Does the Economics Department Rule the World?

Imagine that a university has two assistant-professor positions, one for a professor of environmental economics and another for a professor of hermeneutics. If the economist ends up with a higher salary, what would be the most reasonable explanation? A) the economist has skills desired by businesses, government, and nonprofits, forcing the university to offer a higher salary to compete with other employers while the hermeneuticist is, well, a hermeneuticist; or B) that economists have “leverage[d] their own expertise to claim that science itself dictated they receive higher salaries than their other colleagues in the liberal arts.”

If you chose option B, you would agree with We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power by Jason Blakely, a disaffected political scientist at Pepperdine. According to Blakely, economists and their dark magic of supply and demand curves have bewitched quantitatively challenged deans leading them to bestow on economists ill-deserved lucre.

Attack on Social Science or on Social Scientists?

The title of his book indicates that it will be a broad attack on social science. In reality, it is largely an attack on social scientists, most often conservative and libertarian ones, that he does not like. Among his list of evildoers is Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, Steven Levitt, Tyler Cowen, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Steven Pinker, James Q. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Richard Dawkins (not a social scientist but he makes Blakeley’s cut anyway). These scholars are then blamed for a long list of sins including, among many others, the housing bubble and crash, something he calls the “market polis,” the management ethos, online dating, inequality, the capitalist hellscape of Blade Runner he says we are living in, broken-windows policing, the war on terror, and democratic peace theory. Conservatives, it appears, should take heart. Despite their vanishingly small numbers in higher education, they have still managed to ruin the world. Truly a case of punching above your weight.

The one thing binding these disparate lists together is that Blakely does not like them. He promises to offer a critique of predictive social science using the lens of “hermeneutics” which he defines as “the interpretive outlook.” “Interpretive philosophy,” he says, “holds that achieving the unity of science is an impossible task because humans create and embody meanings in a way that requires the art of interpretation and not simply scientific explanation.” Thus, he concludes that “no predictive science of human behavior is possible.” Instead, when social scientists try to study human beings scientifically, i.e. predictively, they “can actually produce new identities, practices, and worlds of meaning. This is due to humans’ uniquely crea­tive meaning-making capacities and is what philosophers refer to as the ‘double hermeneutic effect,’ in which an interpreta­tion of the world shapes the very interpretations that comprise it.” In short, social science creates self-fulfilling prophecies. The book then promises to “uncover the hidden underbelly of a cul­ture of scientism and reveal how what often presents itself as social science is instead culture and power.”

Does the book deliver on this promise? Unfortunately, no. As someone who thinks that “physics envy” often distorts social science in general and my own discipline of political science in particular, I should be Blakely’s ideal reader. I would happily trade predicting the future for a better explanation of the past. However, his analysis is so often one-sided, contradictory, and (not surprisingly) lacking in data, that he is unlikely to persuade anyone but his fellow hermeneuticists. Not only does he fail to show that social scientists have the power he claims, but many of the social scientists he attacks such as Wilson, Hayek, and Fukuyama do not even practice the kind of mathematical, predictive social science he dislikes. This makes it difficult to believe that he is trying to critique social science rather than just social science he finds disagreeable. After all, he does not address any of the glaring failures of left-wing social science such as the decades-long denial of the importance of family structure by sociologists or the replication crisis currently plaguing psychology.

Law professors, which he ignores, make far more than their immiserated colleagues in the social sciences. Maybe there actually is something to the supply and demand curves after all.

Perhaps most significantly, he does not say a word about the stagflation of the 1970s when Keynesian orthodoxy was preeminent in economics (Keynes is never even mentioned in the book). In some ways, economics, particularly macroeconomics, in that era was even more dominated by his original sin of mathematically driven predictive hubris. The failure of their macroeconomic predictions is what made many economists more sympathetic to the free market. Regardless, any honest attempt to critique social science would have addressed some of these escapades in scholarly incompetence.

