How many economists can dance on the head of a pin?

This is a letter by Hugh Goodacre to the editor at the Financial Times on 16 April which came with the heading, Bringing economics back into liberal academic life. As you read the letter, you need to appreciate that the deeper reality is that the effort to marginalise alternative ways of looking at the economy goes beyond just putting such heterodox ideas into the history of economic thought. The further aim is to fully remove the history of economic thought as even being a component of the study of economics. I wrote a book on this very subject – Defending the History of Economic Thought – but these movements have a grinding relentlessness that will not be turned back unless there is the will to do so. I can see that for an academic, it may not much matter what is taught as long as doing whatever it is can get your paper published. That the university economics we actually apply to the real world have little value in curing any of the problems that exist, seems of only minor importance. I will also note that the one economist that was left out of the list is the one I think is the most important, being John Stuart Mill. I am also curious why Keynes is on the list since “Keynesian theory” is the very core of what we do teach. Pretty well every economist I know thinks they are teaching Keynesian models of one sort or another. Here is the letter that has been posted on the history of economics website with, so far, not a single comment from any one of the more than one thousand subscribers from around the world.

Sir, The moribund orthodoxy that currently exercises such an inflexible grip on university economics departments will, as Wolfgang Münchau comments, inevitably face a challenge, and this “will come from outside the discipline and will be brutal” (“Macroeconomists need new tools to challenge consensus”, April 13). The orthodoxy has brought this dismal prospect on itself through the brutality with which it has purged those departments of any other school of thought than its own.

Indeed, in its extreme version, the orthodoxy’s doctrine holds quite simply that there are “no schools of thought in economics”, a totalitarian assertion all too true in most economics departments today, so ruthless has been the purge of alternatives. As a result, the different approaches to economic issues of Adam Smith, Bentham, Ricardo, Marshall, Keynes, Friedman and so on are all relegated to the fringe subject of the “history of economic thought”. This is indeed a 1984 situation, in which the very idea that debate could exist on how to approach economic issues is regarded as a mere historical memory, and consequently of purely antiquarian interest.

However, economics students are increasingly demanding a pluralistic curriculum, as discussed by Martin Wolf in “Aim for enlightenment, technicalities can wait” (April 11). Similarly, the “fossilised habits of thought” entrenched in much of the economics professions are facing increasing criticism from within the academic world (see, for example, “The world no longer listens to the deaf prophets of the west”, Mark Mazower, April 14). Let us hope that all this pressure from students, from the worlds of journalism and of interdisciplinary debate, will combine to bring university economics departments back into the world of liberal academic life from which they have for so long isolated themselves.

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