Why conservatives should listen to Max Richter

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start? I argue: composer Max Richter.

I wrote a thread about this on Twitter, but I purge my Twitter pretty regularly and wanted a more stable version stored somewhere.

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start?

Source: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, link

I think it would be a mistake to follow left-wing politicians as your first point of call, or to follow left-wing media. Just like right-wing politicians and media, they preach to the choir, so you’ll see the obvious flaws in their arguments (c.f. do they know that governments aren’t always beneficent?) and feel like they’re misrepresenting you [a conservative] in about three seconds. There are some excellent left-wing commentators whom I follow and whom I would recommend, but unless you understand where they’re coming from, they too can seem like they just “don’t get it”.

One fairly apolitical starting point I’d recommend would be Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which explores the underlying psychology of political thinking (and why we’re all more biased and less reasonable than we think). But today I want to recommend someone different, someone more overtly political: composer Max Richter.

Richter himself seems quite firmly on the left, and it’s reflected in the political nature of much of his work. The Blue Notebooks, his second album, was a protest album against the Iraq War; VOICES, his latest, is an exaltation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Richter’s work is rare among contemporary classical music (and among contemporary art more generally) inasmuch as it is overtly political while also being genuinely sympathetic and uncynical. The Blue Notebooks may have been a protest album, but it has none of the angry hubris one can easily associate with protest. It’s an expression of sympathetic and uncynical sorrow—sorrow that things clearly aren’t as they were meant to be. That grief against a fallen world—not a patriarchal world, or a capitalist world, or a racist world, but a fallen world—is something most conservatives can easily relate to.

“On the Nature of Daylight”, the most famous piece from The Blue Notebooks.

Unlike so much contemporary art, Richter’s aim is explicitly to take you with him. Richter is not an elitist, and unlike much of the commentariat, he wants his messages to be open to everyone. As such, his music is transparently beautiful. To be clear, it’s technically proficient and he is situated in an esteemed musical tradition, exhibiting influences from Pärt, Bach, Glass, and many others. But you don’t need to know that, or them, to love Richter. His beauty stands on its own.

Songs from Before is, in my view, Richter’s most beautiful album, and “Sunlight” is one of its most beautiful songs.

In a move conservatives would approve of, Richter unabashedly reaches backwards just as he reaches forwards. He does not seek clean breaks with the past, nor a complete reinvention of musical forms. Instead, he seeks to synthesise modernity and history in a way that brings out the beauty in both. A Burkean composer for our age!

Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed retains the original’s Baroque character while integrating it with contemporary musical traditions.

Richter’s political vision is also not frantic or ecstatic. He composed Sleep, an eight-hour long orchestral composition that lends to its listener a surreal and almost dreamlike mood, in good part as a reaction against the aggression and intensity of modernity. He sees what we have lost in the march of progress, and he looks to restore it.

On a day when you don’t really have to speak to anyone, it’s worth listening to Sleep the whole way through. It really does feel like you’ve stepped outside modernity for a day and into ataraxia.

Many conservatives, myself included, are somewhat tired of the way many left-wing politicians talk about human rights. There are ever more commissions enforcing ever narrower understandings of The Good on ever broader segments of society. So it can be tempting to write off human rights as a “left-wing” concept. Richter reminds you of why that is impermissible: he reminds you that human rights are based in the fundamental respect for the dignity and divinity of all human beings, and that only our cynicism and anger could have let us forget that.

VOICES has individuals worldwide read sections from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is worth listening to Richter first, so as to understand the sentiment driving him, and then reading his views on politics. If you start with Richter’s music, it is easier to understand that his politics, too, are uncynical and in that sense innocent. His politics know sorrow, understand fallenness, and do not offer cheap slogan-based solutions. But nonetheless they maintain their utopian hope in a better world. If there is something conservatives forget too easily, it is this: while traditions serve us well and progressives are too rash to upend the foundations of society, this world is not as it should be, and it never has been. The utopianism that we reject is often dangerous and hubristic and sectarian, but if we reject utopianism completely and reject the possibility of mending this broken world, we harden our hearts. Understanding that is, I think, key to understanding the best parts of the left, and Richter provides the return to innocence needed to entertain that worldview. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

“Mercy”, the first piece composed for VOICES, was originally written against the activities in Guantanamo Bay.

