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.


Written by epopp

January 9, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Posted in academia, economics

5 Responses

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  1. This is a very good point, even within the economics profession. When I started out, the top leftist economists were people like Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis, and Ben Ward, and my campus had an active URPE chapter. Those people would have considered Krugman, Stiglitz, and Sachs right-wingers. They appear left-ish only in comparison to the median academic in almost every other field.


    Peter Klein

    January 9, 2015 at 3:26 pm

  2. Smith’s analysis is ok as far as it goes, but it leaves out the problem that economics matters most where it interfaces with policy. And while there are recent posts here exploring that which highlight various issues and nuances, I’m still not inclined to absolve economists in general (e.g. Smith) for the way the profession of academic economics does very little about the right-wing tilt of policy influence.

    It’s not all politicians grasping for theories to back up their prejudices. We have very eminent economists who helped talk us into austerity and while Noah and others blogged about it (and Krugman writes about it in the NYT) there’s no sign of professional consequences for John Cochrane or others. This is made all the more stark by Krugman’s little post about how status really circulates in economics.



    January 10, 2015 at 5:32 pm

  3. Great article, but I disagree with this certain ‘type’ of lefts goal to be efficient, increase income and close the income inequality gap.

    I am no economist, but I have a few lay observations.

    First, I have never known government to get involved in anything that didn’t become less efficient as they simply threw money at a problem (and then more money).

    Second, where are incomes today compared to post Obama government intervention? And had the internet not taken off during the Clinton era, government intervention would have done even less for incomes then.

    Finally, income inequality continues to grow because markets continue to increase in diversify, technology and globalization.

    If markets were allowed to fail from time to time (as they are intended to do) old wealth would die and new wealth would emerge from the bottom up. It seems to me that government intervention is the very thing that stops this cycle from happening.

    That being said, I love your article. It is amazing how quickly the world of economics went from right leaning (in 2007) to left leaning today.



    January 11, 2015 at 3:47 pm

  4. But I may want to add that the five economists listed as the most popular may just be ranked in the public sphere. They are very controversial among economists. Say, the Krugman in NYT is generally regarded as very different from the academic Krugman, and similarly for Stiglitz. Academic economists are also highly skeptical about Piketty’s book.



    January 12, 2015 at 5:11 am

  5. Instead of tossing out the assertions about economics leaning left/right, I would argue that sociologists probably don’t quite understand economics in general, mostly because of the the amount of math/stats background it usually requires (if you don’t have an undergrad major in math/engineering, then it’s just tough to do a phd in economics these days), nor do we follow updates in economic research. That’s quite unfortunate.



    January 12, 2015 at 8:25 pm

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