Sunday, September 16, 2007

Judging Colleges: An Economist's Tactic

In evaluating sources of information, one of my standard tactics is to try to find some overlap between what the source covers and what I already know and judge the quality of the source, hence the reliability of what it covers that I don't already know, accordingly.

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).


Anonymous said...

Is it just as problematic to be a libertarian (or Libertarian) first and an economist second? Isn't it so that in an academic institution ideology of the faculty should not even matter? My job as an academic is teaching students how to think about a world of ideas, not indoctrinating them with my "truth." Whatever that be, liberal, conservative, libertarian, Marxist, or ardent believer in the efficacy of the market, I am abdicating my duty as an academic by holding any of these above the other; of not giving each a fair hearing and critiquing them all equally.

Arthur B. said...

I think many libertarians would favor a just 'inefficient' policy over an unjust 'efficient' one. This does not mean they have to be mistaken about economics, merely that they are not consequentialist.

I for example believe the case for speed limits to be economically sound, yet I cannot approve of their enforcement on state roads.

Anonymous said...

"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."

In all due respect, this answer is way too short. If your supply of topics for your blog should ever run low, I'd be very interested to see a 300-500 word version of your answer.

In my own, ever so humble opinion, any social science, if done well, is incompatible with any ideological orthodoxy. The reason is that good science depends on changing ones mind as new facts come in. Orthodoxy by contrast depends, almost by definition, on resistance of your ideology to facts.

In the case of libertarians and economists, future economic research may well turn up compelling evidence (compelling even to you) that the Keynesian theory of liquidity traps is sound. Or it might establish that adverse selection dooms private sector health insurance, making "Medicare for all" a much more efficient solution. If and when this happens, how can you cling to scientific economics and orthodox libertarianism at the same time?

Anonymous said...

I think your strategy might be sound, but it also has a couple of potential pitfalls.

First, using what you know (economics) to draw inferences about what you don't (other liberal arts) assumes that what you observe is a good predictor of what you know. Could it be that other disciplines are significantly more (or less) likely to let ideology interfere with good teaching, or to allow this to happen under significantly different circumstances?

Second, even if the first isn't inevitably so, could this approach be vulnerable to gaming? Since what you propose is very much an economists' strategy, if I were a college principal with an ideological agenda, I might be tempted to give my economics faculty more lee-way than, say, sociology.

Notwithstanding these objections, I think your approach might be, like democracy, the worst possible approach with the exception of all the others.

Mike Hammock said...

Anonymous, if you read book IV of Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom, as he recommended, you'll get the explanation you wanted. It is also worth pointing out that Prof. Friedman is not an orthodox libertarian.

Anonymous said...

Mike Hammock, I did read the Machinery of Freedom, including part 4, and it does not contain the answer.

If I understand Friedman correctly, his position in part 4 is that while he himself may not be a libertarian for purely utilitarian reasons, he prefers to persuade non-libertarians by using utilitarian arguments (or economic efficiency arguments, which are similar). He thinks -- correctly in my opinion -- that this line of reasoning is more likely to work.

I don't see where in the book he says what he intends to do when he loses a debate on utilitarian grounds. Would he bend the state of current knowledge in economics to avoid admitting that he lost? Or would he stay with economics, give up the libertarian conclusion, and say, "okay, you win, let's continue having antitrust laws, central banks printing fiat money, and public legislatures, law enforcement, and armies"?

These are all examples where most serious economists disagree with Friedman's utilitarian arguments for libertarian policies, and where he conceivably might have to decide whether he's a libertarian first or an economist first. _MOF_, part 4, does not tell us how he would handle such a conflict.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous wants to know what happens if economics conflicts with libertarianism.

One option, which some libertarian economists might follow, is to base their political conclusions on arguments from moral philosophy--to take the position that a policy which they have concluded makes economic sense should be rejected as immoral. I can imagine doing that in some situation--I think in MoF I give an example of a situation where I would reject the utilitarian conclusion.

The alternative, of course, is to reject the orthodox libertarian position. I think I do that in the first chapter of part IV of MoF, for some sense of "orthodox."