All good societies are judgemental

Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Theresa

Over the last year or so I keep having iterations of the same very bizarre conversation about whether it’s a good thing for us to judge[1] people for engaging in activities that were, until very recently, discouraged by “prohibition norms” (i.e. norms that prohibit a specific activity). Here is a caricatured version of the conversation for casual sex:

Me: We should have really strong norms discouraging casual sex and we should be pretty critical of friends and family who engage in it.

Interlocutor: Why are you such a prude? Casual sex is a lot of fun! Why do you want to make fewer people have fun?

Me: Do you think, in cases of casual sex, that there’s a risk of misunderstanding regarding whether consent was given if someone is extremely inexperienced?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you think that any event occurring behind closed doors with someone you’re not necessarily close to in the middle of the night is almost necessarily a precarious place for people to be, and that things are likely to go wrong if we encourage that sort of interaction on any large scale?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you agree that the “best” type of casual sex involves both parties’ genuinely making sure that their counterparty is enjoying themselves, as opposed to a transactional “finish-and-go”-type arrangement, and that it’s difficult to encourage people—especially young people—to consider others’ needs that deeply, especially when (as above) this is virtually always a behind-closed-doors encounter without witnesses and therefore without the obvious judgement of others?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Well it sounds like you agree with me that there are huge issues with most casual sex that does occur, i.e. that you agree that the world is not clearly better when we “judge” casual sex less than we used to.

Interlocutor: Oh, well, I mean, all of the scenarios you mention are bad and obviously I think people should be more responsible and stuff, but you can’t punish everyone just because a few people do it badly!

Me: Ok, sure—I’m happy to accept that I’ve maybe made the wrong trade-off between respecting individual agency and avoiding bad consequences—but do you at least then agree that in your world it’s really important for us to have vocal and frequent conversations with our friends and family encouraging them to not engage in casual sex until they are sure they’re unlikely to do anything unethical?

Interlocutor: Oh, but I mean, it’s just a bit of fun! Why do you want me to be so serious about it?

I have variants of this conversation with respect to nuclear-family gender norms, norms discouraging drug taking, norms discouraging polyamory, etc. The counterarguments start with a nonchalant consequentialist argument from some idealised paradigmatic case, followed by a concession that the idealised case isn’t representative matched with a principled case against restricting the behaviours of well-behaved individuals, followed by a return to the earlier stance of nonchalance in spite of the earlier admission that there are often serious issues with the activity! Astounding!

There seem to be two basic truisms about most rules, be they law or norm:

  1. The rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like: we set the voting age at 18 even though some people are probably mature enough to vote by 16 and others still not by 40; it’s polite to cover your mouth and nose for sneezes even when they result from allergies and not from an infectious disease; and people will glare at you for taking your shoes off on a plane even if your feet happen not to smell at all. The question is not “does the rule restrict harmless activities” (it always does) but rather “can we make the rule more fine-grained with publicly available information?”. Everyone can claim their feet don’t smell bad (and therefore that the rule shouldn’t apply to them), but we generally don’t know if they’re lying until after they’d already taken their shoes off. A norm of “only people with smelly feet must keep their shoes on” relies on information that will not be available to anyone except the person the norm needs to restrict—hardly a neutral observer who is free from conflicts of interest!
  2. The only way around this problem of insufficient publicly available information is better people: if we trusted everyone to be honest about their foot odour, we would not need any norm against on-plane shoe removal. The law is not enacted for the righteous but for the sinful, after all.

