This month, the opinions of New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman managed to spark an online war between his supporters and those of "Austrian economics" that ended only after the Wikipedia page for this branch of economic "theory" was protected from editing. This piece of news may hardly come as a surprise to those familiar with Krugman’s propensity to use the Internet for discussions of an economic nature, and the occasionally polemic nature of his arguments. Not only is the economist a frequent Twitter user who regularly promotes his column through online mediums, but his international Twitter war with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik IIves over austerity measures is now being turned into an opera.
Pushing the amusing aspects of these events aside, however, the fact that Krugman’s supporters were blocked from editing the Austrian Economics Wikipedia page could set a precedent that will have serious effects on the way people use the internet for the spreading of information.
For those unfamiliar with the tenets of Austrian economics, this is the branch of economic thought that Bloomberg journalist Josh Barro rightfully described as "philosophy dressed up as economics." Austrian economics is the most libertarian of all free-market ideologies. Not only do Austrian economists reject the notion that government intervention to aid the poor or to regulate the economy could be beneficial, but they believe that any type of government involvement, including slashing of taxes to "boost economic activity" (generally supported by most believers in the efficacy of the free-market’s invisible hand) is absolutely useless and detrimental to the economy. But as many spectators have noted, the "Austrians" have consistently claimed that stimulus spending will lead to hyperinflation and economic disaster, an ending that the stimulus bill of 2009 did not have. They also believe that all economic exchange, regardless of its nature, is beneficial to society (a highly dubious claim given the evidence) and that it is far from ideal to use mathematics to predict economic phenomenon, a claim disputed by almost all mainstream economists.
These were some of the errors that Paul Krugman was attempting to critique in his column; those critiques have since been essentially banned from Wikipedia. Krugman publicly maintains that Austrian business cycle theory is, in his opinion, "as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire." Even Milton Friedman, another Nobel Prize-winning economist known for being at the opposite end of the spectrum as Krugman, has claimed that the explanation of the business cycle supported by the fathers of Austrian economics, Hayek and Mises, is contradicted by the evidence. Despite the highly controversial nature of Austrian economics, however, its proponents have somehow managed to have the opinions of respected economists temporarily blocked from one of the most frequented websites on the Internet. Currently, the information available on Wikipedia concerning Krugman’s critique of Austrian economics amounts to all of one sentence.
Wikipedia is meant to function democratically, meaning that as a tool open to the public for editing, a wide variety of interpretations can be shared through this medium. When ideologues are permitted to jealously guard the information shared on specific pages, this previously useful tool becomes a means to promote a specific ideology as opposed to spreading knowledge. If genuine critique is banned from Wikipedia on a regular basis, this could limit the variety of information available on online forums. One of the great achievements of the information age is that a larger audience than ever before is exposed to an unprecedented diversity of opinions and knowledge. By allowing info wars to lead to censorship, albeit temporarily, we risk losing this incredible achievement and promote wilful ignorance and a steadfast refusal to consider differing beliefs.