Watching With Arnold Kling Economics’ Left-Wing March

by Don Boudreaux on May 22, 2017

in Data, Economics, Scientism, Seen and Unseen

Arnold Kling has good reason to predict that, in his words,

academic economics is on the road to becoming like academic sociology. That is, it will become increasingly driven by a left-wing agenda.

Arnold himself, in the post linked here, offers no explanation(s) for this left-wing movement of economists and, hence, of economics.  I don’t doubt, however, that Arnold has a few excellent possible explanations in mind.

Let me here offer an explanation of my own: economists’ increasing embrace of empiricism that isn’t solidly rooted in basic microeconomic theory of the sort that can be, and should be, taught to undergraduates.  That which can be measured and quantified is that which can be seen.  Indeed, to quantify something is, in a real sense, to see something – or at least to see some of that something’s physical manifestations.  And yet a chief lesson taught by a sound course in basic economics is that many social phenomena are unseen.  Many social phenomena are invisible.  Even to the trained and focused economist’s eye, many social phenomena remain unseen.  We know of such invisible phenomena through logic and inference rather than through observation and measurement.

I turn again to the example of a gigantic outdoor swimming pool with people jumping in and out of it.  You stand on the edge of the pool and drop into it a tiny pebble, one the size of a sesame seed.  The pebble sinks to the pool’s bottom.  Someone then asks you: what is the effect on the pool’s water level of the tiny pebble now resting at the bottom of the pool?  If you are a thoroughly modern economist, you plead ignorance until you can measure and quantify the effect.  So you gather the most precise measuring instruments available and you measure the water level of the pool with the pebble removed and then measure it again with the pebble dropped back in.

You discover that your measuring machines detect no difference in the pool’s water level.  Of course, you do your very best to control for the effect of swimmers splashing in the pool, divers diving into the pool, people crawling out of the pool, evaporation, and rainfall.  And after heroic controlling for all that you can think to control – (Oh, did you consider the possibility that a swimmer might have urinated in the pool?  Or swallowed a bit of the pool water?  Or that one of the pool’s pumps might have slowed or quickened a bit?  There’s just so much happening in and to the pool!) – you detect that, statistically speaking, the pool’s water level is the same with the pebble in it as without the pebble in it.  You announce your scientific conclusion that, despite what theory says, small pebbles dropped into pools of this size and sort, at this latitude and longitude, and perhaps painted this color, do not displace water.  Such pebbles have no effect on such pools’ water levels.

“I’m data-driven,” you boast modestly.  “I know only what the data tell me, and the data tell me that, despite what theory predicts, small pebbles dropped into such pools do not raise such pools’ water levels.  Perhaps bigger pebbles do.  Perhaps pebbles have different effects in different pools.  We must measure to find out for sure.  But it is unscientific to use mere theory to draw any conclusions on this front.”

Of course, in reality everyone understands that even the smallest bit of matter dropped into a pool of water makes the water level of that pool higher than it would otherwise be.  Even if the effect cannot be seen, our theoretical understanding tells us what the result is.

Society is very much like a giant outdoor pool with people constantly diving in, splashing around, and crawling out (and urinating, and spitting, and swallowing gulps of the water, and cleaning the pumps’ filters….)  Much that happens in real-world economies is not only unseen but practically unseeable.

The good effects of government intervention are generally seen (which is a chief reason governments intervene as they do).  The tariff clearly protects some workers from losing jobs.  The minimum wage clearly results in some workers getting higher hourly pay.  The ‘free’ government health insurance clearly is a blessing to the young couple who use it to avoid paying for their ill-child’s medical care.  Ms. Jones is clearly better off today by receiving her Social Security check than she would be if she did not receive her Social Security check.

Because the benefits of government interventions are generally easier to see and measure than are the costs – and because the costs of market competition are often easier to see and measure than are the benefits – a profession that claims to know only what it can see and measure will naturally drift to the left politically.

The naive empiricist insists that that which remains unseen is unreal.  The naive empiricist therefore denies the reality of the very phenomena that economists from Adam Smith through Bastiat and on to such greats as Cannan, Mises, Hayek, Coase, Friedman, Alchian, Buchanan, Tullock, Yeager, Vernon Smith, Kirzner, Sowell, Demsetz, McCloskey, and Higgs have painstakingly shown to be real even if and when it remains unseen.

The naive empiricist too readily minimizes the significance and role of inference, logic, and foundational theory.  And his or her idea of what is empirically relevant are data and facts gathered from statistical studies; the data and facts that we learn from history are ranked lower in explanatory relevance.


I do not believe that the explanation offered above for the left-wing drift of economics identifies the only force at work.  But I believe that it does identify one of the important forces at work to drive this dangerous trend.


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