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Krugman and Hari Seldon: Ships that pass in the night?

There is one big difference between Seldon and Krugman; Seldon’s plan made room for the likelihood that reality would deviate from the predicted course.

One niggle: It’s distressing to see Prof. Mead’s prose disfigured by such currently-fashionable non-words as “gifting.” He must have decided to skip grade-school English, which I think was still taught when he was a boy.


Via Meadia
Walter Russell Mead’s Blog

December 26, 2012

Foundation and Krugman

Paul Krugman says in this Guardian piece

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that he “grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” For those of you who have read one or more of the books in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this makes a lot of sense. For those who haven’t, consider gifting yourself a copy of the first novel: Foundation.

Hari Seldon is the central character of the first short story of the book and the creator of the fictional social science of psychohistory, which allows its practitioners to predict (or to shape, if they choose) the course of human history with mathematical precision. In Seldon’s case, he uses psychohistory to predict the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire, followed by thirty thousand years of dark ages—unless humanity follows the Seldon Plan, reducing the time of galactic barbarism to a mere millennium. Social science as the key to galactic salvation—it’s easy to see why Asimov’s stories inspired the young Krugman.

But there is an irony in Krugman’s claim to have been inspired by Hari Seldon to take up social science: In his column in the NYT, he often comes off not so much like Seldon but like one of the Galactic Empire’s elites, mistrustful of the Hari Seldons out there predicting the collapse of the “empire”—or, that is, the blue model

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In “The Psychohistorians,” the head of the imperial committee charged with prosecuting Seldon reaches an important decision. This politician intuitively understands that Seldon’s theory of imperial decay is right, but as a card-carrying member of the elite he can’t just let Seldon off the hook for his dangerous ideas. So he splits the difference: he reduces the sentence for Seldon and his followers from death or imprisonment to exile to the galactic hinterland of Terminus, where they can work out the plan to save civilization in peace.

That’s pretty much what the blue intellectual establishment does today: it doesn’t silence freethinkers but it pushes them out to the fringes. Hari Seldon’s model of psychohistory fails in the Asimov trilogy when a rogue political leader with unexpected powers appears; Krugman’s social model has also been overtaken by events. There is one big difference between Seldon and Krugman; Seldon’s plan made room for the likelihood that reality would deviate from the predicted course. Krugman so far isn’t ready to accept the need for a second foundation.


  1. John Galt says:

    When it comes down to it, those who do the planning fundamentally believe their models are correct give or take a margin of error and only require modest adjustments to achieve the utopia of perfect planning.

    Krugman, nor Hari Seldon could predict the events, both of which we would classify as “Black Swans” (i.e. events which we were unaware COULD occur before they happened).

    The difference is that Hari Seldon was aware that such events could take place and the Second Foundation existed purposely to secretly interfere with the direction of events to bring them back on track.

    Krugman and all of the other collectivists have always believed that with just a little more power / persuasion / force / laws / regulations / control they can create an economic utopia. The problem is that the “just a little more” is never-ending until we are finally ruled by the fiat of autocratic diktat.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    C.S. Lewis

  2. Julie near Chicago says:

    Agreed, JG. Except I’ve gotten cynical enough that I no longer think people like Krugman even believe that swill. There’s something positively robotic about their talk about whatever Better World they claim to believe is the goal. Anyway, C.S. Lewis nailed it with his comment about “moral busybodies.”

    It’s interesting–we English-speakers have at least two maxims that speak to your comment about Utopia through Perfect Planning. “The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” And, “Man proposes; God disposes.”

    Of course, there’s always the one about the Road to Hell. :)

  3. John Galt says:

    Utopia through Perfect Planning”

    The word utopia comes from the Greek: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no place”, so by very definition if we are attempting to achieve utopia through perfect planning we are going “no where”.


    I believe you are correct though Julie, I doubt Krugman or any of the others believe the idiocy that comes out of their mouths any more. It is just an act of mummery that they go through to retain the controls of power and with it the prestige and financial rewards of such power.

    All we are seeing is the repetition of a secular liturgy, with Krugman as the secular bishop at our modern temple of Keynsian faith, neither hearing, nor believing.

    The time of iconoclasm approaches, you can hear the faint rumble on the edge of hearing.

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    Yes, U-Topia. “Going No-Place through Perfect Planning”: I like it a lot.

    Although I think More meant it to be taken as a fictional place’s name, like Butler’s “Erewhon.” However, it’s a long time since I spoke with the author about his intentions, so I could be wrong. 😉

    The patter sure sounds like patter. :(

  5. Paul Marks says:

    The same fantasy – the “enlightened intellectuals” in charge of “planning society”.

    Whether it is Plato, Francis Bacon (“The New Atlantis”), or Paul Krugman – the same power crazed nonsense.

    It is what Hayek called “The Fatal Conceit”.

    Or what the Scholastics called “the sin of pride”.

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