Consider his explanation for why economists make more than other faculty. Can we make reasonable predictions about this? Why, yes we can. Blakely would say that this is because economists, particularly the free-market type, have created the world that makes them and their skills desirable. But that violates his claim that no predictive science of human behavior is possible. Even if the regularity in human behavior is caused by what he calls a “double hermeneutic effect” where “an interpreta­tion of the world shapes the very interpretations that comprise it,” all that matters is that we be able to predict it. In essence, he claims that we cannot predict but then provides an example of how we can. Or, if human beings are not predictable, why can social scientists create theories that others conform to, which in turn makes their behavior predictable?

Even more damning is the fact that his explanation cannot account for salaries in other fields. Law school professors, which he ignores, make far more than their immiserated colleagues in both the social sciences and humanities. As anyone familiar with the data knows, law schools are not hotbeds of conservative and libertarian scholars tricking gullible administrators about their value. (For that matter, surveys of economists show that economics isn’t one either.) So what explains the disparity? Maybe there actually is something to the supply and demand curves after all—something divorced from the alleged disciplinary biases of economists.

Evidence Matters

Nevertheless, economics and its pernicious influence constitutes the foundation of his critique. Since the 1970s, he tells us, economists have indoctrinated “entire generational cohorts of undergraduates and other novice students” into “the increasingly laissez-faire tendencies that informed much of popular economic theory.” Further, “economics was queen, and at a time when American sentiments about intellectuals in universities were at a remark­ably low ebb, this class of scholars was instead vested with special status (though only if they conformed to the popular orthodoxy).” Here you see, as happens frequently in this volume, empirical claims without a citation in sight. Perhaps economists were given pride of place if salaries are the standard, but the assertion that professors as a whole are held in low regard in America needs something more than handwaving. After all, Gallup has polled the public about its perception of the honesty and ethical standards of different professions for several decades and college professors are always ranked highly and remain so today, even higher than clergy.

Similarly, consider this indictment of school choice:

In places like Los Angeles Unified School District, where a hugely complex and highly unequal system of private, charter, and magnet schools had formed, wealthier parents even began to hire admissions consultants, who helped them to apply to the best schools and maximize benefits for their children. Rather than a rational market of equal choosers, school choice had spawned a labyrinth of public goods wherein benefits were informally funneled through increasingly obscure mechanisms toward those who had the greatest resources and away from the poor.

He does not even offer a footnote to substantiate these claims. It is simply taken as obvious that this state of affairs exists and that school choice is to blame. Wealthy parents certainly hire admissions consultants but charter schools are unlikely to be the reason why. In California, they are mandated by law to accept all students unless the school is at capacity. More likely, these admissions consultants help with private schools but that would be the case regardless of whether or not charter schools existed. But if I am wrong, I would like to know it. Perhaps I am just incapable of grasping the higher knowledge of hermeneutics and condemned to live a life of vulgar scientism, but normally when you make an empirical claim, it is reasonable to provide evidence to support it.

Blakely also takes it as a fact that “persistent and entrenched poverty . . . did not figure prominently in the dominant scientific and descriptive indicators of this thing called ‘the economy’; neither did radi­cally unequal access to the basic goods needed for human flourishing.” Again, in the entire paragraph bemoaning this state of affairs, there is not a citation to be found. At the least, you need to define “basic goods needed for human flourishing” and provide some measure of their distribution and how often they are mentioned in discussions about the economy. Of course, these claims would come as a surprise to the hundreds of thousands of students who have learned about the Gini Coefficient in introductory economics courses. As well, there is an important and widely reported national measure of poverty called the Official Poverty Measure. There is substantial debate about whether this measure should be changed but that simply proves that poverty does in fact figure prominently in our economic discussions.

