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Economics and ideology

from Lars Syll

Mainstream (neoclassical) economics has always put a strong emphasis on the positivist conception of the discipline, characterizing economists and their views as objective, unbiased, and non-ideological …

Ronald_Reagan_televised_address_from_the_Oval_Office,_outlining_plan_for_Tax_Reduction_Legislation_July_1981Acknowledging that ideology resides quite comfortably in our economics departments would have huge intellectual implications, both theoretical and practical. In spite (or because?) of that, the matter has never been directly subjected to empirical scrutiny.

In a recent study, we do just that. Using a well-known experimental “deception” technique embedded in an online survey that involves just over 2400 economists from 19 countries, we fictitiously attribute the source of 15 quotations to famous economists of different leanings. In other words, all participants received identical statements to agree or disagree with, but source attribution was randomly changed without the participants’ knowledge. The experiment provides clear evidence that ideological bias strongly influences the ideas and judgements of economists. More specifically, we find that changing source attributions from mainstream to less-/non-mainstream figures significantly reduces the respondents’ reported agreement with statements. Interestingly, this contradicts the image economists have of themselves, with 82% of participants reporting that in evaluating a statement one should only pay attention to its content and not to the views of its author …

Economics education, through which economic discourses are disseminated to students and future economists, is one of these important channels. It affects the way students process information, identify problems, and approach these problems in their research. Not surprisingly, this training may also affect the policies they favor and the ideologies they adhere to. In fact, there already exists strong evidence that, compared to various other disciplines, students in economics stand out in terms of views associated with greed, corruption, selfishness, and willingness to free-ride …

We find evidence of a strong ideological bias among economists … For example, when a statement criticizing “symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalizing a system of economic analysis” is attributed to its real source, John Maynard Keynes, instead of its fictitious source, Kenneth Arrow, the agreement level among economists drops by 11.6%. Similarly, when a statement criticizing intellectual monopoly (i.e. patent, copyright) is attributed to Richard Wolff, the American Marxian economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, instead of its real source, David Levine, professor of economics at the Washington University in St. Louis, the agreement level drops by 6.6%.

Mohsen Javdani & Ha-Joon Chang

7ti40Mainstream economists — in many ways separated from the ​life of ordinary people — are with their ‘the model is the message’ thinking particularly inclined to confuse the things of logic with the logic of things. They have a tendency to get enthralled by their theories and models​ and forget that behind the figures and abstractions there is a real world with real people. Real people that have to pay dearly for fundamentally flawed ideological doctrines and recommendations.

  1. Econoclast
    August 19, 2019 at 12:24 am

    I like this post and am most interested to read your study. Unfortunately I could not open it. I’d appreciate if you’d check that.

    I was constantly exposed to the “we are objective and no ideology” ideology long ago. Recently I needed to discuss something with some local economists, and I find that illusion alive and well.

  2. Frederick Kautz
    August 19, 2019 at 12:43 am

    I was able to open the link just now (1935 hrs EDT). See the SSRN link below.
    https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3356309

    Javdani, Mohsen and Chang, Ha-Joon, Who Said or What Said? Estimating Ideological Bias in Views Among Economists (July 1, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3356309 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3356309

    • Econoclast
      August 19, 2019 at 5:48 pm

      Got it, thanks for the link!

  3. David Laurel
    August 19, 2019 at 4:25 pm

    Really like this article. Many thanks.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    August 21, 2019 at 8:33 am

    A standard line in the talk I give (for free, no charge) to BODs, Business Roundtables, etc. is, “The only time any person is not ideological is when that person is dead. And I’m not certain it’s the case even after death.” So, of course economists are ideological. As are all scientists, fake and otherwise. The important questions are then, how are they ideological, why are they ideological, and what are the effects of their ideology, both on their scientific work and their explanations of science to non-scientists. In their book, “Do Economists Make Markets: On the Performativity of Economics (2007),” Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu (two sociologists and an anthropologist) tell us, “Empirical work on the performativity [active involvement in constructing the non-academic world related to economics] of economics is in many ways still sparse, as is indicated, for example, by the absence of any work so far on carbon markets informed by the notion, with the exception of Lohmann (2005). Such empirical work must surely go hand in hand with further theoretical development. We do not pretend to know where this will lead, but of two things we are sure: that economics (in the academic sense as well as in the wider senses indicated by Callon) is built into the societies of high modernity, and that analysis of this is still in its infancy.” We’re just beginning to research how and why economists tilt the table. I hope I can squeeze reading the new research into my packed calendar.

  5. Robert Locke
    August 21, 2019 at 9:34 am

    I think ideologies of occupational groups differ. When I investigated the ingenieur-economists of France, who presided over restoration of French infralstructure during the thirty glorious years, 1945-75, I noted the ethos of the ecole polythenique, service, honor, country. Nobody suggested the French schools of engineering needed to introduce courses on ethics; as we have done in US business schools, largely in vain. See my article in the rwer, 2011, on The Reform of finance education in US business schools.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      August 21, 2019 at 10:34 am

      Thanks, Robert. I’ve forwarded copies of your article to Donald MacKenzie and Lucia Siu at the University of Edinburgh and Fabian Muniesa at Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI), a research center of Mines Paris Tech. I’m sure they’ll find it interesting and useful.

  6. Robert Locke
    August 21, 2019 at 10:41 am

    I’m not sure that occupational cultures are not different. When I looked at engineers in France compared to finance experts in us bs schools, I noted that with the 2008 crash everybody started introducing courses in ethics in us schools. Nobody talked about anything of the sort in French grandes ecoles because service to the national., not the private greed stimulus, was the ethos of their schools, service, honor, country, at the Ecole Polyhenique, whose graduates through the Ecoles des mines, formed the corps of engineer-economists. See my article in rwer, 2011, on reform of finance education in us business schools.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      August 21, 2019 at 11:02 am

      Robert, I read the article.

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