Dan Klein on the Econ Profession
By Bryan Caplan
When Dan Klein dissects the economics profession, he manages to be simultaneously thoughtful, blunt, and fair:
My view of the matter, in the broadest terms, is that human culture generally, and in particular Anglo-American culture since the great transformation epitomized by the passings from President Cleveland to Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson, and Roosevelt, and from Prime Minister Gladstone to Prime Ministers Asquith and George, has numerous strong biases that tend toward the under-appreciation of liberalism. Plain talk of liberty and coercion are indeed matters of great taboo. But that does not mean that such ideas are not playing a fundamental role in people’s thinking and judgments. The taboos and biases propel the establishment of very bad policies, which are culturally protected by notions that will not, upon responsible scrutiny, pass muster on customary standards of social betterment – for example, in my view, drug prohibition, occupational licensing, the prohibition of cash payments to organ donors, and the restrictions administered by the FDA make us less healthy, less wealthy, and less secure. I see the taboos and biases as so deep and pervasive that I do not expect even on-record economists to arrive at and state plainly good judgment on the root matters of the issue. Still, liberal enlightenment works to check the train of folly, and, I find some topics on which most on-record economists still get right the direction for reform. Thus, in my view, it is not likely that scholars who bear the responsibility of going on the record would come to conclusions that are less liberal than those of the general public or its subgroup, economists at large.
If, then, we accept the idea that there is among economists a forsaken-liberty syndrome, illustrated by several of the DERAC papers, and we ask why it exists, the answer, I say, must be but a part of a much larger discussion about why the vast majority of people vastly underappreciate the presumption of liberty. Economists at large are but part of a much larger problem, and the diagnosis would reach far beyond their precincts. Many economists operate within and are the products of cultural ecologies enveloped by the apparatuses of government intervention, and their work should be interpreted accordingly.
Consider the American Economic Association. It is an establishment-oriented, professional organization, and as such it is normal that it would be oriented
toward the status quo. We should not expect that it would elevate those who think that many government agencies and interventions are wrongheaded at root and should be abolished. Moreover, the AEA is run by elite academics. My impression is that in the matter of ideological sensibilities the economics profession has been trending toward the academic norm, and that it will continue to do so. Also, we should bear in mind that many or even most of the founders of the AEA were progressives, nationalists, or social democrats (on Richard T. Ely, see Thies and Daza 2011).
Enlightenment has a force of its own, and sometimes it will match the forces that work against it. Just as Bentham eventually carried the day on ceilings on interest rates, latter-day and, alas, now dissident liberal economists have no doubt altered the balance between the presumption of the status quo and the presumption of liberty, for example on international trade, agricultural subsidies, drug prohibition, school vouchers, and conscription. Perhaps economic enlightenment will spread on some issues, such as sports subsidies, organ policy, occupational licensing, and the FDA.
But it would be foolhardy to suppose that academia provides a setting in which enlightenment
as the upper hand. Surely the minority who uphold a presumption of liberty will remain vital and make their voices heard, but their discourse might still be regarded as a sort of dissidence. Even in the heyday of the liberal era, William Gladstone in 1878 sized up academia as follows: “I trace in the education of Oxford of my own time one great defect. Perhaps it was my own fault; but I must admit that I did not learn, when at Oxford, that which I have learned since, viz., to set a due value on the imperishable and inestimable principles of human liberty.”
(notes omitted; from the conclusion to “The Forsaken-Liberty Syndrome“)