When ever I’m in a book store, I spend most of my time in the social science section. Amidst history and current politics, I’ve stumbled across some fantastic authors who I never would have found without thumbing the shelves: Studs Terkel, John McPhee, and many others. But there’s always that abrasive Naomi Klein. Her book No Logo looks so radical and akin to the anarchist cookbook, that I just can’t picking it up and taking a look. Over the years I must have picked it up a dozen times, read a sentence or two, found its contents appalling, and slammed it back onto the shelf. Time goes by and the next time I’m in a book store I repeat the vicious cycle.
Klein has a new book out, Shock Doctrine, which I admit to have not read. But it seems to be getting a lot of attention (Here’s Tyler Cowen’s book review and comments from Pete Boettke 1 and 2).
My first reaction is, why do we (the economics profession) even give this woman the time of day. Here’s how my ideal conversation concerning her work would go. An interested person strikes up a conversation, “Oh you’re an economist, have you read Naomi Klein’s new book?”
The economist responds, “Who?”
“You know it’s like a best seller.”
“Where does she teach, where’s her degree from, what school of thought does she subscribe to?”
“I don’t know but she gives a devastating critique of Capitalism.”
“I guess I should look for a new line of work.”
If there’s no real theory behind the work, it must be riding to success on some alternative content: it’s plea to the public’s bias against capitalism, Klein’s emotional appeals, or her own form of shock doctrine.
Take the interview that I posted above. Klein tells the audience that free-market think tanks actually had a “meeting” after Katrina, to formulate a response plan. Oh no! you mean that the people who consider themselves experts on capitalism, business, production, distribution, development, and growth actually held themselves accountable to be relevant to the problems of the real world. Heaven forbid.
In this interview she spins the story of Katrina to sound like some conspiratorial effort is behind the growth of market institutions in the wake of Katrina. She doesn’t even entertain the fact that the alternative institutions failed at their very intended tasks. The schools, the transportation, the health care, all publicly provided, were bumbling nightmares after the storm, while Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot had trucks on the move with real productive materials and equipment ready to rebuild. The story is not one where capitalists exploit catastrophic opportunity at the expense of civic society. Instead the story is one where capitalism provides individuals with the durability, strength, and control to rebound and rebuild in ways that central planned institutions could never hope to keep up.
Why does the public like her book? Why are society’s biases aligned in her favor? She makes it sound like the half government, half market hybrid is the natural order, the way things have always and always should be. Nothing can be farther from the truth, the growth and dominance of central-planning and government control over infrastructure institutions like transportation, criminal justice, education, health care, etc., is a very new phenomenon. The alternative arrangements of these institutions evolved over thousands of years, but in the last 75 years or so the hubris of planning has run away with itself and Klein gets to be a best seller.