On truism (1), I’m happy to accept that I might have made the wrong trade-off when I say “when we judge all casual sex really harshly, the reduction in ‘good’ casual sex is worth it because of the ‘bad’ casual sex we’ve avoided”. This is an especially easy claim for me to make seeing as I object to casual sex (and most drug use, polyamory, etc.) on religious and ethical grounds as well as these purely consequentialist ones, but I can fully appreciate that those who don’t share my specific religious and ethical convictions would find this trade-off overly puritanical. So maybe the necessary coarseness of rules really is a reason for us to minimise prohibition norms and the associated judging of prohibited activities. But if that’s really the case, then truism (2) should suddenly become far more important, especially since truism (1) also applies in reverse: the absence of a rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like, since it will allow things we didn’t intend or want when we relaxed the rule (e.g. relaxing airport security would certainly relieve us all of a substantial burden when boarding a plane, but it would also presumably make it easier for terrorism to occur).

Stated in other words, this means that prohibition norms must be replaced with “responsibility norms”—i.e. norms explicitly geared to encouraging responsible behaviour around the activity. If you want to avoid judging all casual sex, that means you have to judge specific instances of casual sex instead and have long, vocal conversations with your friends and family where you make sure they’re sufficiently responsible to engage with it sensibly. It means you have to be prepared to judge someone who has casual sex when they weren’t ready to or shouldn’t have in the same way you would judge someone who goes on a continuous 10-hour drive the day after getting their licence or who drives while very hungover and possibly still over the blood-alcohol limit. Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

And if it sounds too unpleasant to vocally and explicitly dissect whether friends and family are behaving unethically and why, then fine! Join me in the blanket-prohibition norm camp. I am in favour of blanket prohibition norms at least in part because I think puritanism comes more naturally to people than nuance: “did you have casual sex at all” is a far easier question to answer than “did you have casual sex while doing all the specific things you needed to do to make that a safe and mutually beneficial act”. But it’s clear that in either case we should never be comfortable with seeing these things as “just a bit of fun”, because we should never sit comfortably with conditions ripe for deliberately ambiguous consent, outright sexual assault, or transactionalised sex. You could argue (I wouldn’t, but you could) that the heightened likelihood of very bad sex must be tolerated in order to achieve other ends (e.g. not unduly restricting the behaviour of responsible, safe agents), but that is still not an argument for ignoring that heightened likelihood. The available options, on any of these questions, are “create puritanical prohibition norms to stamp the activity out as much as possible” or “have a bunch of really difficult conversations to reinforce the gravity of doing something wrong”. That’s all. There is no good world where these things shouldn’t be judged.

If I were to be really uncharitable in my reading of this, I would say that people hold the “just a bit of fun” view because they don’t think they would ever do anything wrong and they want to avoid having hard conversations with people (since these are always unpleasant). But I think that would be unfair, and inaccurate. I think the bigger problem is that all people’s paradigmatic image of these activities—be it casual sex, drug taking, polyamory, etc.—is monochromatic: the “live-and-let-live” camp pictures a night of harmless fun, and the conservative camp pictures an exploitative interaction with a high possibility of undesired pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abuse. People are perfectly capable of consciously understanding that their paradigmatic image of these activities is not, in fact, representative (or, at least, the “live-and-let-live” camp is capable of acknowledging this—I certainly know some conservatives who would insist that all casual sex is necessarily terrible), but that doesn’t change the fact that they keep using this paradigmatic image in any future considerations of the topic.

I’m not really sure how to get around this problem. Preliminary psychological work on this stuff[2] would indicate that people either see things as high-risk low-benefit or low-risk high-benefit (i.e. they struggle to imagine that a given activity might be both potentially very beneficial and potentially very risky, so their paradigmatic images will always be clearly net-positive or clearly net-negative). That being said, we (as in Australia) seem to have achieved the right balance on at least some things, such as driving: driving is a clear benefit for the driver (no taxi fare, quicker than public transport, etc.), but we as individuals tend to get very judgemental very quickly when someone tries to drive in an unsafe way (e.g. driving while tired, drink-driving, driving needlessly recklessly), so it’s clearly possible to have selective judgementalism on performance of a given risky activity, at least in theory. I’m just not sure exactly how we would ever achieve this for casual sex or drug taking.


