Streetwise Professor

June 24, 2017

Why Are Progressives Fawning Over Proto-Classical Liberal Ibn Khaldun?

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:56 pm

This article about the 14th century Arab/Muslim scholar and proto-economist Ibn Khaldun has attracted great deal of attention from the leftist progressive set, including leftist progressive economists like Paul Krugman. In part, that’s because the author (Dániel Oláh) bashes those that Krugman et al love to hate, neoclassical (now often style “neoliberal”) economists. The piece’s subtitle is “neoclassical economists created a false narrative of the history of economics,” and it concludes with this rather bizarre screed:

But why do we need a new narrative, rediscovering our past? The answer is simple: to avoid such superficial beliefs that Adam Smith (or Ibn Khaldun) is the father of economics, the development of economics started in the New Age to culminate in neoclassical thought, Khaldun already invented the Laffer-curve, the financial market effectively regulates itself or a big government is always bad for the economy – among others. Economists have to exercise self-reflection: the crisis of 2008 proved that gaps in the mainstream transform easily into policy mistakes.

With a new, more plural approach to history of thought the Alzheimer’s disease of mainstream economics can be cured which is badly needed in the 21th century.

There’s another reason for the leftist love, of course: it is very fashionable to embrace the Muslim Other, because they are now the most potent foe of the leftist progressives’ real enemy: more traditionalist Westerners and traditional Western thought. (The refusal of self-described feminists to confront Muslim misogyny, and indeed, their desire to silence those who do attempt to confront it is the most flagrant example of this odd alliance between progressives and a socio-religious group that is as objectively at odds with progressive ideals as one can possibly imagine.)

Substantively, it does appear based on my limited exposure to him that Ibn Khaldun was indeed well ahead of his time, and that his insights were quite penetrating. Further, it seems bizarre to make him into some progressive poster boy, given that much of what he says indeed could be characterized as classical liberal thinking. If he was Adam Smith before Adam Smith–and the case can be made–then why do the enemies of Adam Smith claim him for their own, other than that they have found a way to conscript him in their war against their real enemies, the intellectual descendants of Adam Smith?

And it is the issue of descendants which holds the real meaning here: Ibn Khaldun apparently had few, if any, whereas Smith’s were legion.* That raises issues of true importance: why would the intellectual line of a flourishing civilization die out and fade into obscurity, whereas the product of a hardscrabble society like 18th century Scotland (which was largely wild and untamed not long before) be the progenitor of a great intellectual tradition?

And it is not only scholarship. A friend once sent me pictures she took of pages of her kids’ social studies textbook that lavishly praised how economically and socially advanced the Muslim world was in the Middle Ages, when Europe was mired in poverty and strife. Scotland during the time of Ibn Khaldun was dreary, violent, pastoral, and poor. Yet by the time of Adam Smith, Scotland (and other places in the British Isles and Continental Europe like the Netherlands) were advancing rapidly economically and socially, while once flourishing Arab Muslim lands were undergoing a secular decline that in many respects continues to this day.

Those who sing the praises of the Glory Days of the Muslim world–like the very PC authors of the aforementioned social studies text–beg these very important questions. What caused these reversals of fortune? It’s also rather strange: rather than somehow validating the current value of The Other, this heaping of praise on long past glories actually casts an unflattering light on present despair, revealing that there is something deeply dysfunctional in that society that led to their absolute and relative decline. How could a civilization that was so far ahead (according to the textbook telling, and likely the truth), fall so far behind?

Of course, one response to that question advanced by the left is that like other non-Western societies, the Arab world was victimized, exploited, and degraded by the colonialist West. But that again just poses the same question in a slightly different form: how could relative economic, social, and military capacities change so dramatically to permit the once marginal Occident that quaked in fear before “Mohammedans” and “Musselmans” to master the once dominant Muslim Orient?

These are large questions for which there are no easy answers. But ironically, part of the answer may be that the ideas and institutions now known as classical liberal that were present in Ibn Khaldun’s work did not take root in the Arab and then Ottoman worlds, whereas they did in Adam Smith’s UK, the Netherlands, the United States, and elsewhere (and somewhat later) in northern Europe. That Ibn Khaldun’s prescient insights did not reflect the realities of his society, whereas Adam Smith’s did.


