Recognizing a Theory
A second reason is that I want to know how tolerant the college's culture is of intellectual diversity. Economics as a science is neither right wing nor left wing--there have been good economists who were socialists, good economists who were extreme libertarians. But it is, in a very real sense, its own ideology.
It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept traditional conservative arguments against free trade--because those arguments depend on not understanding economic ideas worked out nearly two hundred years ago. It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept common left wing rhetoric about "people not profits" or the equivalent--because a good economist knows that the argument on the other side isn't about profits as an end in themselves but about profits as part of a signaling system that results in benefits for people. A left wing economist might think that system works poorly and can be improved by proper government intervention--but he knows that the standard rhetoric misrepresents the position it argues against.
One consequence is that a good economist is almost certain to find himself in conflict with the left wing orthodoxy that dominates the sort of top liberal arts colleges we have been looking at--just as he would be almost certain to find himself in conflict with the right wing orthodoxy that (I presume) dominates some Christian fundamentalist schools. So talking to economists at a school gives me some feel for how that school's culture treats heretical views.
The point was initially brought home to me in a conversation with an economist at one of the colleges we visited who may, for all I know, be a liberal Democrat. She was commenting on the difficulty of teaching environmental economics to students who viewed pollution as a sin, not a cost. Her view of the subject differed from theirs not because she was right wing or left wing but because she was an economist.
It later occurred to me in a different context that there is a more general point buried here. The context was the book The Moral Animal, an interesting exposition of the implications of evolutionary biology, in particular evolutionary psychology. The author argued, I think correctly, that while evolutionary biology is often thought of as a right wing approach, some of its implications provide arguments for left wing positions.
The general point is that one way of recognizing a real scientific theory--in the broad sense in which neo-classical economics, or evolutionary psychology, can be thought of as a single theory--is by its inconsistency with other theories, similarly defined. If a particular point of view is merely a smokescreen for right wing, or left wing, views, it will conveniently produce arguments all of which support the same side. If it is a real theory, an internally consistent body of ideas for making sense of the world, on the other hand, it is almost certain to clash with other ways of making sense of the world. Both evolutionary psychology and neoclassical economics pass the test.
In principle this would not be true of two theories both of which were entirely true. But that is not likely to be an exception of much real world significance.