[1] Some clarifications on my use of the word “judge”: I do not mean “judge” in the sense of “look down from on high and say ‘I, as someone holier than you, have deemed your behaviour to be unsatisfactory’”. What I mean is: “You know that your actions violate well-established social norms and/or you know that these actions violate your conscience. I beg better behaviour of you, not by my standards but by yours, and not as a superior, but as one infinitely more wretched and fallen than you”. In other words, people should “judge” in the sense that Alyosha or Zozima from The Brothers Karamazov “judges”—not from on high, but from the assumption that they are the “most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world” (p.298, Everyman’s edition). Since this isn’t really concordant with the sense of superiority inherent to the word “judge”, maybe a better word would be “admonish” or “exhort”, since neither of those have the inherent connotation of superiority. But, 95% of the people I have this conversation with don’t know the words “admonish” or “exhort”, so I’m sticking with “judge” in this post.

[2] Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(1), 1–17. <a href=”https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1<1::AID-BDM333>3.0.CO;2-S

You don’t want humanities departments—you want Volkshochschulen

Humanities departments in universities are neither the only nor the best way of providing a humanities education. They are extremely expensive, the specific content is in most cases too technical, and they are hard to access unless you’re an 18–22-year-old with no dependents or other commitments. Volkshochschulen offer a flexible, scalable, and efficient alternative.

The Australian government recently announced some changes to university funding arrangements [1], most notably among which is that humanities degrees will now cost AU$14,500 while “job-ready” degrees like teaching and mathematics will cost AU$3,700.

Table 1: Student and government contributions for university courses in 2021

Band Discipline Cost to student Cost to government
1 Teaching, English [including literature], mathematics, and postgraduate clinical psychology AU$3,700 AU$13,500
Nursing and languages AU$16,500
Agriculture AU$27,000
2 Health, architecture, information technology, and creative arts AU$7,700 AU$13,500
Engineering, environmental studies and science AU$16,500
3 Medical, dental and veterinary science AU$11,300 AU$27,000
4 Management and commerce, arts, humanities (excluding languages), behavioural science (i.e. undergraduate psychology), law, economics and communications AU$14,500 AU$1,100
Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment [2]

The stated aim is to guide students away from graduate-saturated professions like law to more “job-ready” areas where employment prospects are better. I’ll leave it to others to argue the merits or flaws of that aim. In this post, I want to address one specific argument against the government’s reforms: that a decrease in funding for university humanities departments and degrees devalues the humanities and necessarily diminishes the available humanities education. I will argue that universities are an extremely inefficient way of achieving accessible and high-quality humanities education and that Australia should instead consider adopting an Volkshochschulen adult education system, as used in Germany and other northern European countries, that includes humanities courses.

I’ll begin with two questions:

  1. Why should someone study the humanities at all?
  2. Why should someone study the humanities at university specifically?

The answers to Question 1 are (I hope) at least relatively clear: it enhances students’ capacity to think about abstract problems, it exposes students to a variety of perspectives (e.g. from other cultures, from other time periods, etc.) to which they would otherwise likely not have been exposed, it enables students to better understand their own culture and country and their place in it, it gives students frames to think about morality, and so on. All of these are absolutely important for citizens of a liberal democracy and I do not seek to denigrate any of them. More Australians should study the humanities. [3]

But the answers to Question 2 are not so obvious. A year-long reading group on classics of Western philosophy or an evening class on Aboriginal art would achieve the above goals as well as would a formal academic education. What university specifically adds is quite niche: it enables students to write extended technical essays on these topics, it situates students in the specific academic fashions regarding these topics (these change more often than the lay person would think, even for very old areas like Ancient Greek philosophy), and it establishes students on a pathway to becoming humanities academics. These ends aren’t unimportant, but they’re certainly not relevant to most people for obvious reasons.

