your bs doesn’t bother me.

                And you managed to turn a discussion of econ to obfuscating science and inference via a troll love Darwinism probably because of some other personality feature you have.

                I deny that science and inference are synonymous. In fact science is the systematic replacement of inference with evidence.

                But its not about inference it is about how much Darwinism matters. In my experience it has not come up one time. Go get a biochemistry book. Show me where Darwinism was a intrinsic to an inference.

              • andrew' says:

                Your understanding, emphasis of inference in how Darwinism in science or even biology are wrong. Darwinism is barely necessary for genetics. And plenty of science happens without inference. Your debate tactics and logical fallacies aren’t going to work.

              • Ken B says:

                Science doesn’t use inference! Amazing.

              • andrew' says:

                Now we can go into the lab and see a helix. So inference is required in a matter of degrees. And yes I’d include zero need for inference in some cases. You can just go and do an experiment and report the results. I rarely even read peoples conclusions anymore and I’ve noticed they are often perfunctory.

                Also, fmri is going to replace a lot of psychology inference (that never would have ended) with evidence. Maybe you wouldn’t call the neverending handringing in psychology “inference” but I would. Without a doubt a lot of inference in psychology would have been better devoted to pure trial and error in imaging.

            • Andrew' says:

              “Watson stated among other things that he … had seen…the B-DNA X-ray diffraction pattern”

              You may want to think very clearly before responding.

              • Andrew' says:

                You are mischaracterizing my point. I never said scientists never use inference. In fact, every time you take a temperature you are making an inference about the density of mercury or the resistance of a thermocouple, just as Watson “inferred” that what looked like a helix on diffraction was a helix. The point is the inference is not as important as you seem to be claiming.

              • Ken B says:

                Andrew you denied that as a biologist you needed inferences, you just need what you see. All I did was point out how absurd that claim is.

      • Harold says:

        “ID is as useful to me as evolution is”
        Notwithstanding the truth of ID, I don’t see how it is useful for a practising biologist. Evolution has great explanatory and predictive power. Can you explain how ID can actually be used in the pursuit of biology?

  3. Jonathan Finegold says:

    Actually, to be fair, economists tend to be “imperialists.”

  4. George Selgin says:

    Bob, it’s OK to be thinking about your steps with a dance instructor. But it’s a bad idea to do it with a hot date. If you’re not sure of the steps then, better take her to a movie.


    • Major_Freedom says:

      You wouldn’t be able to take her to any movie if you didn’t know how to walk.

      Sure, you can adequately wing it by doing the silly walk, but wouldn’t it be a lot better if you spent time doing what you believe cramps your style, so that you can take her to a movie like this?

      If you asked me, I’d rather do it right once, then do it wrong 100 times.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      Following the metaphor through to the bitter end, I interpret this to mean that an excess number of Austrians are trying to be dance instructors.

      No wonder they don’t get the hot dates.

    • andrew' says:

      Oh I understand now. You want to shag the economics!

    • Matt Tanous says:

      Alright. I consider myself an economist. I’m not bound by any methodology. No time to concern myself with “dance steps”.

      The price of fish is not determined by supply and demand, but by the number of silly hats worn by Finns on vacation in Spain.

      Did I do it right? You certainly can’t have a quibble with the methodology that led me to that conclusion!

  5. Benjamin Cole says:

    I liked the Selgin post. And my bet is that not one in 100 Austrians can dance…something about the gene pool attracted to Ausrianism

    • skylien says:

      Can you dance?

      • Benjamin Cole says:


        • skylien says:

          Great. Me too. What should this prove now?

  6. marris says:

    Great post. You’re BS detector is very good.

  7. Brian Albrecht says:

    To be fair, the label of Austrian economist is much more restricting than the label economist. However, your point is also a problem sometimes. Many economists bind themselves with the label economist and are afraid to think of what they consider non-economics.

    There is always a trade off between label as shortcut to group together a set of ideas and label as a “blinders” as Prof. Selgin says. Different economists choose different balances.

    Since most people think their views are much more nuanced than a simple school of thought, I would guess many economists don’t consider themselves in a school while their critics would lump them into a school. It happens all the time. Prof. Selgin is saying he doesn’t consider himself in a school, but is fine if others say he is.

  8. Liberty Jerk says:

    I’d ask Prof. Selgin to dance. Judging by the the google images he’s reasonably hot for an economist.

