Hypocrites and Half-Wits

hhwThe letter to the editor is a literary genre unique unto itself. Unlike the editorial or the op-ed, the letter typically allows its author only a couple of short paragraphs to make a single compelling point. A good blog post might ramble from one loosely connected idea to another, but a good letter proceeds directly to its target.

Don Boudreaux is, beyond any doubt, the modern master — no, the all-time master — of this underrated branch of literature. When a radio station interviews a Galveston resident who’s just topped off her gas tank in anticipation of Hurricane Ike — and who is furious to learn that gas prices have jumped 50 cents a gallon overnight even though “Ike hadn’t hit yet” — a blogger (or an Armchair Economist) might respond with a long-winded explanation of why it’s a good thing that supply, demand, and therefore prices respond quickly to a change in expectations. Boudreaux, instead, skips right to the heart of the matter:

Your reporter should have immediatedly asked this woman: “Well, why were you topping off your tank? Ike hadn’t hit yet.”

Or, when an book endorsing “small, localized communitarian, neighborly economies” gets a positive review in the New York Times, that same blogger or Armchair Economist might respond with a thousand words on comparative advantage, the division of labor, and the other benefits of globalization. Boudreaux contents himself with the wry observation that the reviewer compliments the author on being “highly traveled”.

In the same vein, a letter addresses Senator Sherrod Brown’s efforts to support the federal minimum wage not with a long dissertation on labor markets but with a pointer to the Senator’s penchant for hiring unpaid interns. Does Senator Brown believe that his interns have made an informed choice to acquire valuable experience in lieu of wages? If so, “why does [the Senator] continue to deny non-government employees the right to choose the terms of their own employment?”

Don posts many (but not all) of his letters over at Cafe Hayek, and he maintains a mailing list you can join. But those will only whet your appetite for more. Fortunately, then, you can pre-order Hypocrites and Half-Wits, a collection of Don’s finest specimens, interlaced with background material, quotations, cartoons and more. This is terrific stuff, simultaneously light-hearted and deeply profound, and surely among the most lucid and important economic commentary of our times.

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23 Responses to “Hypocrites and Half-Wits”


  1. 1 1 nobody.really

    Carly Simon sings —

    You’re so vain.
    I’ll bet you think this song is about you….

    I eagerly open Landsburg’s new post — “Hypocrites and Half-Wits” – and discover that he’s merely referring to a book. And I find myself disappointed. With a heading like that, I figured there was half a chance that he was talking about me….

  2. 2 2 Fenn

    cmon, man, bad enough you spammed our emails for your book, no need to flog GMU buddy’s stuff.

  3. 3 3 Ted Levy

    I can’t agree more with your claim that Don is a master at this sort of thing. I recall a few years ago my acute disappointment on realizing for the first time, while reading my daily dose of CafeHayek, that all these letters to the editors were not, as I had foolishly and initially assumed, actually ACCEPTED letters, or PRINTED letters, but merely SUBMITTED letters. Don no doubt has the world’s largest collection of rejected letters to the editors clearly and objectively more valuable and provocative than any number of letters actually appearing for publication…

  4. 4 4 Ken B

    @nobody.really: About us. Don’t be selfish!!

    :)

  5. 5 5 LaForge

    … Boudreaux quietly admitted only a 7% success-rate getting his many letters-to-the-editor actually published.

    Not surprising, since his typically ponderous letters have much difficulty getting to the point quickly. No luck either with memorable & effective quips in those letters.

    Lately, he favors “Quote-of-the-Day” (from others) in lieu of his failed ‘letters’ approach… for his blog.

  6. 6 6 Jack

    A low success rate is not terribly meaningful. Editors may have all sorts of odd, even stupid, objectives in mind when selecting what to print. Boudreaux’s letters are generally outstanding. Sometimes, he’s not as concise as he could be — but hey, has anyone since Orwell ever been?

  7. 7 7 CC

    7%? I’m impressed.

