Bizarro Callahan

David Callahan has a silly op-ed in the LA Times today on "A Gentler Capitalism," which mainly caused me to recall Julian Sanchez's rather ungentle review of his book The Cheating Culture:

An amusing game to play while reading The Cheating Culture — and perhaps the only way to avoid being driven mad by its plodding repetition — is to imagine the book's anti-matter counterpart. It would be a right-wing screed penned by Callahan's goateed twin from some mirror universe, his equal and opposite in zeal and tendentiousness. Armed with a Lexis-Nexis account, this Bizarro Callahan would cherry pick not tales of fallen Masters of the Universe but such tidbits as this, from a background paper on the "fall of the Swedish model" written for the United Nations' 1996 Human Development Report:

"The tax and transfer system that developed was, to begin with, based on the citizens (sic) honesty….While tax evasion in the 1960s was regarded as a shameful crime, forcing respected citizens even to commit suicide if caught, the honourable tax payer became, in the 1980s, almost regarded as a ridiculous relic of the past. The increasingly generous social insurance systems also invited people to cheat."

Perhaps Bizarro Callahan would cite experimental data from the MacArthur Foundation's Norms and Preferences Network, which found that participation in markets correlates with greater trust and reciprocity. He might note the strong correlation between market freedom and lower government corruption — not terribly surprising, since the effect of increasing regulatory power is to shift "cheating" from the private to the public sphere. And he could add a litany of stories of corrupt businessmen and special interests currying favor and gobbling pork. Bizarro Callahan would gravely conclude that big government and the welfare state are the founts of our cheating epidemic.

The point is not that this anti-matter version of The Cheating Culture would get it right — although it might come at least as close as the original — but rather that it's fairly easy to churn out a partisan potboiler clothed as a meditation on some topic of pressing public concern. It's just not a very good way to do social science.

I intend to say something about Bill Gates' ideas about "creative capitalism" later over at Free Exchange.

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