On Tyler Cowen's "Comical" 'War-Is-Good' Memo

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Submitted by Jo Salerno via Mises Economic blog,

Forbes’ columnist John Tamny executes an inspired and wonderfully savage critique of GMU economist Tyler Cowen’s dotty blog post touting the positive effects of war on economic growth.  Tamny takes his cue from Henry Hazlitt and writes in plain and muscular language.

“Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man.” – Henry Hazlitt, Economics In One Lesson, p. 15

 

The great Henry Hazlitt’s wise words came to mind while reading a recent New York Times post by George Mason economist Tyler Cowen. Fresh off of his unfortunate assertion (one that Hazlitt would have had a field day with) from a few years ago that economic growth has become difficult to achieve, Cowen strangely observed that “The world just hasn’t had that much warfare lately, at least not by historical standards,” and “Counterintuitive though it may sound, the greater peacefulness of the world may make the attainment of higher rates of economic growth less urgent and thus less likely.”

 

They’re ultimately only words, but Cowen’s about war theoretically boosting animal spirits are pretty disturbing ones, and that’s truly saying something when we consider past mutterings from the economics professor about a supposed lack of “low-hanging fruit” rendering future growth a distant object.

Here is a juicy sampler that should whet your appetite for the full meal:

[T]o clarify Cowen’s views to readers, he writes that “the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right – whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy.” His first example is laughable, and his second easily disprovable.

 

Government spending on science presumes that politicians can better allocate capital than can private actors operating under market discipline. To believe what Cowen is offering up, the lack of a war threat today is depriving Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner of the opportunity to expertly invest the money of others in the killing machines of the future; the knowledge gained from those investments eventually migrating to commercial ideas that would boost growth. You can’t make this up. Cowen is serious.

 

As for the notion that countries somehow need the threat of war to achieve great scientific advances, or better yet, liberalize their economies, apparently Switzerland, Hong Kong, and New Zealand (among many others) didn’t get Cowen’s comical memo. With all three, no credible voice in modern times has argued that either faced war or imminent attack that would have “focused” the attention of their politicians on the way to economy-boosting liberalization, or, if Cowen is to be believed, political advancement of “technological invention” and greater “internal social order” supposedly needed for major expansion.

 

Indeed, what all three remind us, and it’s something seemingly lost on Cowen, is that economic growth is really very simple. We all have myriad wants and needs, our production is our demand, so when governments remove the barriers to production, the individuals who comprise any economy tend to thrive.

 

Thinking about the U.S. economy with the latter in mind, our economy is presently limp not because we lack some national, war-mongering purpose (apparently Cowen forgot all the national initiatives of the 20th century that robbed the world of well over 100 million people), but precisely because our political class has violated the four basics (taxes, regulation, trade, and money) to economic growth.

Read Tamny's full 'attack' here