Judging Colleges: An Economist's Tactic
Currently, we are looking for a college for our daughter, and it occurs to me that I am following a closely similar tactic there. One of the things I know a good deal about is economics. So one way of evaluating a college is by what I can judge of its economic department.
This approach was suggested to me by a conversation with an economist at one of the colleges we visited. She commented on how hard it was to teach the economics of pollution to students who regarded pollution not as a cost but as a moral evil and were thus very resistant to the idea that there was some (non-zero) optimal level of pollution. Talking with her, it occurred to me that in a school dominated by left-wing orthodoxy, a good economist must feel under siege--and thus that seeing to what degree economists at such schools preferred economics to political orthodoxy was a useful measure of the general temper of the school, in particular the tolerance of its internal society for intellectual diversity.
The approach isn't limited to left-wing schools, although as it happens all of the (elite liberal arts) schools we are currently considering are left wing. It is, I think, possible to be both a good economist and a conservative, a liberal, perhaps even, for some senses of the term, a socialist. But it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a good economist and an orthodox conservative, liberal, or socialist. There are simply too many political positions incorporated in each ideology that depend for their force on bad economics. That was the point I took from the conversation already described. I don't know if the professor in question regarded herself as a conservative, a liberal, or a centrist. But it was clear that she regarded herself first as an economist.
So far, investigating economics departments online, I have found only one where it seemed fairly clear that the members were left wingers first and economists second, if at all. I described that conclusion to my daughter and she decided to cross it off her list.
Curious readers may ask whether it is possible to be a good economist and an orthodox libertarian. I think that depends on the definition of an orthodox libertarian. For some definitions I think it is not. Some of the reasons are, I hope, apparent in part IV of my Machinery of Freedom (2nd edn).