Drezner on Alan Wolfe's Incomptence

Alan Wolfe’s prolix review essay of Bruno Frey and Dan Ariely’s recent books had a few nice insights, but my overwhelming judgment was that he simply doesn’t know enough about the subject to write a competent review. Dan Drezner picks up on a couple of Wolfe’s forehead-slappers. In a nuthsell, Wolfe thinks Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are “marginal and somewhat bizarre thinkers,” which betrays either stunning ignorance or an appalling lack of judgment. And he seems to think Steve Levitt is a behavioral economist, when in fact Levitt is an old-school Chicago rat choice guy good at fancy statistics who is very skeptical of behavioral economics. Dan’s got it right when he says “Whoever assigns and edits Alan Wolfe at The New Republic should really be taken out to the back of the woodshed today.”

I haven’t read Frey’s book yet, but, setting aside my more critical approach to the data, I expect to like it a great deal. Frey is one of the only social scientists working in the happiness field who fully grasps the great 20th century developments in constitutional political economy and institutional economics. Most of his papers have an agreeable institutionalist view that is keenly aware of the fallacy of thinking about a politics of happiness as a politics of centralized scientific administration. Indeed, decentralization is a theme of Frey’s work, and I’m looking forward to his book.

On the other hand, I found Dan Ariely’s book to be a jocular disaster. Here’s what I said about it on Free Exchange way back in February. I’m glad to see Herb Gintis, one of my favorite thinkers in psychologically-informed economics, had a similar reaction:

Ariely is a creative experimenter with zero capacity to deal with economic theory. By accepting the behavioral paradigm (“people are not logical, they are psychological”), he makes it in principle impossible to explain his experimental results.

What does it tell you when the big-ideas review essays in prestige publications are completely blown away by free Amazon reviews? I wonder what Wolfe’s per-word rate was? Gintis does a hell of a lot better for free. Sooner or later everyone in the know will realize they’re supposed to be paying attention to Herb Gintis’ Amazon reviews (among other things), and that the back of TNR just doesn’t matter all that much.

[Thanks to James Chalmers for the pointer.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center