by Russ Roberts on September 24, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence, Economics, Uncategorized

Tyler Cowen recently gave a talk on what is distinctive about George Mason economics. It was nicely summarized by Arnold Kling (who got the whole thing started with this superb essay) then attacked by Pete Boettke for giving insufficient respect to GMU’s Austrian roots.

I think Tyler and Pete both made the mistake of describing their own views of economics and attributing them to GMU. I think they missed what we have in common. Here is my take.

1. Masonomics respects theories of everything. At most departments, people specialize. They do macro not micro. Or micro but not macro. Then they specialize some more. They’re labor economists or they’re experts in employment or the housing industry or financial economics or taxation or one kind of taxation–the corproate income tax, say. Here, you can specialize and we have plenty of people who do. But we have a hoard of folks who are generalists, who apply economics to everything. Who do micro and macro. Who do health and political economy. But even more importantly, we have lots of people who have one theory and they apply it to everything, relentlessly. Or not a theory so much as a worldview or lens that they use to look at everything. I can think of at least nine of my colleagues who have this kind of research agenda and who think about their lenses most of the time. And we have “normal” economists, too who “just” apply economics to some area or other.

My peculiar lens is emergent order. I see it more often than most people. It’s not just that I’m more perceptive. It’s because I’m always looking for it. So I mention Hayek more often than other economists on EconTalk. I’m not trying to do that in order to promote an economist who I feel is neglected. It’s my lens. I got that lens from hanging around Don Boudreaux and reading Hayek. I have more than one lens. I have a bootlegger and baptist lens from Bruce Yandle for political economy. I have an increasingly Smithian lens (of the Theory of Moral Sentiments) for what motivates people. That comes from hanging around Dan Klein who uses that lens much more than most people.

But a few of my colleagues have one lens or maybe lens is the wrong word. They have a whole world view of economics integrated sometimes with psychology or genetics or philosophy. They have a coherent world view. They aren’t just applying the neoclassical (or other) mainstream paradigm to the elasticity of gasoline or even trade policy. They’re trying to explain why we laugh and cry and spend too much on health or make persistent mistakes and so on. They explain lots of stuff in ways that no one else does. Naturally, these people don’t agree with each other. So they argue with each other which is good.

Some departments have one guy like that. We have more than one. We might have a dozen. People like that are sometimes considered a little bit kooky and boring because they’re so predictable. They’re always arranging the facts to fit their theory. Here we honor people like that and learn from them. It’s very unusual. It’s why we write more books here compared to other departments.

BTW, part of this tolerance for big picture thinking also makes us a home for specialization that si controversial or out of favor–public choice, experimental economics and history of thought. Or even economic history.

2. We have a strong Austrian flavor, sometimes in the semi-dogmatic sense. Though at least three of us who are Austrian or semi-Austrian (Pete, Don Boudreaux and myself and there may be more) shamelessly use supply and demand when analyzing problems and teaching our students–mainstream Chicago-style price theory. But the important part of our Austrian flavor is that we respect individual choices and are skeptical of group choices. This is partly based on a respect for complexity and emergence and the knowledge problem, partly based on the strong public choice roots that are here. The other Austrian flavor is that we are skeptical, in the main, of mainstream statistical work. Or at least we act like we do. Most of the theory of everything people don’t do standard empirical work. We’re much more comfortable telling stories or accumulating facts. We have people who do “normal” statistical analysis. But again, in most places, there might be one old curmudgeon who isn’t empirical, tooled-up and comfortable with fancy econometrics. Here we have a lot of people who just don’t do use those tools when making the case for their worldview. In that sense, we are very Smithian (in the Wealth of Nations sense).

3. We don’t just speak to the academy. We blog. We write novels. We write letters to the editor. Op-ed columns. We write books for a general audience. This isn’t an aberration. It isn’t just tolerated. It’s honored. It’s the only place I know of where that is true. We actually think economics is good for the world. That’s consistent with the first point.


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