Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dueling Doxies

Cool. The Christopher Hayes article from the Nation that I linked to a few days ago has spawned some fascinating debate. Most of it is at TPM cafe where there are posts by Thomas Palley, Brad Delong, Julie Nelson, David Ruccio, Mark Thorma, James Galbraith, Max Sawicky, Paul Krugman and others. Elsewhere, Dani Rodrik comments twice, Sandwich Man & Barkley Rosser offer comments at Max Speak, while Ingrid Robeyns, Henry Farrell, and John Quiggin weigh in at Crooked timber.

A few random thoughts:

I think Henry Farrell, Paul Krugman and Brad Delong are right when they say that neo-classical economics doesn't have to lead to right-wing thought. I think Henry is interesting when he says that:

There seem to me to be two different fights going on here, which often get confused (and are systematically confused together by some of the post-autistic economics crew). One is whether economists’ reliance on the rational actor model, assumptions of self-interest, supply and demand and so on is intellectually good or bad). The second is whether ‘mainstream’ economics is necessarily right wing. (or, a little less polemically, whether it confines ‘legitimate’ debate to a political spectrum ranging from moderate Democrats to extreme Republicans). All too often, these get jumbled together into the implicit or explicit claim that economists’ reliance on the rational actor model means that they come up with results that are necessarily right wing. This is wrong. There’s lots of very interesting work out there, including some that is self-avowedly Marxist (the ‘no bullshit’ variety of Marxism that Harry Brighouse and I have both been influenced by), which relies extensively on economistic arguments about self-interested rational utility maximizing actors, and is no less left wing for it.

That being said, I don't back down from my own earlier comment that:

What's more, by ignoring the less cut-throat elements of human behavior certain economists have neatly used something akin to a tautology to smuggle in their political beliefs. If you believe that humans only act in their own self interest then it follows that you'll have system that venerates this.

It's definitely true that assumptions about rational self-interested actors don't necessarily lead to right-wing world views, but I do think such a position eliminates from the start more some of the more interesting leftish ideas out there. I don't see this as such a problem when it comes to pure economics but it bugs me more when economics starts venturing into the worlds of sociology and political science (public choice stuff in particular*). I also think that the aforementioned assumptions do leave the right with a larger hamper to smuggle in their politics.

Another interesting aspect of the debates, and Chris Hayes article, was the way that ideas cross the border from Heterodoxia to Orthodoxia. To the defenders of the orthodoxy this shows that everthing is ok actually, to the heterdox by the time the ideas have limped over the borders they have been tamed and robbed of much of their power. It also seemed from the discussion that even when ideas cross over, often the economists are left behind. Probably some of this is personal choice, but it also reminds me a bit of the current state of economic globalisation: we can trade (ideas) across borders, but labour stays trapped - mostly - within the nation state. What ever else you might say a bout this situation, greater immigration would certainly bring about more rapid cultural change. Presumably this would be true too when it comes to the slow tacking away of the good ship orthodoxy from rational expectations and hard line monetarism.

Slow as it is, change, however, has taken place in orthodox economics though and I think that this is something I should have emphasised more in my original post.

And, finally, I thought I should explain just why I'm interested in these sorts of debates. After all, I'm not an economist (my primary interest is in political science). Really, the reason why I blog much more about economics is that it is at the heart of many of the immediate debates in New Zealand politics and international development. And as an informed voter and NGO staff members it seems important to me to be at least broadly familiar with what is going on out there.

*To the extent that I understand it.

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