Economics and Ideology
Given the nature of the subject matter, Economics and economists are closely associated with one or another ideology, defined by Merriam-Webster as a set of ideas and beliefs of a group or a political party.
MPP and MPA students, who enter their studies with the hope of finding clear policy measures that will make the world a better place, are sometimes surprised to encounter concepts propounded by economists that cast doubt on the efficacy of seemingly obvious policies aimed at improving social welfare. See, for example, Unintended Consequences and Public Choice Theory. The students might wonder if the economic concepts they are taught reflect a particular ideology.
Mark Thoma, an economist at the University of Oregon (reference below), has asked “Is economics, as some assert, little more than a means of dressing up ideological arguments in scientific clothing?” He writes:
“This certainly happens, especially among economists connected to politically driven think tanks [he links to Miles Corak, How to think about “think tanks”, at https://milescorak.com/2014/11/25/how-to-think-about-think-tanks/, accessed 2 May 2016] at places like the Heritage Foundation come to mind. Economists who work for businesses also have a tendency to present evidence more like a lawyer advocating a particular position than a scientist trying to find out how the economy really works. But what about academic economists who are supposed to be searching for the truth no matter the political implications? Can we detect the same degree of bias in their research and policy positions? …
“Shouldn’t theory be a guide when the empirical evidence is unconvincing one way or the other? Yes, but the problem is that strong empirical evidence is needed to differentiate among competing theories. When the empirical evidence is unclear because it is weak or there are there are results supporting both sides, theoretical models can be built that are consistent with either set of results. You will then inevitably hear that theory supports one side or the other, and people are convinced by this argument, but the theory tells us very little without empirical support.
“I am not claiming that academic economists are as pure as the driven snow when it comes to ideological bias. It exists. But a few prominent examples color the perception of economists more generally. The academic economists I have encountered in the more than 30 years in this profession are pursuing answers to the questions they find most important, whatever those answers might be. Ideology certainly influences which questions academic researchers believe are the most important, but there is nothing wrong with that. What’s essential is that they follow the evidence wherever it might lead. I have no doubt that, despite a few bad apples, the vast majority of economists honor the evidence over their prior beliefs when the evidence speaks clearly on an issue.
“The problem is that, in economics, the evidence rarely delivers clear answers. That leads to ongoing disputes among economists, and since ideology influences the questions researchers ask, these disputes are often viewed along ideological lines.
“Again, so long as, in the end, economists follow the evidence once it accumulates on one side or the other, I don’t see this as a problem. But, despite the confidence in the academic community expressed above, there have been some worrisome trends in recent years. Too many economists have been unwilling to change their views on issues such as whether quantitative easing in a deep recession will cause runaway inflation and interest rate spikes despite clear evidence those views are wrong. That must change. Our reputation with the public is bad enough as it is, and our best hope of changing that is to be honest about the evidence, and follow it wherever it might take us.”
Atlas topic, subject, and course
Mark Thoma (2015), Are Economists Driven by Ideology or Evidence? The Fiscal Times, at http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2015/11/03/Are-Economists-Driven-Ideology-or-Evidence, accessed 2 May 2016.
Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 1 May 2016.
Image: David Ruccio, Economics and ideology, at https://anticap.wordpress.com/2013/01/, accessed 2 May 2016.