  8. 8 8 Manfred

    7% acceptance rate? Sounds like the acceptance rate of a middle of the road Econ journal.

  9. 9 9 Russell

    Some years ago I went through a phase of frequent letter writing. It wasn’t too difficult to get published in many papers/magazines (National Review, Business Week, Washington Times, Money, Smart Money, IBD, etc.), but some are especially difficult. It took me about a hundred letters to get one into the WSJ (admittedly, many were rants about Al Hunt with no hope of ever being published), while others accepted the first or second attempt.

    Don’s 7% rate likely has something to do with his volume…it’s doubtful that editors will publish letters from the same person multiple times in a particular period of time. And given the frequency of erroneous economic reporting, Don probably has many media outfits on the email equivalent of speed dial.

  10. 10 10 iceman

    I wondered what question or quip DB would have when I heard reported yesterday in connection with the NYC ban on large sodas that over half of NYC residents are overweight or obese. E.g. doesn’t it seem to re-frame the issue somehow when a *majority* of people are doing something that allegedly “costs us” money?

  11. 11 11 Ken

    iceman,

    How does me drinking large sodas and being over weight cost you money?

  12. 12 12 iceman

    Ask Mayor Bloomberg, he’s claiming some $4B in health costs to the city justify the ban.

  13. 13 13 John Faben
  14. 14 14 iceman

    Thanks. I think SL was even a bit pithier with a recent comment to the effect of “if costs were the only consideration, it’s cheaper to not eat.”

    With regard to the specific argument I was referring to, it also just struck that me one has a stronger case saying 10-20% of the population is doing something that has a disproportionate impact on the rest of us, than 51+%?

  15. 15 15 Daniel Hackney

    @Ken when everyone is paying for you healthcare, your health becomes everyone’s business. Incidentally, this is why I’m against everyone paying for everyone else’s healthcare.

  16. 16 16 Daniel Hackney

    *your healthcare, not “you healthcare”

  17. 17 17 Ken B

    @David Hackney: Yep, I too dislike that ratchet effect.
    “I can control you because I pay for you.”
    I think if you advocate programs where we collectively pay for others the programs need to be seen as charity or kindness (aside from any question if I can be charitable with someone else’s money). Instead they are always seen as ‘rights’.

  18. 18 18 iceman

    Charity state: Receivers recognize their fellow citizens have reached out to them, and givers experience the psychic joys of giving.

    Welfare state: Takers get ‘entitlements’, and makers eventually join the Tea Party.

  19. 19 19 Harold

    John Faben: excellent way of bringing the subject bang on-topic!

    I agree that the science does not tell us whether the ban is the right choice. But, IF science could tell us that people want to not be obese, large drinks make a significant contribution to their obesity AND they make cognitive errors when choosing large drinks, THEN we would be well on the way to making a positive case. We would still have to compare with the negatives before deciding.

    This is more like the seatbelt case – protecting people from themselves.

  20. 20 20 iceman

    “they make cognitive errors when choosing large drinks”

    Now how to test this hypothesis…maybe they’re unaware liquids can contain calories, and thought Coke Zero just meant it had no traces of peanuts? Or perhaps there’s a cylindrical optical illusion such that the jumbo cup is not actually perceived to be bigger than a regular cup, and the extra $ is presumed to go to the Ronald McDonald House. (BTW will there be an exemption for people like my wife and I who simply like to save a buck by sharing a jumbo cup at the movies?)

    On the other hand when economists hear people say things like “I’ll start my diet tomorrow” they think of “revealed preferences”

  21. 21 21 nobody.really

    they make cognitive errors when choosing large drinks”

    Perhaps Bloomburg is unacquainted with the liquidity preference function?

  22. 22 22 Ken B

    @nobody.really:
    If Bloomberg hires undercover enforcement officers he will have set a liquidity trap!

  23. 23 23 Drew

    My kingdom for a Kindle edition, please!

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