left versus right in economics
I swear I was already thinking about this before Fabio posted last night about the politics of academia. Noah Smith (of the blog Noahpinion and more recently Bloomberg) wrote an interesting piece yesterday titled “Economics Stars Swing Left.”
In it, Smith notes that, contra Fabio’s statement below, economics is pretty left-leaning these days. Among economists there was widespread, though not universal, approval for government stimulus after the recession; inequality has been the cause célèbre ever since Piketty (and, really, before; see Dan Hirschman’s excellent paper on how economics rediscovered income inequality). Development economics, with its focus on interventions that help the poor, has been a hot field for well over a decade. Tyler Cowen calls Piketty, Krugman, Stiglitz, Sachs, and Sen the five most influential economists today — hardly a bunch of free-marketeers.
This runs counter to the way many sociologists think about economics. Some sociologists (#notallsociologists) think that economics is dominated by members of the Chicago School who believe that actors are always rational, free markets always work, and if we just privatized everything the world would be a better place. That’s simply not the case.
But I would like to offer an amendment to Smith’s assertion about economics being totally left-leaning these days. I agree in a way. But what this misses is that the “left” that economists tend to be is a very particular kind of left.
In fact, this is a core argument of the book I’m writing — that as economics became more influential in U.S. policy, it changed what it means to be “left.” It’s also a prominent theme in Stephanie Mudge’s forthcoming book, which follows the development of market-friendly “third way” parties in Europe.
So what’s different about the kind of left that economists tend to be? As always, there are exceptions here — I’m painting with a broad brush. But to make some generalizations:
- It’s a kind of left that does believe in the power of markets, while acknowledging that markets frequently fail or at least work imperfectly.
- It is a technocratic sort of left, that sees market failure as a problem to be solved, and government as a way to solve that problem.
- It tends to prioritize political goals that make sense through the lens of economics: promoting growth, increasing efficiency, increasing income; these days, reducing inequality.
- It has a harder time engaging with goals that can’t really be understood using economics: individual autonomy, civic engagement, political empowerment.
- It’s a bit skeptical of the value of democratic politics. In fact, it kind of thinks that the world would be better if people would just shut up already and do what the experts are telling them. (This last part goes for many sociologists, too.)
- It tends to undervalue what can’t be measured: a sacred piece of land, the value of dignity in one’s work, the inherent worth of increasing knowledge. Or perhaps a better term than “undervalue” is “view as impractical to consider.”
In other words, it’s a type of “left” that looks very familiar in American politics today.
The central political position in economics, then, may be seriously concerned with inequality. It may care deeply about poverty and about development. And it may be solidly in favor of government intervention to solve these problems.
But even so, it is only one type of left. And while there are big chunks of it I agree with, I think we lose when this is the only left that is legitimate.