Monday, June 04, 2007

Heterodox v Orthodox: a few thoughts

There has been a flutter in the dovecots recently about the treatment of heterodox economists by mainstream neoclassical economists. The grievances extend to being sidelined by exclusion from the main journals, difficulties of successfully applying for jobs, and tenure, and for the less definite problem of not being taken ‘seriously’ by major figures at social or conference gatherings.

Coincidentally to the annual conference of the History of Economics Society at GMU (Fairfax, Virginia) this week-end, there is an annual meeting, I think this week, in Washington, DC of Heterodox Economists. I received notice of it but having looked through the agenda, and already booked to go the HES, I could not spare the time to attend both.

If the agenda of the Heterodox conference defines what is meant by Heterodox economics it seems to include a broad church of ‘ism-atic’ views (a new word I have just invented) from the usual suspects of Marxism, Henry George-types, feminism (or the inappropriately purloined grammatical term, ‘gender’), Veblen-ism, Galbraith-ian, globalisation, and other concerns. (I exaggerate, no doubt, as I did not keep a copy because memory is limited on my laptop’s email provider when travelling). This does not mean I would not have attended; I might have, if only out of curiosity, but also time is pressing as I approach the end of the writing, reference checking and editing of my manuscript on Adam Smith.

As a student in the 1960s, I was inducted into Keynesian macroeconomics (just before monetarism took over) and into neoclassical microeconomics with not a dissenting voice in earshot. I have always been uncomfortable with rational Homo economicus, but the models ‘worked’ and were ‘easy’ to teach, allowing time for research into whatever interested me.

So, I am agnostic, as well as sympathetic to the genuine distress apparently felt by those ‘cold shouldered’ by those who consider themselves to be the elite of the profession. Since researching among the classical economists, who preceded the neoclassical schools, I have noted many of the ‘elite’ have feet of clay in respect of what Adam Smith actually thought, wrote about and taught, especially in the unnecessary mystification of markets, using the halo effect of ‘invisible hands’ to claim a holy lineage to the man whom they claim, incorrectly in my view, to have been the ‘father of capitalism’.

Of course, heterodox economists seek professional recognition from their ‘peers’, and for some it is important for them to win the praise they think they deserve. But being praised, as opposed to being praiseworthy – a distinction Adam Smith was very clear upon in Moral Sentiments – is, or ought to be, of less importance to scholars ploughing a lonely furrow. With the advent of the Internet and of Blogging, access to a wide readership of people within and around the economics profession is possible where twenty years ago it wasn’t. In the UK, something like 60,000 new books or editions are published each year, providing another outlet for heterodox ideas. If you can write well, you could work towards a mainstream media column, to bring your interpretation of what is important about events to another segment of the potential audience. In short, if you cannot get through to an audience in the professional journals (read by whom?) utilise where you can get through.

Once thing for sure, heterodox economists (and many neoclassical economists too) will not get through by whining and moaning about the way the profession is currently organised. There’s far too many adherents to the mainstream who themselves are ‘excluded’ for one reason or another, and they are not going to welcome ‘outsiders’ to the party. Just as capitalist managers hate competition, neoclassical colleagues struggling for their own recognition are just as keen to ‘confine’ the market for their version of ‘recognition’.

It was ever thus, in Smith’s day and long before. And probably, barring 'black swans', it'll ever be so.


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