The Magazine

More Adam Smith, Please . . .

and less Barbara Ehrenreich.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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What to do? College students and their elders certainly have a healthy level of interest in market economics. Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944), arguing that government control over the economy inevitably leads to tyranny, has sold more than 400,000 copies in recent years. The results of this November’s elections indicate that a resounding majority of Americans reject the massively interventionist and economically suicidal policies of the Obama administration and a Democratic-dominated Congress. Yet market-friendly economists and their allies among historians, political theorists, and other scholars who believe that capitalism has not received a fair hearing in college classrooms are deeply divided about how to proceed, given the reality of the ideological proclivities that prevail in academia. Reform the curriculum for economics majors (one of the most popular majors on many campuses) so that the history of economic thought is a part of the instruction? Try to reach a larger slice of the student population with stand-alone seminars and other courses that might serve as counterweights to the usual anticapitalist propaganda? Make economics part of the interdisciplinary freshman seminars offered at many liberal-arts colleges? Bring outside speakers to campus? Mentor promising students? Sponsor clubs and discussion groups in order to air libertarian and conservative economic ideas? Fund internships and visiting fellowships in order to expose students to classical liberal scholars whom they might not meet on their statist-liberal campuses? All of the above? Or is it unrealistic to think that overwhelmingly liberal faculty members and college administrators will even allow such enterprises onto campuses? 

That the prevailing political culture of American academia leans heavily toward pro-regulatory, big-government liberalism if not outright leftism—and hence toward institutional hostility to capitalism—is a given. Decades of research support this proposition, ranging from the studies of professorial political alignment published by Seymour Martin Lipset during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to reports in Inside Higher Ed and the Daily Princetonian that professors and other college employees overwhelmingly directed their contribution dollars in 2008 toward presidential candidate Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats (92.4 percent of donations of more than $200 went to Obama at Princeton alone). In 2003 Daniel B. Klein, then a libertarian economics professor at Santa Clara University (he is now at George Mason University), and Charlotta Stern of the Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University conducted a large-scale survey of the political parties for which American academics voted. They chose six social-science and humanities fields that, coincidentally, are the sorts of fields in which the ideas of Adam Smith might be expected to receive an airing: anthropology, economics, history, political and legal philosophy, political science, and sociology. Their results bore out what the journalists reported concerning the Obama campaign a few years later: Anthropologists voted for Democratic over Republican candidates by a 30.2 to 1 ratio, and sociologists favored Democrats over Republicans by a 28 to 1 ratio. Toward the bottom of the ladder were political scientists, who still supported Democrats over Republicans 6.7 to 1. Even economists, typically regarded as conservatives among college faculty for their presumably hard-headed numbers-crunching, voted Democratic over Republican by a 3 to 1 ratio, with younger faculty members tilting more liberal than their older colleagues. “The social sciences and humanities are dominated by Democrats,” Klein and Stern wrote. “There is little ideological diversity.”

Furthermore, even if more academic economists were sympathetic to free-market ideas, most of them would have no place in their departments to teach them. Alone of the social sciences, economics is a discipline that has lost interest in its own intellectual history. At Yale, for example, undergraduates majoring in economics can choose among more than two dozen lecture courses and seminars during any given semester, ranging from the basics of micro- and macroeconomics to specialized classes bearing such titles as “Financial Markets,” “Trade and Development,” and “Economic Development of Japan.” In not one of those courses does it seem possible to read and discuss Adam Smith—or Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Ludwig von Mises, Ronald Coase, and other seminal thinkers whose theories shaped the academic discipline of economics and economics-focused political theory.

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