I’m civil when I need (want) to be

I’m civil when I need (want) to be

Noah Smith writes that one should not be rude about people you disagree with, because they might turn out to be right. Indeed; what possible purpose can be served by, say, referring to Austrian economics as a brain worm? Oh, wait.

Actually, I think that Noah was doing the right thing when he brought in the brain worms, and is off on the wrong track on the civility thing. So let me make the case for brain worms.

First, picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. “Words ought to be a little wild,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.” You could say, “I’m dubious about the case for expansionary austerity, which rests on questionable empirical evidence and zzzzzzzz…”; or you could accuse austerians of believing in the Confidence Fairy. Which do you think is more effective at challenging a really bad economic doctrine?

Beyond that, civility is a gesture of respect — and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect. Noah felt (and was) justified in ridiculing the Austrians because they don’t argue in good faith; faced with a devastating failure of their prediction about inflation, they didn’t concede that they were wrong and try to explain why. Instead, they denied reality or tried to redefine the meaning of inflation.

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