When Economists Stop Being Polite

Posted on


My three cents on the rumble in the econ department touched off by Chris Hayes’ article on heterodox economics. My first thought when I heard the contention that the neoclassical consensus behaves like a mafia was to remember my Thomas Kuhn. One hears tell of mafia-like behavior among purported social scientists and thinks to oneself “this isn’t how a real science behaves.” Kuhn reminds us that, in fact, that’s exactly how a real science behaves — it’s just not what a rational reconstruction of a successful line of research looks like.

Delving deeper into it, though, the main point I’m taking away from this debate is the extent to which heterodox economics doesn’t call the neoclassical paradigm into question. Various heterodox sorts cast doubt on various specific contentions of the neoclassical paradigm into question but, as Hayes documents, the neoclassical paradigm is perfectly willing to incorporate such things into the doctrine when they prove convincing over time. What heterodox economists are really challenging isn’t neoclassical economics but the political behavior of neoclassical economists.

The recent Alan Blinder fracas is a case in point. He didn’t call any of the standard neoliberal case for free trade into question, and, indeed, didn’t argue against free trade at all. He just said something that he thought would be helpful in spurring the creation of the sort of social democratic society with an open market that he favors, while many economists saw his statements as giving aide and comfort to people who have a political agenda (blocking new trade agreements) that they don’t like. Even people who challenge free trade orthodoxy more directly — Dean Baker, say, or the guys who write EPI’s stuff about why we shouldn’t sign new trade agreements unless they have much tougher labor rules — aren’t challenging the economic models underlying the case for free trade. They’re having a political disagreement about the desirability of, say, passing CAFTA that has basically nothing to do with any deep disagreements about economic theory.