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Lord Skidelsky's Late Punch

Back in 2001, supermiddleweight boxer James Butler was heavily fined and barred from the sport for sucker-punching his opponent instead of congratulating him after being bested in a match.

Alas, there are no similar penalties for late sucker punches delivered after economics debates, or else the BBC-sponsored Hayek versus Keynes debate held at the LSE last month might have been Lord Skidelsky's last. For yesterday his noble lordship delivered a most ignoble below-the-belt blow to his late opponents in the shape of a Project Syndicate column titled "The Keynes-Hayek Rematch."

Here, among other things. Lord Skidelsky suggests that Keynes "savaged him [Hayek] while he was still alive," and that Hayekian ideas have only succeeded in gaining popularity since thanks to Hayek's having long outlived Keynes–as if Hayek's growing popularity wasn't itself mainly posthumous, and as if Keynesian ideas have lacked huge battalions of defenders, both in and out of the academy, since his death. He writes as well that only "Hayekian fanatics" could possibly not believe that the "global stimulus of 2009 stopped the slide into another Great Depression"–a statement that, besides dismissing as "fanatics" a large number of persons, including some pretty good macroeconomists who are no more Hayekian than Lord Skidelsky himself, seems rather brash. He repeats the slur, which I took pains to expose as such during the debate, that Hayek favored doing nothing to combat a post-boom collapse of spending, likening Hayek's stand to one of "denying blankets and stimulus to a drunk who has fallen into an icy pond, on the grounds that his original trouble was overheating." He also repeats the claim, refuted in my last post, "that public-sector austerity at a time of weak private-sector spending guarantees years of stagnation, if not further collapse." Finally, Lord Skidelsky declares that "Hayekians have nothing sensible to contribute" (my emphasis) to the debate concerning the extent to which "strengthening the tools of macroeconomic management"–meaning (presumably) further expanding government spending and indebtedness as well as further strengthening central banks' powers–is likely to prove beneficial and prudent.

To the last assertion, an astute commentator offers a most appropriate reply. "It's hard to believe," he observes, that the observation in question, among others noted,

was written by the same man who, half a dozen years ago, said of Hayek, “The particular threats to liberty that he identified may be on the wane—his book has done its work well—but there are other threats, and the victory of liberty is never secure. Hayek's key message for us today is surely this: every new restriction or regulation should be judged by its effect not just on the problem that it is designed to solve or the danger that it is designed to avert but by its effect on the system of liberty as a whole. If we are blind to this, we will be left with a damaged system of liberty long after the particular problem or danger has passed away."

"That, however," the commentator continues, "was upon receiving the Manhattan Institute's $50K 'Hayek Prize.' Perhaps they ought to have spread out the payments!"

It turns out that, when Lord Skidelsky was given it back in 2005, the Hayek Prize was worth only $10 thousand. I leave it to readers to decide whether to wish it had been more, or that it had been less.