Oláh’s article notes that Ronald Reagan praised Ibn Khaldun. Indeed, it appears that there is a greater intellectual affinity between Reagan and Khaldun than between Krugman and the Andalusian, which just makes plain the PC-driven superficiality of the progressives’ recent praise for him.

* Oláh notes that it is unknown whether Smith knew of Ibn Khaldun’s work. I consider it unlikely. The phenomenon of multiple independent discoveries of important ideas is well known. The sociologist Robert K. Merton posited the theory of multiple independent discovery. Ironically, his son, Robert C. Merton, illustrates that: Merton fils was a co-discoverer with Black & Scholes of preference free options pricing. [Stephen] Stigler’s Law of Eponymy states that no law is named for its original discovery: ironically, Stigler said that his law should have been named after Merton, and hence provides an illustration of his law. Stigler’s father George wrote an article about multiple discoveries in economics, titled “Merton on Multiples, Denied and Affirmed.” George Stigler was editor of the JPE when it published the Black-Scholes article. So there are multiple family connections in the intellectual history of the theory of multiple discoveries.

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  1. Hi Prof:

    I would be fascinated to read your views of the developing crisis in the Gulf.
    Normally when a bunch of states gang up on a pariah and issue an ultimatum giving said pariah ten days to comply with their (impossible) list of demands, said ultimatum ends with the words: “…or else…”

    So … what’s the “or else”? It can’t be exclusion from the GCC or a “divorce”. I mean, they have already gone way past that point. Why specify ten days unless somebody intends to inject some (melo)dramatic urgency into the process?

    I say the demands are impossible if only because it is hard to imagine how Qatar can be expected to disentangle itself from ties with Iran when its major source of wealth is a shared gas field … with Iran.

    All ze best

    Writing from Salzburg … echoes of Hayek, Thatcher and loud pealing bells from a church practicing the Latin liturgy with all the Roman vestments and practices banned by Vatican II – in the manner favored by His Grace, The Most Reverend Marcel-François Lefebvre … remember him? Interesting place. And, of course, home of Thomas Bernhard, the modern era’s most prominent misanthrope (with especial disdain for his fellow Salzburg citizens).

    Comment by Simple Simon — June 25, 2017 @ 8:51 am

  2. Hmm. To said leftists, a response. We’re rich and the Moslem world isn’t because we applied the ideas of Smith/Khaldun and they didn’t.

    Sorta gives us an insight into policy decisions, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Tim Worstall — June 25, 2017 @ 9:06 am

  3. Years ago there was an Iranian Moslem on the internet who used to fume about the destruction of Persian civilisation by the Arabs, described Arabs as destructive savages, and claimed that almost anything good that came from the early Moslem years came from the conquered “Greeks” (i.e. Christians} and Persians. A link given by one of the commenters on the article you cite took me to this, which is allegedly by our hero Ibn Khaldun speaking as a Berber; it strongly reminded me of the Iranian chap’s tirades.

    In fact it strongly reminded me of the similar tirades of an acquaintance of mine who claims to be of mixed Arab and Iranian descent.

    I have seen Moslem backwardness attributed to the austere and dunderheaded form of Islam widely imposed by the Turks on the Moslem world.

    Comment by dearieme — June 25, 2017 @ 9:34 am

  4. This is just a retread of everything the Soviets tried to do to re-write history to diminish the West. It’s still all the same ideology behind it. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Muslims, necessarily. They’re just the latest tool.

    Comment by Howard Roark — June 25, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

  5. It is called ‘neo-communism’.

    Comment by LL — June 25, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

  6. Prof: Adam Smith may not have been aware of Ibn Khaldun but I’ll bet the 16th century Spanish scholastics at the University of Salamanca were aware of him. They were remarkably ahead of their time. Anti-price controls, pro-free trade, subjective theory of value, you name it. They sound just like modern Austrian theorists.

    Comment by Carmichael — June 28, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

  7. My 14 year old cat is named Ibn Khaldun, in honor of the great economist who understood the impact of taxes and spending by the elite.

    Comment by Cole — June 29, 2017 @ 9:19 am

  8. […] of father, metaphorical or otherwise, is that they have intellectual progeny, as is pointed out here. In this case, intellectual progeny specifically in the field of economic analysis. Within the […]

    Pingback by Skepticlawyer » No, Ibn Khaldun is not the father of economics — July 18, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

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