The Tenth-Ranked Quotation of 2008: Atheists & Libertarians

The Yale Book of Quotations provides a useful service: It tabulates well-known sound-bites, but tries to get the exact quote and citation right, which is rare.    (P.T. Barnum in fact never said “There is a sucker born every minute.”    Richard Nixon never said “But it would be wrong.” Etc.)  The editor also compiles an annual list of Top Ten Quotes of the Year.   In the second week of December he released the list for 2008.  Number 1, for example, is “I can see Russia from my house” (carefully attributed to the Tina Fey parody rather than precisely what Sarah Palin originally said).

The good news is that the title line in my blogpost of July 17 was chosen as one of the top ten quotes of 2008 (tied for tenth place, it is true).    The sentence is: “If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in financial crises.”     The bad news is that the quote was attributed to Paul Krugman, who had used it subsequently on the Bill Maher Show.   I had originally written it in 2007 as the first line of an article in a Cato Journal issue devoted to financial crises.  Among the others who picked up on the line after my blogpost were Ben BernankeMark Shields, Bloomberg,, Brad deLong, and Tom Keene – generally with attribution, when the format permitted.

The list of Top Ten Quotations of 2008 went out over AP on December 15 as it was, and appeared in lots of newspaper stories and TV broadcasts.  Krugman immediately set the record straight on his blog, as I knew he would.   AP sent out a correction on December 22.    It should be obvious that this is not a scandal of any sort and that Krugman is just as quotable as he ever was.

But there are some other, more interesting, aspects.

One is an illustration of how tough is the world in which highly visible columnists like Krugman live.   There are lots of Krugman-haters out there.  Of course the phenomenon originates in the fact that he consistently has been liberal and anti-Bush (not precisely the same thing).  But the antipathy goes very deep.    The Yale/AP list was originally called to my attention by one Joel West.   I told him I was indebted to him for pointing out the misattribution.   But I also told him that I was sure that there had been no desire on Paul’s part to steal my line:  TV shows like Bill Maher don’t customarily allow their guests to display footnotes.     But Mr.West must be one of the Krugman-haters, because his subsequent blogpost accused Krugman of dishonesty.   As had another Krugman-hating blogpost before that.   These people are eager for ammunition against someone of a different ideological persuasion and are not sufficiently discriminating about what they use.

Ironically, of the other two soundbites that share tenth place on the Yale/AP list with the atheists-libertarians quote, one is something else attributed to Krugman (“Cash for trash”), and the third is from the all-time champion Krugman-hater, Donald Luskin.   Luskin earned the Top Ten honor when quoted as saying “Anyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one — especially the worst one since the Great Depression — is making up his own private definition of “`recession’”  in the Washington Post, September 14.    This was of course after a huge fraction of economic commentators and the public had already decided that the country was probably in recession, as now turns out indeed to have been the case.   (I myself took a bit of grief on various blogs both for saying the “R word” too early and also for saying it too late.  But I have also gotten credit.)

The atheists-and-libertarians line itself has also drawn some grief from some atheists and libertarians, on various blogsites.   I don’t mean to put these two philosophies together (although that would be an interesting essay question on some exam).  Nor is it the case that either group is objecting to being associated with the other.   But both have pointed out that the statement is not literally true.   They are entirely correct:  There are plenty of atheists in the military;  and there are plenty of libertarians in a financial crisis.  But of course the statement did not literally mean there are no atheists in foxholes or libertarians in financial crises.  The claims are, rather, that on average:  (i) soldiers under fire tend suddenly to grow more religious in outlook, and (ii) policy-makers facing a financial crisis tend suddenly to grow more interventionist in outlook.    But, y
es, there really are conscientious atheists in foxholes.   They are a minority, but a substantial one.   And yes there really are thoughtful libertarians in financial crises.  Again a minority, but not to be dismissed.   If anything, I admire the intellectual consistency of those who have thought through their views well enough ahead of time that they do not change them under pressure from events that, even if calamitous, were predictable.