Monday, April 03, 2006

Economists seem to think the Right is RIGHT. Economists of Scale

By Tim Worstall : BIO| 03 Apr 2006

Just how right wing are economists? A serious question, not a joke. If you look around at some of the favorite liberal or left wing ideas, or policy proposals, you see that most economists start sucking their teeth, muttering under their breath and generally, well, at best, not supporting the ideas. Even those who share the goals of a more egalitarian society, even economists known to be left wing politically, tend not to support some policies on their economic arguments. Why is this? Why is it that economists, to liberal viewers at least, all seem to be right wing?

Simply to state that the Right is right, while tempting, isn't really enough. Nor is to turn around a favorite trope of the left about the liberal bias of most of the academy: those people bright enough to be professors, well, of course they're going to be left wing, all the clever people are! Our reading of this would be that only right-wing types are so especially intellectually gifted so as to actually understand economics. Again, tempting, but not really a strong enough idea to take all that seriously.

Fortunately, a real economist (rather than I, interested amateur that I am) has actually addressed this problem: Gebhard Kirchgässner on "(Why) Are Economists Different?" He starts by defining what he means by what I have called "right", preferring the word "conservative" and quotes George Gilder:

"I shall mean by a conservative in economic matters a person who wishes most economic activity conducted by private enterprise, and who believes that abuses of private power will usually be checked, and incitements to efficiency and progress usually provided, by the force of competition."

Yes, I understand that to many liberals this would indeed be a description of a conservative position but it strikes me as being rather closer to the Classical Liberal (or as it is known nowadays, libertarian) one. Still, it is one at odds with what we think of as the liberal position in the American sense.

First, of course, we have to try and work out whether economists are in fact more "right" or classically liberal than either the rest of the population or the rest of academia. After a rather neat comparison of the business and economics pages of some European newspapers and their more rightward slant than the general editorial opinion of those very same papers Kirchgässner notes an earlier study:

"On the other hand, academic economists are today with respect to their political identifications – on the average – significantly right of the general public. This also holds for the United States, as R.F. HAMILTON and L.L. HARGENS (1993) show. They report the results of a survey taken in 1984. According to those, only 27.7 percent of economics professors identified themselves as being left or liberal, compared to 39.5 percent of all 4,944 professors asked, 66.1 percent of political scientists and even 78.4 percent of sociologists."

Well, that would be a yes then. That number for the sociologists might also explain quite why so many of us find it very difficult to understand what they are on about. There are also differences between groups of economists:

"It was the conviction of the various authors of these studies that the general public does not have the same strong belief in the working of the market system as the economists. As evidence for this B.S. FREY (1986) pointed to the result that economists working in the government had already less trust in the market system than academic economists; while, for example, 45 percent of the academic economists believed that minimum wages increase unemployment, only 33 percent of the economists working in the government did hold the same belief."

That minimum wage question is exactly one where we see the divergence between what the average liberal believes and what the average economist (even if a liberal at heart) does. (For a longer discussion on this point try here from January.) The essential point being that rises in the minimum wage almost certainly have a detrimental effect on the incomes of those who receive them, for if you raise the price of something then people will buy less of it. Economists, whether liberal or not, are more likely to be able to get their heads around this seeming absurdity, that if you mandate a raise in people's pay their incomes will fall.

So, viewed from Planet Liberal, economists do indeed seem to be right-wing. The above insistence that minimum wages might be a bad idea, the near universal agreement that unrestricted free trade is just fine and dandy, that immigration, while it does have some bad effects (sorry, everything has bad effects, it's the sum of all effects that is important) is on balance similarly a good idea...even the public choice theorist's insistence that government isn't actually a disinterested all-wise and all-knowing arbiter with only our best interests at heart. Actually, it's a collection of people just as self-interested and corruptible as you and I. These aren't tropes and memes that play well with those on the political left although, with the occasional exception, I don't think you'd find an economist who would reject them. Shades of difference in opinion, in how important they are, of course, but a general acceptance of the truth of the propositions.

So having established that economists are indeed right wing, or at least perceived to be in the prescriptions they offer, the interesting question is why?

Kirchgässner looks at two possible answers. That economists are self-selecting, that only those already predisposed to such ideas study the subject in sufficient depth to actually become economists. Looking at some age cohorts of students, among other things, he notes that in the same school, those with more years of economic education are, in the sense that we are using the words, more right or conservative than those with fewer. This points, as he says, to the cause being indoctrination:

"And if we have good reasons and see economics as a social science, the discussion about indoctrination versus self-selection is not very interesting. This holds not only because it is extremely implausible that there is not at least some indoctrination, or, to say it somewhat more friendly, learning in this respect. It should be obvious that the study of economics changes the perception individuals have of the market mechanism; we who are teaching economics would miss our job if this would not be the case."

In other words, if you study a science then it can't really be all that much of a surprise that you learn something of that science. And if economics is indeed a science then there are such things as correct answers, ones that will be recognized by all practitioners of that very same science.

So we do, in the end, come to the answer originally rejected as being tempting but not really enough. Economists are right-wing because, on economics, the Right is right.


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