The Hoppe Affair

A reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to answer a specific question about the Hans-Hermann Hoppe affair and to offer whatever views I might have on the question. I repeat below my email to him.

Where to begin?

First, let’s begin by what for lack of a better term I will call the epistemic question. As a general matter the Provost’s distinction between “opinion” and “objective fact” is empty and can – and is – only used for a deceitful and pernicious purpose. If forced to choose between the two I would say that everyone including professors only offers opinions and not objective facts. Some opinions are virtually universally shared and thought to be supported by incontrovertible evidence but opinions they remain. No one I know, professors included, as a general matter bothers to distinguish between the two for his listener in the statements he offers. On the other hand many people will distinguish between those opinions they hold strongly and those they hold weakly. As that applies to the Hoppe case I would think that that is something in his mind and in no other, and I would think it entirely inappropriate for the Provost to insist that Professor Hoppe equivocate over the strength of his conviction to suit the Provost’s view as to the degree of conviction Professor Hoppe should have on the question. I will guess that the strength of Professor Hoppe's opinion about the marginal propensity to consume of homosexuals lies somewhere between his view that Vladimir Putin is the President of Russia and whatever view he has on the prospect for sustained liberal government in Iraq. Does any of this really require someone to state it? I hardly think so. So this is all intellectually silly and politically ugly.

Second, this brings me to the response to your specific question. My answer is, no, the principle of which you speak would not mean that classroom life would grind to a halt. If I lived under such a regime I would simply state orally and hand out a written memorialization on the first day of class each semester a statement to the effect that:

“Every statement I make in this class for the remainder of the semester shall be understood to be my opinion and not as ‘objective fact’. During the course of the remainder of the semester I will not repeat this disclaimer and distinction, nonetheless it remains in force. I will however endeavor to distinguish from time to time: (1) the strength of conviction with which I hold particular opinions; (2) the degree to which my opinions are shared by others in the profession; and (3) the empirical evidence or theoretical arguments that support my opinion.”

That should cover it. Of course it is extraordinary silliness – a very dark silliness however. It is similar to the way in which Soviet geneticists had to begin each paper with a false paean to Lysenko.

Third, let me move on to the substance of Professor Hoppe’s claim that homosexuals tend to “plan,” i.e., save, less than heterosexuals. This seems to me to be: (1) not merely highly likely as a theoretical matter but implied by rather straightforward economic theory; (2) supported by empirical evidence; (3) not in the least invidious; and (4) a very useful teaching illustration. The point I believe that Professor Hoppe was trying to make is that our tendency to save rather than consume is a function of the particular circumstances of our lives. Specifically, to the extent that we have affective relationships with others and are concerned with their financial well being, especially if they are financially dependent on us, we will be inclined to save more than were these conditions not to prevail. Thus because homosexuals tend not to bear and rear children they will tend to feel less of a need to save and insure their lives. The distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals is but one of many that I (and I suspect Professor Hoppe) would pile on to capture the point of the relationship between our economic lives and our social, cultural, religious, sexual, and other differences. There are a fascinating variety of ways in which this relationship presents itself. For example, I am inclined to tell my students that in those cultures where chastity and marital fidelity are more present, more saving will occur because paternity is more certain. The various points being made by the examples are powerful and important: (1) it shows the relationship between the ordinary psychological, social, religious, and cultural aspects of life and their economic consequences; (2) it shows that the savings rate, something that is normally thought of as a function of narrow government “economic” policy, e.g., monetary policy is driven by more fundamental human drives, and that differences across communities in the savings rate is effected more by differences in their “non-economic” ways of life than other things.

As to the point that the broad tendency of the group does not apply to every member, this is both true and trivial. It is mere silly political posturing and bullying to insist that it has to be pointed out. It is as valid about differences in height as between differences in marginal propensity to consume between hetero- and homosexuals. Only the most lunatic of political apparatchiks would insists that the statement that men are taller than women needs to be qualified by the statement that “not all men are taller than all women.” To insist on such things, especially selectively, is once more an exercise in political bullying and nothing more.

Note as well that there is nothing invidious in Professor Hoppe’s hypothesis or observation that homosexuals save less. Saving more is not “better.” It is, as a general matter, merely different. I am not being coy or flip in saying this. We save because we have a reason to save. To fail to save when you should may be foolish and immoral and to save when you should not may likewise be foolish and immoral.

Actually this tendency to see something invidious here is of intellectual interest. It shows one of the many pernicious effects of political rectitude. On issues such as homosexuality all discussion has been collapsed into the question: “Are you fer 'em or agin' 'em?” And if you have something to say that does not fall on that base and linear dimension it is not heard, or viewed with suspicion. Surely there is more to be said about homosexuality than that? For example, I offer you the proposition that homosexuals tend to congregate on islands and peninsulas. Consider Manhattan, San Francisco, Fire Island, Key West, Cape Cod. It is interesting and one might be curious as to why. And like Professor Hoppe’s observation/hypothesis about the savings rate it does not constitute anything invidious.

The evil in all this is quite simple to state. Professor Hoppe is being persecuted for the crime of teaching economics – and as best as I can tell for teaching it well. Using captivating social illustrations is better – not worse – than teaching the subject with dry equations and diagrams. And he chose, I think, a very easily understood and yet informative illustration.

February 14, 2005