  9. Ryan Murphy says:

    I consider myself an Austrian even though I’m not Austrian. Take that.

  10. Gene Callahan says:

    I call this post “George makes a rather obviously true point about doing X versus thinking about doing X, and Bob goes nuts.”

    • Ken B says:

      My first thought was yes, but then I thought more about Bob’s approach. To Bob it really matters that the arguments be Austrian. We can speculate why, but it clearly does. Let’s say DK publishes a paper based not on data but on anecdotes. I think many would object to this methodology and if he produced an apologia like Selgin’s would dismiss it. I think that’s Bob’s idea: you need to anchor the what in the how.

      I’m not saying I agree with the murphster, but I am trying to see his point.

    • Bob Murphy says:


      I call this post, “George made what sounded like a great point, then Bob got us to reflect on it and see that maybe it wasn’t so profound after all. Maybe the people ‘worrying’ about method have a point.”

      Incidentally, my thing about “Would George consider himself an economist?” wasn’t rhetorical. I can imagine some of the behavioral / psych guys saying, “I don’t care if you label my research psychology or economics or sociology, I’m trying to figure out why the McDonald’s Dollar Menu causes jaywalking…period.”

    • Matt G says:

      The primacy of methodology depends on the field, does it not?

      If it’s clear that you can dance, it doesn’t much matter whether you dance correctly or have studied the philosophy of dance.

      If you can fix a leaky faucet, your knowledge of plumbing methodology is irrelevant.

      But try conducting a survey without paying proper attention to statistical methodology, and you will likely end up with interesting results that lead to conclusions that are quite wrong. As opposed to dance or plumbing, attention to methodology is a huge part of actually doing statistics.

      One of my big takeaways from Mises was that methodology is a big part of doing economics as well.

  11. skylien says:

    I see what George said but means with that and I see what Bob means…

    It was a poor way of putting it in my view. To say that “thinking about how to do something doesn’t help one actually doing it” is quite likely to be misunderstood. I am sure that George won’t deny the importance of the how, the methodology. Of course when you already know the how, you are not thinking about it constantly anymore because you do it automatically.

    On the other hand if there are sharp critics who tell you that you don’t know how to do it, then you should maybe reflect about that because that might be an indication that you maybe don’t know how it works. The criticism might come directly from the hot date you are dancing with because you are stepping on her feet constantly then maybe there is something wrong with how you do it. And it would be kind of stupid to say to her that her criticism doesn’t interest you which is what Bob is meaning.

    I see that many people seem to be interested in putting their views exactly in such a way that is likely to trigger other people’s sensitive points.

    • Ken B says:

      The dancing analogy makes it sound like having learnt a technique, but it seems Bob’s real point is the legitimacy and consistency of the techniques deployed.

  12. andrew' says:

    I once made a statement. George corrected me. I thought about it and decided I was right.

  13. andrew' says:

    Why do “economists” consider going from 60% labor participation to 61% to be “full employment”?

    I agree with Bob and George. In some ways austrianism is less restrictive than “economist.”

  14. RPLong says:

    I thought Selgin’s post was great. I remember reading a Henderson post at EconLog in which he (Henderson) said he felt like a Keynesian around Austrians and he felt like an Austrian around Keynesians. Or something to that effect. Anyway, it’s a great point: We should worry less about fitting in and worry more about whether what we’re doing is true. Truth doesn’t belong to any one “team” or “school of thought.”

    • Ken B says:

      If it’s not Scottish it’s crap!

      • Harold says:

        Except curling.

        • Harold says:

          Oh – that is Scottish. The Canucks are pretty good at it too.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      Replace Keynesian with Neoclassical, and that’s what he said.

      I realize on the methodological question that doesn’t mean much, but let’s be exact with our paraphrases here.

      • RPLong says:

        Even if so, he probably really meant “New Classical,” if we accept the breakdown I learned in school, which was that Smith et al = Classical, Marshall et al = Neoclassical, and Lucas et al = New Classical.

        But at a certain point, it’s the thrust that really matters, and it was the thrust I was getting at. But thanks for the correction, and I hope I didn’t offend anyone by my mistake.

        • Andrew_FL says:

          He might have said New Classical, actually. Now I’m less sure than I was.

          I do know he definitely did not said Keynesian

          I don’t think you did, by the way. I’m just being pedantic.

          • Ken B says:

            If we’re being very careful I believe the exact quote was “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.” But I might be wrong.

