Mainstream versus heterodox economics
from David Ruccio
Is there a strong divide between mainstream and heterodox economics?*
Simon Wren-Lewis thinks there is (at least in the area of macroeconomics), and I agree with him. Where we disagree is on the question of whether or not there should be such a divide. He thinks not. My own view is there should be an even greater divide than there is.
To give him credit, Wren-Lewis—in contrast to the vast majority of mainstream economists—actually recognizes that there is such a thing as heterodox economics, and he tries to remember to add “the qualification ‘mainstream’ or something similar” when he writes about “what most macroeconomists do and think.” OK, that’s a step forward compared to most of his mainstream colleagues.
But what Wren-Lewis misses, much like his mainstream colleagues, is that there’s a fundamental asymmetry between mainstream and heterodox economics. Mainstream economists—whether in microeconomics, macroeconomics, or any other area—mostly ignore the existence of approaches other than the mainstream. Heterodox economists, on the contrary, have to know both mainstream economics and heterodox economics. They have to know how mainstream economics works, where it comes from, and what kinds of policies it supports—and they have to know heterodox economics works, where it comes from, and what kinds of alternative policies it supports.
Heterodox economists may reject mainstream economics but they have to know it—and know it even better than mainstream economists themselves. Why? Because they have to teach it (often alongside their own, quite different approaches) and they have to engage it in public debate (precisely because mainstream economics dominates the debate within the media and in policymaking circles).
Heterodox economists themselves are divided over their relationship to mainstream economists. Some heterodox economists believe it necessary to do their economics in a manner similar to mainstream economics, so that mainstream economists will “take it seriously.” But, of course, that comes at a cost: the more time they spend making heterodox economics look like mainstream economics, the less distinctive their own approach becomes. Other heterodox economics recognize this and try to spend more time sharpening the lines of distinction between mainstream and heterodox economics and developing the distinctive methods and insights of heterodox economics as both a critique of and alternative to mainstream economics.
There is one other problem heterodox economists have to confront: positioning heterodox economics as a critique of mainstream economics—instead of as a separate, incomparably different way of doing economics—can have the effect of reinforcing the hegemony of mainstream economics. In other words, the more we say mainstream (read: neoclassical and Keynesian) economics is mainstream economics, the more we constitute it as the mainstream against which our own efforts are arrayed.
One alternative, then, is to simply ignore mainstream economics and get on with the business of developing and disseminating our own, heterodox approaches to economic analysis.
Now that would really drive the Wren-Lewises of the world crazy.
*As it happens, the latest international conference of heterodox economics, Political Economy and the Outlook for Capitalism, cosponsored by the Association for Heterodox Economics, the Association Française d’Économie Politique, and the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy, was just held in Paris.