More generally, my objection isn't to an economist taking policy positions that there are good economic arguments against. It's to an economist failing to recognize and teach those arguments because their conclusions are ones he doesn't like for ideological (or other) reasons. Thus, for instance, I routinely explain the declining marginal utility argument for income redistribution, which in my view is logically correct, while also discussing arguments against redistribution which incline me to reject the conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Interesting way to pick a school. I believe that the majority of professors are left-wingers, whether they're teaching economics or biology. So it's about their "orthodoxy" level, considering that this level can be negative in case they're not orthodox at all.

David Friedman said...

Costa writes:

"I believe that the majority of professors are left-wingers, whether they're teaching economics or biology. So it's about their "orthodoxy" level"

I think it's about the tension between two orthodoxies: Economics and whatever dominates the campus. Economists are selected for the characteristic of believing in economics, so if they act as if they don't at some particular campus I take that as pretty strong evidence of either social pressure or selective hiring driven by the competing orthodoxy.

One could, of course, argue that the economics profession exerts social pressure in the other direction--but that's more or less a constant across colleges.

What I am looking for are colleges that are tolerant of diverse viewpoints--something all of them claim but don't necessarily practice. Finding out whether fundamentalist Christian students, or orthodox Jews, or members of other groups far from what I expect campus orthodoxy to be, keep a low profile would be an alternative test, but one I'm less competent to make.

I was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1964, when a poll showed about 20% of the students supporting Goldwater. I would have guessed that there were only about ten or twenty students who did--and I knew all of them. I take that as some evidence of the social pressure there at the time. Students with conservative/libertarian views either enjoyed arguing, as I did, or kept a low profile.

Mike Huben said...

So let's evaluate how useful this tactic is.

It allowed David to cross off only one of a long list because he judges an economics department flawed in a leftwards direction. (I'd be interested to see how objectively David judges the economics department at George Mason University.)

Wouldn't it be more sensible to look for some works surveying characteristics that make students unhappy at their colleges? That might give much better guidance.

Interestingly, while billed as an "economist's tactic", price is not considered and the product seems to be assumed a commodity.

I face a similar problem: my daughter is a senior this year as well. Chances are we'll pay close attention to the money.

David Friedman said...

Mike writes:

"I'd be interested to see how objectively David judges the economics department at George Mason University"

My daughter is looking only at liberal arts colleges, not universities. But if she were considering GMU, I would count the econ department as a plus.

My concern isn't with whether faculty are left wing or right wing but with whether they are economists first or left (or right) wing first.

An economist such as Bob Frank at Cornell or Earl Thompson at UCLA or the late Abba Lerner I would count as a plus, not a minus. They may reach conclusions I disagree with, but they reach them by interesting and original applications of the economic approach.

Mike also objects that I am treating the product as a commodity. Assuming he means that I assume that all colleges deliver the same product, I don't understand his point--my tactic is designed to measure one of the differences among the products offered by different colleges.

David Friedman said...

To bring the discussion more nearly up to date:

We are currently in the middle of a trip from NY to Minneapolis, visiting four of the colleges our daughter is considering, with a sleepover at each and with our daughter auditing one or two classes at each. That is a more sensitive, but more expensive, way of gathering information, both on teaching quality and on the general feel of the community.

As part of that, I routinely drop into the econ department and get into a conversation with one of the economists in order to get his view of his school.

The most positive piece of information I got was from an economist who commented that he routinely used politically incorrect implications of economics as a way of getting his students' interest and that the response, from a generally left wing student body, was curiousity not hostility.

Anonymous said...

Professor Friedman

What's wrong with orthodoxy and dogmatism?

It reminds me of a passage by G.K. Chesterton:

'It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.'

Anonymous said...

Re: "Or would he stay with economics, give up the libertarian conclusion, and say, "okay, you win, let's continue having antitrust laws, central banks printing fiat money, and public legislatures, law enforcement, and armies"?"

Libertarians can support any of those things without "giving up the libertarian conclusion". Anarcho-capitalists? Maybe not.

Anonymous said...

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