Farrell, Brennan, and the Great Debate Over Public Choice

No, don’t expect an attempt at adjudicating the quarrel between Henry Farrell (Crooked Timber) and Jason Brennan (BHL) over public choice here. Not my lane. Just wanted to draw attention to the overall trajectory of the “debate.”

May 5: Henry Farrell writes a post at Crooked Timber critiquing Public Choice theory. There’s a discussion there. It goes on for 89 comments.

May 12: Farrell writes a follow-up post on the same subject at Crooked Timber.  More discussion. By May 14, we’re about twenty-some comments deep into the discussion.

May 14: Clearly pissed at Farrell’s “silliness,” Jason Brennan decides to write a rebuttal of sorts to Farrell at BHL. Discussion commences at BHL, taking this form:


Comments disabled.

In other words, no discussion commences. Because why blog if you’re going to solicit comments and discuss anything? Monologue as monoblog.

Later on May 14: Discussion continues at  Crooked Timber, minus reference to Brennan’s post. If Brennan can ignore his would-be interlocutors in other contexts, I suppose it’s poetic justice that he, too, can be ignored.

May 17: Someone explicitly mentions Brennan’s response to Farrell in the Crooked Timber discussion itself. Whereupon…

Comments on this entry are closed.

A coincidence, I’m sure.

Jason Brennan is famous for dividing the political world into Vulcans, Hobbits, and Hooligans. Final exam question: how do we classify the preceding? Is it primarily the work of Vulcans, of Hobbits, or of Hooligans? Discuss.

16 thoughts on “Farrell, Brennan, and the Great Debate Over Public Choice

  1. I saw Brennan’s post; but I don’t spend much time at Crooked Timber anymore so I didn’t see what was going on there. Amusing.

    sean s.

    PS: I saw your reply to me on the other thread; I’ll take a careful look at it as soon as time permits.


  2. Pingback: Bleeding Heart Libertarians (the Blog): A Bibliography of Related Posts | Politics and Prosperity

  3. Brennan’s latest post ends with this:

    Comments closed, not because I don’t want feedback, but because I don’t have the ability to moderate comments anymore and I need to prevent an internet stalker from writing violent threats here.

    Why would he have lost the ability to moderate comments?

    sean s.


    • “I don’t have the ability” means “I lack the inclination and/or time.” And the latter half of the sentence is a veiled reference to yours truly. Because I read and frequently comment on his posts, he seems to be imply, I’m a “stalker.” And because I think that people who violently disobey justified commands can violently be subdued, I’m guilty of “writing violent threats.”

      This is Brennan in stupid mode. I sometimes wonder whether he’s entirely sober when he writes stuff like this. It’s so dumb that I honestly feel embarrassed for him when he does. He’s too talented to write this stupidly, but too immature to stop.

      Brennan and Magness comment frequently on the writings of Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist. If I’m “stalking” them, how are they not stalking Ferguson? I’ve posed this question on Facebook in a public post that Brennan can easily see. He wants to pretend that he hasn’t seen it, and wants to pretend that the double standard he’s expressing doesn’t exist. He doesn’t yet seem to have seen the incompatibility between claiming to be an expert on epistemic virtue and publicly indulging in childish bouts of make-believe.

      At some level, I think Brennan realizes that the ability he lacks is the ability to rebut what I said the first time around. The stupider his polemics, the more obvious that becomes.


  4. I suspect that Brennan and you have such radically different views of reality that Brennan simply is at a loss for words. For many like him, in the phrase “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” the word “liberty” is the only one that matters. Carry on.

    sean s.


  5. I read Brennan’s paper; it really fails to demonstrate its point. Even now it’s become clear that an early response to the pandemic was essential; it saved lives. Demanding that a government wait for “better” data is unreasonable.

    Brennan’s unwillingness to endure critique demonstrates his lack of confidence—or perhaps his awareness of just how weak his thesis is.

    sean s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read that particular paper yet, but I read the earlier BHL posts it was based on. They struck me (and still strike me) as almost willfully obtuse. There’s a good critique of them at the blog Angry Bear, by the economist Eric Kramer:


      In general, Angry Bear is a much more intelligent, and more intellectually open blog than BHL. The bloggers at BHL often wonder why it is that their commentariat is so anti-intellectual and hard-to-moderate. The real question is why comparable blogs don’t have this problem; the problem seems unique to them.

      I have a slightly different, possibly more charitable explanation of Brennan’s refusal to engage in a fair debate. In the particular case we have in mind (use of force against those who resist enforcement of social distancing), your explanation may work. In that particular case, what he had to say was so painfully silly that he had to delete his comment:


      But I think that’s a bit of a one-off. I don’t think Brennan is generally averse to dealing with criticism. I think his aim is to ration the criticism he deals with.

      Think of it this way. Suppose you argue for a certain claim X that you regard as clearly true. If controversial enough, it will invite criticism. But if you are confident enough of its truth, and have a productive academic career to run, you won’t be interested in just any old criticism. You’ll be interested in criticisms that are stimulating enough, or in the ballpark enough, to keep you going, to provide grist for your mill. You’re only interested in objections worth answering.

