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The beginning of every academic year brings me great joy. Not only do I get to meet lots of new interesting and bright people, but I have never failed to be introduced to a new way of thinking, a new idea, a new outlook on something I have seen in only one light for a long time.

One aspect of this learning process does not bring me joy – and that is the annual dance of students trying to figure out what I am. It’s a strange process really, since until recently I never really tried to actively do it when I met others. For example, for all but one or two of my college roommates, I have no idea to this day what their political affiliation is, despite my apparent interest in political economy.

Early on in my principles of economics class, we spend lots of time emphasizing what economics is and is not about. Pretty early on students know full well that it has a lot to do with things other than money. Pretty early on students come to appreciate that economists spend a great deal of time thinking about and debating how messed up the world might be. They tend to get excited about this too. One reason I think they get excited is that hearing a teacher discuss that the world has some issues reinforces this well known “fact” that they have learned from many people over the years. But as the course evolves and we learn about the challenges to social planning, about the limits to our knowledge, about the importance of property, about the way markets work and force reality onto policies like a dousing of cold water, some formerly excited students either become angry, disappointed, or simply puzzled.

“How could something that started out with such promise end up as such a buzzkill?” I find some of them asking. Here is an example after just one lecture. On day one, I run around demonstrating the power of incentives, and that the powerful push and pull of incentives is evident in all aspects of our lives – not just the things we do in market settings. We end up having a discussion about what being a true scholar means and about how economics properly studied is the essence of humanity – it helps us get the most out of life, and not just the most in terms of the “profane and dull pursuit of material gain” (their descriptions not mine!) but also in terms of the “softer” and more “sacred” aspects of life. Some students hate this – they just want to see some graphs and equations and get ready for their next theory class. But some love it (as I do). But among those who love it, I inevitably end up in several conversations that include a observations like, “I am sure glad you talked about sacred values today, I was worried that I was going to get another Republican free-market guy … I think this class might turn out better than I feared!”

I don’t really respond to that aside from learning more about the student and asking them what their big concerns might be. Let’s take this observation out of context. You’ll notice a really disturbing rhetorical trick here (that I hypothesize has been increasing in incidence in my circles). It’s like an argument from intimidation dressed up in a verbal nicety. Surely you are not a Republican! And embedded in this argument is something worse than the logical fallacy that the aforementioned technique implies. Because embedded in these comments is the idea that commitments to justice (properly understood, not the social kind), clean environments, peace and prosperity are only held by a select and enlightened few, and that people who do not “tow the party line” somehow hope for injustice, pollution, war and indigence?  Shouldn’t a human being’s commitment to the good life go without question?

And about that “free-market economist” meme. Nothing drives me crazier, particularly since most people have some version of corporatism in mind when they hear the term, or some other dubious attribute. There is a Hayekian lesson in central planning that can be gleaned from this simple “naming problem.” Ironically, most 6 year olds understand it, as do their teachers, but as we age we forget the lesson. No label effectively captures the myriad thoughts, features, bugs, etc. that make up a person. People are typically repulsed in polite company when certain labels are used. For example, when was the last time you heard someone come up to you at a party and ask you, “So, you must be white?” even if you are light skinned and seemed to have other things that might mark you as being white. You will never hear it. But as for someone’s views on economics or politics, and out come the labels. I have my own ideas as to why, which we will write about later, but let’s stay focused in the point at hand. The Hayekian lesson is that abstracting from the millions of little attributes and nuances of one’s view into some view that is amenable to understanding and reprocessing by people who know you is a really tough task — having it be processed by people who do not know you is completely absurd. It cannot happen. Yet we continue to do it.

I do not think most people have a clue what “free-market economist” means. It really is shorthand for something close to Republican. Well, I am here to announce that I am neither a Republican nor a free-market economist. If I must be tagged, and tagged I will be, then here is how I declare myself in the future. Definitions will come in future posts, as will further thoughts on the linking of terms like free-market and Republican. Please note that when I advocate the views below that I am not claiming that any of them are “right” in some objective sense, I AM claiming that they are “right for me” for whatever that means, and I am also claiming that all of these have their obvious difficulties. No world view is perfect, but some are less imperfect than others. I am a:

  • Voluntary-ist
  • Anything-that’s-peaceful-ist
  • Property-rights-ist
  • Competition-ist
  • Feedback-loop-ist
  • No-special-privilege-ist

Now as you can see there is nothing particularly anti-government about any of that, despite it being easy for people to ridicule free-marketers as such (and therefore the intellectual and moral equivalents of Stone Age Man). Readers might reflect on why and how various anti-government views come out of applying those “-ists” to the world we actually live in and not some nirvana.