Then there is the linchpin of his argument: economists failed to predict the housing bubble and crash. He thinks that it is obvious that this failure was caused by the free-market ideas of Hayek, Friedman, and other malevolents, and that economists were blinded by their faith in the spontaneous order of a free economy and their mathematical models. In support of this conclusion, he provides only one citation to the “Dahlem Report” authored by nine “dissenting economists.” Of course, in the real world, there are many competing explanations for the housing bubble, some of which are favored by the Left—irrational behavior by homebuyers, avaricious bankers, insufficient regulation—and some by the Right—loose monetary policy, poor decisions by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To make his case, Blakely should have at least acknowledged these competing explanations.

The rest of book carries on in a similar way. A chapter on the “market polis” argues that:

the supposed science of economics had encouraged citizens to transform themselves from empathetic members of the same community (with fellow feeling for all of humankind) into ‘rational’ economic consumers passing unceasingly through an endless series of market scenarios. A form of ethical, cultural, and political production claimed the mantel of scientific authority.”

This in turn has created “a political society in which all relationships and institutions are transcribed into a metaphor of self-interested deal making and whose authority is said to derive from economic science.” You will notice that “encouraged” does a lot of work in the quoted passage. No measure is provided to determine how much encouragement it was actually guilty of.  He only cites Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart as evidence that this is how citizens increasingly view themselves and provides no evidence that economic theory was to blame.

If human beings have innate dignity and extraordinary mental capacity, it would suggest they also have the ability and right to control their own lives, an idea which the book relentlessly attacks.

Another chapter credits Francis Fukuyama and Michael Doyle, an architect of the democratic peace thesis, for George W. Bush’s war on terror. Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis allegedly “suggested that the country’s nearly unceasing military engagements, its unrivaled nuclear arsenal, and its unprece­dented global basing system were not acts of imperial aggression but part of an evolutionary process of enlightenment.” While “the constellation of meanings known as demo­cratic peace theory escaped the hands of its creators and helped a populace imagine itself as uniquely engaged in rational, scientific warfare.” Other than pointing out that Fukuyama signed a letter initially voicing his support for “whipping terrorism” and that Bush appointed him to his Council on Bioethics, Blakely produces nothing that could causally connect either scholar to Bush’s policies. This, like much of the book, is an exercise in saying that because event y occurred after a social scientist said x, that x caused y. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, however, remains a fallacy even when dressed up with jargon.

Man or Machine?

There are some interesting parts to this volume but unfortunately, they are difficult to reconcile with his other claims. For instance, the chapter “I, Robot” points to some of the potential limits of artificial intelligence and how we have at least so far improperly anthropomorphized computers and in so doing thought of ourselves as “wet machines.” Computers, however much we describe them as thinking and learning, are doing no such thing. They are simply following algorithmic rules. In short, they seem to be stuck on syntax and cannot understand semantics. “Things,” as he puts it, “matter to a human being. By contrast, things do not matter to a computing machine, nor does a symbol processor experience meanings that orient it toward a purpose or goal.”

This points to something unique about the human mind which perhaps can never be replicated in a rule-following machine. It points then to an innate dignity in human beings and an extraordinary mental capacity. But if that is our nature, it would point to the ability and right of human beings to control their own lives, even their economic and educational ones, ideas which he relentlessly attacks.

Despite these gentle criticisms, as a political scientist, I would also like to voice my opposition to the transparent injustice of economists making more than the rest of us in the social sciences and humanities. I call upon deans, most importantly my own, to correct this state of affairs as quickly as possible.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 21, 2020 at 15:04:50 pm

Interesting that Blakely goes after Adam Smith, especailly given his quote here:
"the supposed science of economics had encouraged citizens to transform themselves from empathetic members of the same community (with fellow feeling for all of humankind) into ‘rational’ economic consumers passing unceasingly through an endless series of market scenarios."

Smith's economics were all about empathy and fellow-feeling. That's explicit in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and implicit throughout the Wealth of Nations. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the market process cannot exist without empathy.

read full comment
Image of Jon Murphy
Jon Murphy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.