  15. Michael says:

    Lets say you want to solve a rubik’s cube, but don’t have one handy. You decide instead to simply play it out with pen and paper. This is difficult because even once you manage to accurately transcribe the location of each coloured square on your imaginary cube, you have to remember the rules of changing the orientation. You could, if careful, solve the cube by meticulously obeying the rules of the game, move by move. However, you could also solve the cube by purposely using moves which would normally be impossible on a physical cube – which wouldn’t be a “solution” at all. Unfortunately, we may even unintentionally break the rules through either inattention, ignorance, or error.

    That is why Bob is right to be rigid on methodology.

  16. walter Block says:

    What about this:

    Selgin, George A. 1988. “Praxeology and Understanding: An Analysis of the Controversy in Austrian Economics,” Review of Austrian Economics, (2), pp. 19-58; and Praxeology and Understanding, Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1990; http://www.mises.org/journals/rae/pdf/RAE2_1_2.pdf

    George was certainly an Austrian praxeologist when he wrote it. Does he now renounce this excellent essay of his?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Hmm it’s gonna take George some fancy footwork to get out of this one!

      • George Selgin says:

        And if I had written no such essay, Bob, you would say, “Selgin only rejects praxeology because he doesn’t know anything about it.”

        Go on: admit it!

        • Bob Murphy says:

          George, no, I wouldn’t say that. I know you’re very smart.

          • George Selgin says:

            Well, that’s not the answer I wanted–but I must say don’t mind it 🙂

  17. Anonyblogger says:

    Ah, the old, “My principle is to have no principles” trick.

    Reminds me of someone trying to use logic to argue “You can argue anything with logic”.

    Poor George.

  18. Andrew_FL says:

    I’m feeling like there’s an easy way to view this that reconciles the two different views.

    For example, George is right that when you’re dancing, metaphorically or literally, dancing correctly is more important than thinking about dancing correctly.

    But on the other hand, I don’t see Bob as someone who aspires to be a metaphorical dancer as a performer. The Austrian concern over methodology appears to stem mainly from a concern that a lot of people out there seem to not metaphorically dance correctly. Bob therefore is best understood as metaphorically attempting to be both a dancer and a dance instructor.

    Of course, both are needed-that is to say, more accurately, that both kinds have services to offer for which there is demand. People want to see metaphorical dancers and people want to learn how to dance.

    The only real problem seems to be that nearly every Austrian wants to be a dance instructor. But you can use the right methodology, without turning every use of into a dance lesson. You can dance if you want to.

    Mind you, that’s not a criticism. I think if no one was trying to be a dance instructor, metaphorically, that would be very bad indeed.

    • Matt Tanous says:

      “You can dance if you want to.”

      But can you leave your friends behind?

  19. Brian says:

    George Selgin is to Austrian economics as Rand Paul is to libertarian idealogy.

    • George Selgin says:

      Brian,this remark of yours would have a point _if_ I claimed to represent Austrian economics! But since that’s precisely what I’m gong out of my way _not_ to claim, it’s pretty darn pointless, is it not?

      • Brian says:

        Hi George – I actually intended this just the opposite of the way it seems you took it, so let me clarify:

        Rand Paul is essentially “in the camp” of libertarian idealogy. However, he does not claim (disavows?) that label. Furthermore, many “hard core” libertarians want nothing to do with attaching his name to libertarianism. Now doesn’t that sound like your relationship with Austrian economics?

        Furthermore: I am actually in favor of you doing what you do. I want people like Bob Murphy being so hard-core Rothbardian Austrian that no “respectable” institute of higher education would ever hire him (zombie videos and pro wrestling spoofs aid in that goal too!). But I also want people like you and Larry White doing more “mainstream” type analysis with an understanding of Austrian Business Cycle theory. Your imminent critique of the Fed is important, as is a Misesean/Rothbardian critique (IMHO).

        • George Selgin says:

          I, well, I did not know that Rand Paul doesn’t consider himself a libertarian–that was my fault.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          “Furthermore: I am actually in favor of you doing what you do. I want people like Bob Murphy being so hard-core Rothbardian Austrian that no “respectable” institute of higher education would ever hire him (zombie videos and pro wrestling spoofs aid in that goal too!). ”

          Love how you put “respectable” in quotes. As if you don’t buy the hype.

          • Brian says:

            ” As if you don’t buy the hype.”

            Indeed, I do not.

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