Date: 23 Sept. 2014
A paper on “Negative Railways, Turtle Soup, talking Pencils, and House owning Dogs”: ‘The French Connection’ and the Popularization of Economics from Say to Jasay.” HTML
A much shorter version of this essay will appear in a special issue of The Independent Review in June 2015.
Abstract: The paper assesses Jasay’s monthly articles for Econlib between 2002 and 2014 in the light of the similar efforts by free market economists, especially French ones, to popularize economic ideas over the last 200 years. Beginning with the rather dry “catechism of political economy” developed by J.B. Say (1815), Harriet Martineau’s naive “economic tales” (1832–34), Bastiat’s witty and clever “economic sophisms” (1846–48), and Molinari’s civilised but rather staid “soirées” or conversations (1849 and 1855) in the first half of the 19th century, and then, after a hiatus of nearly 100 years, the columns of Henry Hazlitt in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the 1930s and 1940s, and the columns of Milton Friedman in Newsweek (1966–84), we have many examples of the popularization of free market ideas in the pre-blogging age. Jasay very much continues this tradition with his monthly articles for Econlib where, in the great tradition of Bastiat, he writes clever and witty exposés of the economic folly he sees around him. Unlike Friedman or Hazlitt, both of whom adopted a fairly sober and matter of fact prose style, but again like Bastiat, Jasay uses well chosen metaphors and characters to cloak his deep understanding of political economy behind amusing, witty, and often angry and sarcastic tales which are designed to expose economic folly and to thereby enhance the understanding of economics by ordinary readers. The title of this paper refers to some of the great titles chosen by free market economists in their attempt to make free market ideas more interesting and better understood: “Turtle Soup” (Cherbuliez), “Negative Railways” (Bastiat), talking “Pencils” (Leonard Read), and “House owning Dogs” (which was the title of the first column Jasay ever wrote for Econlib and which set the tone of many of his subsequent columns). The paper will examine a selection of Jasay’s “economic tales” in order to demonstrate his great skill and fertile imagination in writing about economics for a popular audience. It concludes that, in spite of their heroic efforts, neither Bastiat nor Jasay have been able to lay to rest the “zombie economics” of protectionism and government interventionism which seems to keep coming back to life no matter how many rhetorical stakes are driven through its heart.