Further, while university does not offer many unique benefits above and beyond extra-academic methods of studying the humanities, it does offer many unique costs. In the first instance, I’ll just note that universities are extremely expensive for both students and for the taxpayer. Under pre-reform student fees, a philosophy student would cost the government AU$6,116 per student per year, a sociology student would cost the government AU$10,821, and a foreign-language student would cost the government $13,308 per year. An ever-greater proportion of costs for these fields have been borne by students under successive government reform packages (see, for instance, new arrangements starting in 2007 [4]), so these numbers would be even higher under, say, inflation-adjusted 2005 figures (and they would be even higher again under proposals [5] of free tertiary education, in which the government would assume the full cost). This is similar to the amount the government spends per primary school student (AU$12,604 in 2015 [6]), and they are monitored continuously for 6.5 hours of the day!

Table 2: Student and government contributions for university courses in 2020

Band

Discipline

Cost to student

Cost to government

1

History, archaeology, indigenous studies, criminology, English, linguistics, philosophy, religious studies

AU$6,684

AU$6,116

Behavioural science (i.e. undergraduate psychology), sociology, anthropology, gender studies, social work

AU$10,821

Clinical psychology, foreign languages, visual and performing arts

AU$13,308

Nursing

AU$14,858

2

Mathematics, statistics, computing, building and architecture, community health, other health (e.g. massage)

AU$9,527

AU$10,821

Allied health (e.g. pharmacy, optical science, etc.)

AU$13,308

Science, engineering, or surveying

AU$18,920

Agriculture

AU$24,014

3

Law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce

AU$11,155

$2,198

Dentistry, medicine, or veterinary science

$24,014

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment [7]

I’m certainly not the first person [8] to make this point, but this is an insane amount to be spending on a humanities education if we mostly care about making sure that Australians are well-educated in the humanities. Further, a lot of this money does not go to teaching the humanities at all! Much of it funds the substantial bureaucracy of universities (ask yourself, why do not-for-profit public universities need marketing departments?), and a large amount (i.e. in the billions) cross-subsidises academic research [9]. Tutors have to be paid to mark essays and exams—even if (as I argue above) these essays and exams are sufficiently technical and academic in nature that they would not likely contribute to the holistic aims of a humanities education. All of this adds up to a hefty sum.

Source: SMBC Comics [10]

There’s another unique point about a humanities education at universities: it’s very hard to do alongside full-time work or training. Some more vocationally oriented courses (for instance, law masters’ degrees) offer weekend intensives or evening classes, but lectures and tutorials for more traditional humanities courses fall almost exclusively in business hours. Needless to say, this makes it difficult for an electrician or a nurse to study the humanities at university, even though we certainly want to offer them the opportunity of a high-quality humanities education (a major point of a humanities education is that it is not meant to be limited to the aristocratic classes!).

This isn’t to say nobody should study the humanities at university—aspiring academics certainly should, as well as any who want to “get into the weeds” of academic humanities research. But most people don’t need or want to write a dissertation on Norse influences on Shakespearean neologisms—they just want the capacity to discuss and think more deeply than is generally possible in the prosaic world. For these people, I propose that we seriously consider the northern European model of Volkshochschulen.

Literally translated as “people’s universities”, Volkshochschulen are amped-up adult education institutes [11]: in addition to the standard adult-education offerings of school-leaving certificates and integration courses for recent immigrants, Volkshochschulen offer a variety of courses in social and political topics, art, foreign languages, and health. Set up in the early 20th century to enable all classes of society to enjoy the benefits of a humanities education, Volkshochschulen in German enjoy heavy subsidies such that term-long courses can be taken for roughly €20. So, instead of nurses’ or electricians’ having to go down to part-time hours or take extended leave if they want to study literature, they could take a term-long evening class on Austen for the price of an expensive dinner. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Volkshochschulen observe a much broader age range of students than do humanities courses in Australian universities. There is genuine life-long engagement with deeper questions.

Source: Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband [12]

Even at German levels of government subsidy, Volkshochschule courses would be much cheaper to run than courses at a university. You could conceivably hire a literature PhD graduate at AU$100k p/a to teach five different literature evening courses and this would still only amount to the same government subsidy as ten sociology students at university. This is an oversimplification—there are overheads, of course—but it is not a ridiculous one. Even accounting for some overheads, there is every reason to assume that a wide variety of courses could offered at minimal cost to the taxpayer in a way that basically all taxpayers could actually enjoy. Due to these low costs and the fact that courses do not need to count towards a degree or some pre-specified learning objectives, Volkshochschulen can be scaled as required for community needs and desires, as has happened in Germany. It would be difficult to justify establishing a Department of English Literature at the La Trobe University campus in Mildura, but there’s no reason to assume an ad-hoc Volkshochschule couldn’t run courses in literature out of the town hall.

