Economists’ Politics Loom Large in their Views of Capitalist Crises

By Mark Horowitz,

Radical critics have long maligned economists for their role in normalizing capitalist production relations. Marx wrote famously that classical and later “vulgar” economic theories were “more or less conscious” efforts to present capitalist production as “governed by eternal and natural laws which are independent of history.” This theme endures in Marxist literature.  Economists are criticized for their ahistoricism as well as their pecuniary interests in ideologically shoring up the system. Rather than viewing value, profit, and wage labor as historically transitory and coterminous with capital, Pilling notes, the classical economists “fetishistically accepted the available concepts as fixed and unalterable.”  For Milonakis, mainstream economists have become if anything only more “apologetic” in recent years.  The “global economic crisis,” he writes, led to little “self-reflection” by economists, not surprising given the “vested interests” of many academics in the “financial sector.”

Criticism of a theory’s political consequences or authors’ hidden ideological agendas has been a central preoccupation of critical social science. The aim is to unmask how idea systems legitimize relations of domination in society and foreclose opportunities for emancipation. Hence the critical sociologist, as Burawoy notes, always presses the questions: Sociology for what? Sociology for whom?  By attacking the ideological consequences of instrumental knowledge – often in service to clients comfortably ensconced in the status quo – critical theory reveals how all knowledge is ultimately political and can never be neatly extricated from the currents of power in social life.

We do not depart from these assumptions. Yet we doubt the extent to which the Marxist tradition has developed an adequate social psychology of knowledge.  People’s politics cannot, of course, be simply read off their class position alone (to wit: low-income workers voting “against their interests” or the largesse of the “limousine liberal”).  In our view, people’s political sensibilities are anchored in part in their biopsychology (more on this below).  Here we note that such sensibilities play a key role in how scholars appraise evidence with regard to morally-charged social issues. My colleagues and I make this case in studies of major controversies across the social sciences. We show that the best predictor of where social scientists stand in their field’s controversies is their self-identified political orientation. Gender and disciplinary subfield may also be significant, but politics stands out.

In our study of economics in Review of Radical Political Economics, we survey 253 academic economists in graduate programs across the United States (having emailed 1977 professors in total, for a 13 percent response rate).  We ask respondents to choose the term that best captures their political orientation: ‘radical;’ ‘liberal;’ ‘moderate;’ ‘conservative;’ or ‘libertarian.’  Echoing prior research, we found, perhaps contrary to expectations, that relatively few economists identify as libertarian (13 percent). Indeed, the vast majority of economists (77 percent) identify as either liberal or moderate, a group we dub the “liberal/moderate core” (LMC) of the field.

We formulated 35 statements bearing on capitalism’s crisis tendencies and potential defects, prompting respondents to indicate their level of agreement/disagreement. Below is a sample of such statements, including several not reported in the original paper:

It is realistic to imagine in coming decades:

1) — systemic failure due to global financial contagion.

2) — trends in automation, computerization and robotization resulting in depression-levels of structural unemployment (i.e., over 30 percent).

3) — catastrophic environmental crises (due to climate change, ocean acidification, etc).

Capitalist competition and profit maximization are incompatible with:

4) — providing job security for most working people.

5) — providing meaningful and desirable employment for most working people.

Any alternative economic system that comes after capitalism is almost certainly going to be worse:

6) — for human well-being.

7) — for human freedom.

8) It is likely that the global economy will still be capitalist in its essential features in 200 years (i.e., private ownership of productive assets, profit maximization by firms in a competitive market context).

9)With laissez-faire policies, economic downturns would be more frequent and more severe. 

10) Although politically unpopular, austerity measures are a key long-term solution to recessions.

11) Capitalism naturally tends toward monopoly.

12) Corporate interests exert political pressure to deter the introduction of renewable energy sources.

Table 1 presents the results (collapsing those who agree/strongly agree).  Note that we leave out self-identified conservatives given their negligible representation in the survey. In reviewing the results, we see that economists’ political orientations track their views in a typical “stairway” fashion across virtually all of the questions. The contrast is sharpest between radicals and libertarians, yet the direction of responses is plain.