      Suppose that over time, you develop a very narrow conception of “objections worth answering.” Suppose that you have so good a track record that you think of yourself as really adept at answering most objections. Then you may well develop an a priori contempt for most objections that come your way, especially if they come from people of low status or stature–people who don’t rate very high in Le Profession. Once you identify status or stature as a proxy for “argument worth answering,” your conception of “argument worth answering” immediately starts to narrow in self-subverting ways.

      That’s my explanation of Brennan’s behavior. It’s a long-winded way of saying, “He’s arrogant as hell.”

      I got the long-winded version from the philosopher Gerald Gaus, who was describing it one day, candidly, as his own attitude. I was scandalized by it, but he was just being completely candid about why he so often decided to tune people out in the middle of philosophical conversation. His point was that he’d been around the block enough to have heard most of the interesting objections to anything he had to say. For that reason, nine times out of ten (my numbers, not his), he tuned out most objections as not worth listening to or responding to. Listening simply used up energy that could be put to better purpose. He only perked up in certain rare cases when he thought it was worth paying attention. Otherwise, it just didn’t pay to be a fully responsive listener.

      So while I don’t dispute your explanation in this particular case, I don’t think it’s the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is arrogance masquerading as efficiency, pure and simple: “I refuse to take you seriously, because you don’t belong to the set of people I take seriously.” It’s one thing to encounter that attitude in Gerald Gaus, and not something I’m crazy about even in him. But it’s another in Jason Brennan, who’s less entitled to the attitude–if anyone can be entitled to it at all, which I doubt. But when you’re a deity in your own mind, I guess, anything goes.

      By the way, I’ll get back to your comments on harm, force, etc. soon; just trying to plow through this job search, and have limited time to spend away from it. Enjoying it in a perverse way. There’s something about financial duress that I find both terrifying and hilarious.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In retrospect, I think your explanation may be correct, and mine overly charitable. I was just on Facebook, on the page of a FB friend, Sanjay Kapoor. Kapoor had posted The New York Times’s front page today, which lists the names of 1,000 of the nearly 100,000 people who’ve died in the US of COVID. Brennan wrote a comment on Kapoor’s page critical of the page, followed by Peter Boettke, the libertarian economist. The two of them faced off for awhile against Kapoor. Eventually, I entered the conversation on Kapoor’s side. All of a sudden, Brennan blocks me and Kapoor as well, deleting the entire thread, and running off in a huff. I mean, if that isn’t chickenshit behavior, what is? I was initially willing to invoke mere arrogance to explain his behavior, but you’re right: cowardice really does seem to play a role.

      I can see why Brennan wanted to block me. He was criticizing the Times for having made some mistakes on their list. Kapoor pointed out that the mistakes had been corrected, and asked why Brennan was so fixated on the issue. I asked Brennan whether it was preferable to make errors and fix them, or to make them and delete them, so as to pretend one hadn’t made them–as he had? I guess that question hit a little too close to home for him.

      I was critical of Boettke, too. Though I can see some of Boettke’s comments on that thread, my criticisms of him (and his comments as well) are all gone. Whether he deleted them or blocked me or what, I don’t know. I said absolutely nothing belligerent to Boettke, so I don’t understand what explains his refusal to engage. Boettke was repeating what is now becoming a libertarian party line: because hospitals receive a “20% premium” for diagnosing patients with COVID, their diagnoses (hence their declarations on cause of death) are not to be trusted. Because patients with “co-morbidities” are being diagnosed with COVID, the suggestion seemed to be, patients listed as dying of COVID weren’t really dying of COVID; they were dying of the co-morbidities with COVID being thrown in dishonestly to rake in the 20% premium.

      I’ve asked the people making these insinuations for evidence of actual clinical malfeasance, and have never gotten any. None from Boettke, either. I pointed out that a proper diagnosis always makes reference to co-morbidities; what’s wrong with that? No answer. I asked where he got his 20% premium figure from. No answer. He’s a big name economist–a University Professor Economics and Philosophy at George Mason–but he has no answers to obvious questions that a completely obscure nobody like me might ask of such a prominent, indeed august, public intellectual. Why? What Peter Boettke knows about philosophy that I don’t, I’d really love to hear.

      I’m not clear what experience Peter Boettke has in clinical work. Though I didn’t get my degree (and never got to do my practicum/internship), I did six years of graduate-level work in counseling psychology, which required a fair bit of training in nosology via DSM-5. The idea that you would omit co-morbidities while making a diagnosis is a claim at the level of Flat Earth diagnostic techniques. But if that’s the level at which people like Boettke want to operate, they should at least have the courage of their convictions, and leave what they write on the subject up for others to read and evaluate. Their refusals to deal with criticism are more conspicuous than their ability to deal with reality.

      It pains me that I was ever associated with these people, even indirectly. I can see why they were always so reluctant to associate with me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Probably a technical glitch. I haven’t read Brennan’s paper yet; it’s too long to read on-screen, and I don’t have a printer at the moment. Have ordered one, so will read the article when I can print it out. Same with some other stuff that’s been sitting on the backburner, including your harm/risk comment.


      • As long as you’re well; the rest can wait. Especially my comment.

        When Jason finally notices, he’ll likely delete the comments even though none are from “internet stalkers” or contain “violent threats”.

        sean s.


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