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Academics seem to find it a respectable doctrine to aim to keep politics out of the classroom. I do not necessarily think that is a good idea, after all we do have political science departments. The spirit of the argument however is to keep your personal politics out of the classroom.

I like that idea only in the abstract. It is very easy to not appear political, but at the same time pushing a political agenda, and it is easy to do in a wide range of subject areas. If students know where you stand before you present your material, perhaps they would be better positioned to weigh what you are teaching them. I am not sure how strongly I feel about this though – if I was sure, I would announce my politics on day one, and then be done with it. So I remain a mystery to students.

Anyway, I hope my students can do simple arithmetic. I hope my students can construct real aruguments using reason and evidence, and I hope my students can defend their ideas by staying on point and not waving their hands (for example, don’t defend “buy local” provisions on the grounds that they make us richer or safer, but rather defend them on the basis of, “this is costly, but it is a cost I am willing to bear because of the relative costs and benefits of the alternatives) , and I hope my students persuade me to change my ideas too. I certainly do not wish to persuade them to think politically as I do. Why? If I was able to do so, then who is to say the next guy won’t come along and do the same to them. Rather, I want them to be intellectually curious, to read, to ask good questions, and to be appropriately skeptical of the world around them.

But in the course of doing these things, and by teaching them the economic way of thinking, it is increasingly common that students think I am blasting a fire hose on their favorite political superstitions. You see it directly on the faces of students when I talk about certain things, and you certainly see it when they send all manner of e-mails to me in the days following these lectures.

  • When I teach about the economic costs of the draft, those with strong ties to the military argue that I am being political.
  • When I teach about the economic costs of making things (like drugs) illegal, traditional conservatives consider me too political and pushing a liberal agenda.
  • When I teach about the economic destruction rent control imposes on cities and its citizens, socially conscious students consider me too political and heartless.
  • When I talk about the difficulties with getting stimulus to be stimulus, everyone calls me political and too willing to let everyone in the economy die.
  • When I talk about the economic costs of licensing, unions, the FDA, and so on, the liberal students consider me too political and a lackey for corporate America.
  • When I demonstrate the failure of the Endangerd Species Act to protect species, I am called cold, crass and an enemy of the environment.
  • When I demonstrate that the Clean Air Act was influenced by rent-seeking interest groups, I am being too political.
  • When I alert students to the possibility that the tobacco settlement, and now the cap and trade bill are subject to enormous influence by interest groups – making the intention of the law and the outcomes two very different things, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate how the Bush steel tariffs and Obama tire tariffs and certainly the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were terrible ideas, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that the lack of competitive supply of money might unleash some undesired consequences, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that profits and losses are vital to the well functioning economy, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that love is just as much of a scarce resource as tin or time or water, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that anti-trust legislation is often beneficial to the firms being regulated, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that auto safety regulations do not necessarily make us safer, I am told that I am being political.
  • When I demonstrate that zero pollution is not an option, I am told that I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that certain high-end producers might actually support higher taxes on their products, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that subsidies destroy wealth and distort the signals that prices send to direct economic activity, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that taxes impose dead-weight costs on an economy, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that secure property rights and respect for the rule of law are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for prosperity, I am told I am being too political (after all, many on the left do not believe that private property should exist – and they neglect the horrible history of the socialist/communist countries that abolished it, or the thousands of years of human history when there were no secure property rights, while we were all equal (except the Kings and nobles) and poor).
  • When I demonstrate that providing an economic justification for public support for schooling is not the same as justifying publicly supplying schooling, I am told I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that private solutions to public goods problems are not unusual, I am being too political.
  • When I demonstrate that CAFE standards do little to affect fuel consumption, I am being too political.

And so it goes. The list goes on forever. Do you understand the nature of the problem? Either the entire discipline of economics is “too political” or …

… perhaps the political process has so massively encroached upon our commercial lives as to leave no economic concept or issue free from political influence. The worst part is, when the PC police come calling, and no doubt they will, they will be correct that every single bullet point above does deal with political issues. And it has been a clever (if unintentional and spontaneous encroachment) by leftists, rightists, statists, corporatists, what-have-you, to do this sort of thing. Will there by any discipline free from the long arm of the government? Or put another way, how could I teach any economics whatsoever if I were forced to not be political.I could give the entire course in one sentence: unicorns do not exist. Would that be too political too? I’d hate to offend the Union of Concerned Unicorn Preservationists.

If you don’t like the things economics has to say about all of those topics above, the problem is not with economics folks. What is most depressing to me is that I have lots of students that are themselves political, on both sides of the aisle, and adhere to their favored economic superstitions no matter how many courses they take. And they all get to walk away with an Economics degree from a very good department. If I ran the world, I would have a 5 question exit examination before letting anyone out of here with such an imprimatur. And they must get a perfect score.

2 Responses to “Now You Are Getting Political”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    VERY well-stated, sir! 😉

  2. Harry says:

    Our professors never got political at Trinity. Check that — our mathematics professors never brought politics into calculus classes.

    Ditto to Speedmaster.

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