Table 1
Economists’ Responses by Political Orientation
Percent who agree/strongly agree*

Variable DescriptionRadicals
(Q1) Global Systemic Financial Failure87433030
(Q2) Mass Structural Unemployment40070709
(Q3) Catastrophic Environmental Crises93574227
(Q4) Capitalism Incompatible with Job Security±79171510
(Q5) Capitalism Incompatible with Meaningful Employment±79070903
(Q6) Any Future System Worse for Human Well-Being±00194673
(Q7) Any Future System Worse for Human Freedom±00275287
(Q8) Economy Still Capitalist in 200 Years27587563
(Q9) Laissez-Faire Makes Downturns More Severe87805420
(Q10) Austerity Measure Key Solution to Recessions00052128
(Q11) Capitalism Tends Toward Monopoly73351510
(Q12) Corporations Deter Renewable Energy Sources±87815843

*Table leaves out modest numbers of missing cases across categories
± Statement not reported in published article

Focusing on the LMC, we see that with the exception of the environment, economists are generally skeptical of the prospects of capitalist crises. Very few see mass structural unemployment on the horizon due to automation (Q2) or incompatibility between capitalism and secure or meaningful employment (Q4, Q5).  Only a third or so anticipates global financial contagion (Q1), while even fewer affirm a systemic tendency toward monopoly (Q11).  Finally, at least two-thirds believe the global economy will likely be capitalist in 200 years (Q8).

Radicals may view these results as palpable evidence of economists’ apologetics or “willful blindness” on behalf of capital. After all, even with regard to the environment, only about half of the field anticipates major crises in coming decades (Q3). Moreover, as we note in the paper, many economists were uneasy and some even hostile to our survey.  Most of the comments we received were critical of the survey’s framing.  Economists accused us repeatedly of antimarket bias, “fishing for certain answers,” and even “lack of professionalism.” Some hardly concealed their contempt: “A lot of questions appear to be based on ignorant prejudices held in some areas of the social sciences;” “Extraordinarily stupid, ill-posed, uninformative and thoughtless questions! Brandishing narrow-minded ideology does not advance scientific progress”; “I feel sad for you if this is what you do for academic research.”

Notwithstanding such invective, we strive in the paper not to merely criticize economists’ ideology but to understand it. As we saw, economists are plainly not uniform in their appraisals of capitalism’s bugs and features.  A Keynesian outlook still endures in the field, for example, with a solid majority of the LMC affirming the baneful effects of laissez-faire (Q9), and only a few endorsing austerity (Q10).  Moreover, liberal economists are quite receptive to the possibility that a post-capitalist society need not be worse for human wellbeing or freedom (Q6, Q7). Even the field’s moderates are about evenly divided on the question. If economists are the ideological “handmaidens” of capital, as many radicals presume, one is hard pressed to understand the roots of such ideological diversity in their ranks.

We conclude the paper with a tentative explanation of the contrast in economists’ views that draws on contemporary moral psychology. The basic argument is that social scientists bring their partly inherited political orientations with them into their professional training and roles. They gravitate (consciously or otherwise) toward likeminded scholars, forming interpretive groups that tend to use the same methods and interpret evidence in kindred ways.  The resulting “groupthink” frequently leads to classic ingroup/outgroup behavior within and between academic disciplines.  Hence, scholars across the political spectrum are often trigger-ready to call out the biases of other interpretive groups.  It is almost always “the other guy” whose blind spots lead them astray from the truth.

Our research offers only a tentative sketch of a social psychology of controversy in the academy. We welcome others to join in the effort to go beyond criticizing scholars’ ideologies to examining the underlying emotions that render such ideologies appealing.

***This article summarizes Mark Horowitz and Robert Hughes, “Political Identity and Economists’ Perceptions of Capitalist Crises,” Review of Radical Political Economics 2017.***

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