This argument of “hurting humanities department is a rejection of the humanities” therefore needs to die. Humanities departments in universities are neither the only nor the best way of providing a humanities education. They are extremely expensive, the specific content is in most cases too technical, and they are hard to access unless you’re an 18–22-year-old with no dependents or other commitments. Volkshochschulen offer a flexible, scalable, and efficient alternative.


[1] Conor Duffy, “University fees to be overhauled, some course costs to double as domestic student places boosted”, ABC News, 19 June 2020, link

[2] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “2021 allocation of units of study to funding clusters and student contribution bands according to field of education codes”, 26 June 2020, link

[3] There is another, more instrumental, argument that is often deployed for studying the humanities: namely, that it improves one’s ability to communicate. I am profoundly sceptical of this argument. In the first instance, the feedback given on essays is often minimal at best and largely relates to argumentation, not expression. Further, and purely as anecdotal evidence, I formerly worked as the editor of a policy publication and managed a team of sub-editors, who were mostly students—often top-performing ones. Almost invariably, law and humanities students were the worst editors by a substantial margin. It may well be true that many good writers enter the humanities, but I would refute any claim that study of the humanities causes an increase in writing quality.

[4] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “Indexed rates for 2007”, 11 December 2013, link

[5] Fergus Hunter, “Free university and TAFE under ‘transformational’ Greens education plan”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2018, link

[6] James Mahmud Rice, Daniel Edwards and Julie McMillan, Education Expenditure in Australia, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2019, link

[7] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, “2020 allocation of units of study to funding clusters and student contribution bands according to field of education codes.”, 18 June 2020, link

[8] See, for instance, Tanner Greer, “Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity”, The Scholar’s Stage, 14 January 2018, link

[9] Andrew Norton, “The cash nexus: how teaching funds research in Australian universities”, Grattan Institute, November 2015, link

[10] SMBC Comics, “College-Level Mathematics”, link

[11] “Volkshochschulen: Zahlen, Daten und Fakten über Deutschlands größten Weiterbildungsanbieter”, Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, link

[12] “Volkshochschulen: Zahlen, Daten und Fakten über Deutschlands größten Weiterbildungsanbieter”, Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, link

Review of Economics in Two Lessons

In short, this is a deeply inadequate economics primer that the “uninitiated” should probably not read, least those who already sympathise with Quiggin’s policy prescriptions. If you want a “balanced” economics primer, you’d be better off starting any of the many better options (suggestions down the bottom).

Reposted from Goodreads here.

In short, this is a deeply inadequate economics primer that the “uninitiated” should probably not read, least those who already sympathise with Quiggin’s policy prescriptions. If you want a “balanced” economics primer, you’d be better off starting any of the many better options (suggestions down the bottom).

In discussions I have with well-meaning friends who have not formally studied economics, I often find myself coming to a point where I’ll say something like “But obviously a firm will not employ a worker if the hourly revenues generated by that worker are exceeded by the wage of that worker”, the friend will give me a blank look, and I will promptly remember that I have no good economics primer to lend to them. To remedy this situation, I purchased Quiggin’s Economics in Two Lessons and its predecessor, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, since I was concerned that, even though Hazlitt is the classic and substantially shorter than Quiggin, Economics in One Lesson might be unbalanced. On that basis, I wanted a “back-up”, albeit one with less renown or conciseness. After having read both, I am astounded to say the dead opposite: despite my broadly centre-left policy views, I found Hazlitt to do exactly what an economics primer should do (dispel common economic falsehoods that echo around the mediascape and introduce its readers to the “economic way of thinking” with minimum bias) and Quiggin to do exactly what an economics primer shouldn’t do (heavily reinforce a specific policy prescription without giving a sufficient grounding to enable readers to discern for themselves which economic statements in the mediascape are still equivocal and which are assuredly false).

