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February 28, 2005

Mansfield on Economists; The Summers-Harvard Controversy

Harvey Mansfield says in The Weekly Standard:

At the meeting many said that the issue was not academic freedom vs. political correctness, as portrayed by the media, but Summers's style of governing. The point has a bit of truth. Summers is an economist, and there is almost no such thing as a suave economist. The great Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist of long ago, claimed to be the world's greatest lover as well as the world's greatest economist (it is said), but he was a singular marvel. The reason why economists are blunt is that words of honey seem to them mere diversion from reason and self-interest, which are the only sure guides in life.

That is well put. Economics is the Dismal Science because it makes tradeoffs, and makes them explicitly: "Do you want 10 more dead babies, or 20 more dead teenagers?" Perhaps because we are accustomed to switching back and forth between words and mathematical notation anyway, we are more indifferent than most people to labels. It is liberating: if you don't need to worry about whether somebody will find your language insensitive, you can get down to the business at hand undistracted.

Also, economists are used to piercing disguises to find reality, and so we find attempts by scholars to use transparent disguises insult our intelligence. When a businessman says, "I want high prices so the consumer will not have to suffer from low quality discounters," we hear "I want high prices so I will make a lot of money at the expense of consumers," and that's what we repeat, despite the pleas of the businessman that profit was the furthest thing from his mind and that we are slandering him.

As a result, there is more freedom of thought in economics than in most disciplines. We are used to discussing all possibilities, and we are scholarly enough to know that someone may be exploring an idea out of intellectual curiosity rather than because it fits his political objectives. Whether we agree with him or not, we think that Richard Posner's idea of auctioning off babies for adoption is worth discussing, and that it would be the height of anti-intellectualism to say he shouldn't even bring up such an idea.

This makes us, I think, more tolerant of non-economic ideas too. If Ward Churchill wants to argue that the 9-11 victims deserved his fate, by all means let him argue that. Maybe he is correct and maybe not, but the idea can't be ruled out until we hear his reasons-- though, of course, our willingness to listen will depend on our estimate of how likely it is that the speaker has something intelligent to say. It is not that we are closed-minded; just that we know we need to ration our time.

Mansfield's assessment of economics is wonderful because it is both correct and concisely yet poetically critical. Much could be extracted from that sentence.

Posted by erasmuse at February 28, 2005 11:31 AM

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