Take 50 paces and fire your insults. Photographer: Neil Holmes via Getty Images
Take 50 paces and fire your insults. Photographer: Neil Holmes via Getty Images

My Bloomberg View colleagues Megan McArdle and Noah Smith have been discussing whether it's all right to call somebody stupid. Larry Kotlikoff got them started by attacking Paul Krugman for calling Paul Ryan stupid. No, Paul Ryan isn't stupid, said Kotlikoff. "No one, and I mean no one, deserves to be called stupid."

When I see four extremely smart writers struggling to make sense of an issue, I feel obliged to help.

First, as Krugman points out, he didn't actually call Ryan stupid; he called him a con man, which is worse. It's people who think Ryan is a serious thinker acting in good faith that Krugman calls stupid. Those people include Kotlikoff, though Krugman chose not to say so. (For the record, Professor Kotlikoff, Professor Krugman thinks you're stupid -- or maybe just pretending to be.)

The main point, in any event, is that democratic politics needs a morsel of civility. Calling people stupid or accusing them of bad faith is toxic. Krugman, on the contrary, thinks civility is overrated. Often, he says, it's just plain wrong -- a species of intellectual dishonesty.

I wish we lived in a world in which you could presume that major figures are arguing in good faith, in which what they claim to be doing in their policy proposals was what they were actually doing. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and I would be acting in bad faith myself if I pretended that the world was like that.

Krugman's too easily exasperated, I'd say, and much too quick to see bad faith (mostly on the opposing side, rarely on his own). But I don't question his sincerity. The problem with his view on civility is that without a minimum of mutual respect, debate degenerates into a useless squabble, which is what U.S. politics has become. In a functioning democracy, deals have to be struck among groups with different views. Differences of opinion shouldn't be suppressed, but if mutual disgust rises to the point where negotiation is no longer possible, everybody loses.

That's not all. If you're contemptuous of your opponent, you don't expect to learn anything from him. You feel less obligation to inform yourself, offer counterarguments or examine your own position. This mindset promotes laziness. My main complaint against Krugman is that he encourages his admirers -- not all of them as gifted as he is -- to think less. It's good practice to look for what's valuable in the arguments of people you disagree with. It's a shame when distinguished academics, leading by example, teach the opposite.

There's something to be said, no doubt, for just growing a thicker skin. Smith says people take it all too seriously: Bouncing ideas off other people is what matters. Sure, but promiscuous expressions of contempt shut discussion down. There's something about "You're stupid, let's talk" that doesn't seem to work.

I'm not denying that fools and liars exist. Kotlikoff is wrong when he says, "No one, and I mean no one, deserves to be called stupid." Contempt for one's opponents is occasionally justified -- but more often it's mere self-indulgence. Citizens in a democracy need to keep it under tight control.

To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.