Quiggin isn’t entirely accurate in what kind of book he’s trying to write, and he doesn’t portray his opponents with any degree of fairness, and the combination of those two would lead someone with no economic background deeply astray.

What do I mean by “he isn’t accurate in what kind of book he’s trying to write”? Well, to explain by way of contrast, Hazlitt is very clear about what his book will accomplish:

This book is an analysis of economic fallacies that are at last so prevalent that they have almost become a new orthodoxy… When analyzing fallacies, I have thought it still less advisable to mention particular names than in giving credit. To do so would have required special justice to each writer criticized, with exact quotations, account taken of the particular emphasis he places on this point or that, the qualifications he makes, his personal ambiguities, inconsistencies, and so on. I hope, therefore, that no one will be too disappointed at the absence of such names as Karl Max, Thorstein Veblen, Major Douglas, Lord Keynes, Professor Alvin Hansen and others in these pages. The object of this book is not to expose the special errors of particular writers, but economic errors in their most frequent, widespread, or influential form. Fallacies, when they have reached the popular stage, become anonymous anyway. The subtleties or obscurities to be found in the authors most responsible for propagating them are washed off. A doctrine becomes simplified; the sophism that may have been buried in a network of qualifications, ambiguities or mathematical equations stands clear. I hope I shall not be accused of injustice on the ground, therefore, that a fashionable doctrine in the form in which I have presented it is not precisely the doctrine as it has been formulated by Lord Keynes or some other special author. It is the beliefs which politically influential groups hold and which governments act upon that we are interested in here, no the historical origins of those beliefs. (p.7-11, emphasis mine)

This last sentence is especially salient, as it means that Hazlitt is free to criticise economics as it is crudely discussed in the press and in politics without necessarily arguing that such crudeness is endemic to an entire school and without attacking specific individuals where Hazlitt believes such an attack is unwarranted. Quiggin makes no such qualification, and in attacking “One Lesson” economists (his term for “laissez-faire” or “free-market”), he tars with the same brush everyone from corporate lobbyists through to well-meaning academic economists who are simply sceptical of government power. As a result, Quiggin jumps between views that almost all laissez-faire economists would genuinely hold (e.g. “governments will generally be less efficient than private enterprise in implementing the same project”) and views that virtually none of them would hold (e.g. “all people are literally Homo economicus”). He spends most of the book therefore attacking a straw man and therefore pleasantly avoiding having to respond to the best criticisms of the laissez-faire group. An example of the ridiculousness this leads him to is best exemplified in his repeated claims that “One-Lesson” economists have apparently failed to study what would constitute basic components of any undergraduate economics major:

The difference between One Lesson and Two Lesson economists is neatly reflected in the theory of welfare economics. One Lesson economists read the theory as far as the First Fundamental Theorem [of Welfare Economics] and then close the book, satisfied that they have discovered everything they need to know. They ignore the more important and interesting Second Theorem and fail to recognise that the allocation of property rights is the critical factor in determining which of the infinite range of possible market equilibrium outcomes is realised. (p.148)

What?! Like, by all means, I’m sure some poorly read conservative politicians genuinely think that “free markets always without exception lead to efficient prices”, but anyone who actually knows what the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics is would absolutely know what the Second Fundamental Theorem is! They’re generally presented in the same lecture in a second- or third-year microeconomics course!

Again, Hazlitt can get away with his more polemical style because he’s clear in predominantly attacking lobbyists, and he’s very clear when he’s attacking a specific economist whose specific view he doesn’t like. Quiggin just seems to genuinely believe that everyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren is genuinely motivated by cartoonish stupidity and selfishness.