And no, I am not in favor of equality. And no, I am not in favor in pure utility maximization – a world with maximized utility, or a need to maximize it, is not a world I would ever want to live in. I would be more than happy to explain each and every one of those and other “-ists” that I might be, and promise to be forthright in doing so – admitting the warts of each position. But consider the folks who might be inclined to ridicule people who share similar thoughts as these. Again, we are treated as little more than Neanderthals. So I can only ask, do my “opponents” really want to go to the mat fighting against peaceful voluntary association? Do they want to go to the mat to promote special privilege? Do they really want to denounce the power of competition? What about feedback processes )(imagine how we’d maim ourselves if suddenly our bodies became insensitive to pain!). Those positions, held purely, are rare.  I suppose some might rescue themselves by saying things like, “voluntary action is good and all that but not all actions are voluntary, and don’t we want to stop some of those actions?” To which I can only remind them, “who is this we” that gets to decide, and do you recognize that by acceding to abandoning one of those positions above, you are necessarily breaking other principles which you would not “normally” want to break?

6 Responses to “What the Heck Are You Anyway?”

  1. RIT_Rich says:

    They’re just kids. Its how the world works for them.

    I’ve had this experience many times as well. I prefer the opposite approach, however. I’ll start off by saying what I am. If someone is so turned off by it that they no longer engage me, than it was never going to make a difference anyway. Most of the time though, if I can make a good enough case, they end up changing their opinion of what “I am” means, even if they don’t agree with me (most people “my” age simply haven’t been exposed to anything remotely resembling “our” world view)

    Case in point: my new work. First day the girl next to me says “oh you’re from Europe! Well you know I’m glad that you have a different cultural perspective from Americans…bla bla bla…bombs, wars, Iraq, slavery, exploitation, Sweden’s vacation time bla bla bla”. As if me being from Europe would automatically mean that I was culturally superior and obviously against anything American.

    But if I didn’t tell her what “I was”, her opinions of me may have changed and shifted, but her opinions of what a “Republican” (and I’m not) or “libertarian” (and I’m not) or “free market” means would not have changed.

  2. RIT_Rich says:

    I personally also think its important for economics professors to “tell” their students in more clear terms where they stand politically. You are already teaching them “your opinions” anyway. They are there to learn “your opinions”. Associating those opinions (which many of them may agree with) with particular “names”, helps them break down the stereotypes associated with those names (since they are so rarely exposed to the actual views of different political thoughts.)

  3. Rod says:

    We had dinner with some friends the other evening, and the gentleman from the other couple said he regretted missing out on what he defined as the two biggest things of his post-college years: participating in the early civil rights movement and military service in Vietnam. He added that he was too old for the campus riots of the late sixties and early seventies, but he wished he had been part of that, too.

    That brought to mind the years after I had graduated, too, when the administrative offices at Yale and Berkeley were stormed in protest over — get this, current college students — academic freedom. Yes, academic freedom, which would guarantee that any topic or statement in any given class would not be punished, no matter how outrageous.

    As it turned out, academic freedom had very little to do with those protests over the touted loss of academic freedom. It was as if those campus protesters had all read Animal Farm but did not understand its irony. No pig shall be punished for what he says in class, whether or not he has tenure. Instead, the code of the farm quickly changed for some animals. No boar or sow shall be punished for what heher says in hisher class. But some boarsows are more equal than other boarsows: only politically correct speech shall be protected.

    Indeed, academic institutions had been protecting speech and liberal education for decades, but all that went out the window in the early seventies. Gay and Lesbian student organizations good; fraternities and other repressively tolerant organizations bad. Up is down, liberty is slavery, etc.

    At the same time, to ensure that every student needing one would get a deferment from the draft, Yale and other institutions allowed grade inflation and the general dumbing-down of the curriculum. If you were a C student and a freshman at Amherst before all that, you were probably above your class’s average. In 1970, you could count on B’s as long as you could tell your professor you were protesting in Washington.

    Now, not all Yalies and Lord Jeffs (ack! Lord Jeff was a dead white guy, and an oppressor of King Philip and others) had it easy: it’s hard to dumb-down physical chemistry. But political correctness and the politicization of everything academic has intensified in recent years. Too many students taking environmental science and too few taking p-chem.

    Wintercow, you are to be commended for your general openmindedness when it comes to various schools of economic thought and for your adding basic logic to the discourse in your class. At least that’s what I think you do.

  4. Speedmaster says:

    I just assumed you were a corporate shill on the Koch payroll? 😉

  5. Rod says:

    Who, me? I wish I were on the Koch payroll, fer shure.

    Wintercow is also an unashamed camp-ist, cavorting in the natural environment like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (who avoids labels and never looks for the Union One).

    Before the Internet, I was a subscriber of The Aim Report. When they start rounding people up for their political beliefs, that alone will be enough to qualify me for life in a Cuban prison. Which reminds me: I need to go to Cabelas for some more ammo and to the Indian reservation for some more unbroken packs of Marlboros. Cabelas will also have a dry storage case for the smokes so they won’t lose their value as a medium of exchange. Have to make sure my sails and stash of canned food is dry after Hurricane Irene.

  6. Michael says:

    I could argue that “No-special-privilege-ist” is about as anti-government as it comes, at least it seems so these days. Also, I surprised people had to go out of their way to wory about a “Republican” economics teacher. I’ve only known a handful of professional conservative economists (not the same as Republican, which I would probably say maybe one). Interestingly, the econ students I’ve met are mostly conservative.

    On a side note, how would you actually define “market” when they use the term “free-markert?”

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