On that point, this book contains a simply astonishing amount of ad hominem. Economists like Hayek are respected by modern laissez-faire economists, but they’re not held as infallible prophets whose works are scripture — the only people who act like that are politicians and lobbyists (again, this is the danger of attacking all your intellectual opponents with the same brush). In spite of this, Quiggin devotes an astounding amount of time irrelevantly attacking historical economists as people. A few choice selections:

The idea of opportunity cost was brought into the mainstream of economics by Austrian and Austrian-influenced economists, most notably F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Lionel Robbins. Unfortunately, all three were dogmatic One Lesson economists, who stripped von Wieser’s idea of its egalitarian implications. (p.27)

Before explaining this [Pareto-efficiency], it’s important to understand Pareto’s broader body of thought, one that led him in the end to support the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. (p.145)

Over time, however, the view that many, perhaps most, labor markets are monopolistic has gained ground, at least among those economists open to empirical evidence. (p.186, emphasis mine)

Again, to those who know nothing about economists, maybe these seem like relevant points, but if you do know anything, they clearly aren’t! If you don’t know anything about Hayek, maybe it seems reasonable to decry him as an dogmatic “amoral free-marketeer” (as opposed to someone who certainly saw a substantial role for government, though in certain circumscribed spheres, and someone who cared deeply about the welfare of all). If you don’t really know what Pareto-optimality is, maybe the fascist connections of Vilfredo Pareto seem relevant (even though they’re clearly not, since Pareto-optimality can be introduced as a bland technical definition, and in the first instance is introduced in virtually all economics courses in the context of “you want to exhaust all possible Pareto-optimal options first since nobody is worse off, though clearly the distribution of wealth matters a lot too”). If you don’t know the literature, maybe it seems like there is an overwhelming empirical consensus that labor markets are all monopolistic, meaning minimum wages can be introduced without penalty (even though this isn’t unequivocal, as is demonstrated by the Seattle minimum wage study). This is a big problem with Quiggin’s book: because this is an introductory text, most readers won’t know enough to differentiate between his genuine argument and his polemic. These ad-hominem attacks are virtually all presented in advance of the dissection of the authors’ key ideas, if the key ideas are presented at all, which reinforces Quiggin’s contention that “One Lesson” economists are all evil corporatist trolls but hardly helps a reader to know truth.

In addition to all of this, Quiggin seems more keenly motivated in some sections by self-aggrandisement than by a desire to educate, which makes his already polemical and scattered work even more polemical and scattered. For instance, he has a bad habit of needlessly giving etymologies or original-language equivalents even when it adds nothing:

The same cannot be said of Friedrich von Wieser, the Austrian economist who coined the term “opportunity cost” (Opportunitätskosten in German)… (p.26)

A similar mix of private and common property is found in an apartment complex organized as a condominium (the term is derived from the Latin for “shared property”). (p.104)

The term “monopoly” means “one seller” (from Greek). (p.177)

He spends a large section of the book poorly outlining the science of climate change, even though a.) this will clearly convince nobody who was not already convinced, b.) it substantially lengthens an already lengthy section on negative externalities where the simple acid rain example would have served perfectly adequately, and c.) it seems to be there mostly so that he can accuse One Lesson economists of being climate deniers, which is clearly not universally or even mostly true (there are obviously many economists who are merely sceptical of the capacity of the government to remedy the problem rather than being sceptical of the underlying science). Even outside the self-aggrandisement, his polemic results in his giving sloppy definitions that would certainly confuse an uninformed reader (for instance, he defines a public good as something that “must be supplied equally to the entire population”, which a.) confuses the normative and descriptive uses of “must” for someone who doesn’t know he’s speaking descriptively b.) would confuse a reader new to economics since “public education” appears by this definition to be a public good).

In short, I don’t know whom this book would actually help. Hazlitt provides a good defence against really bad lobbyist arguments if that’s what you want out of an economics primer. Something like Economics Rules by Dani Rodrik provides a relatively accessible introduction to how academic economics could be better (hint: he doesn’t just accuse them all of being “One Lesson”). Someone like Tim Harford in The Undercover Economist does as good a job of explaining economic intuition and opportunity cost without diverting into ideological and misrepresentative tirades. If you want a good critical introduction, go for John Kay’s “The Truth About Markets”. Put this book down. Get something better.