What's Holding Back Reform in Economics?

Before reforming economics, we need to reform the discourse.

Do you know what we need before we can have a sound monetary system, a reformed economic curricula, and wealth redistribution instruments?

We need critically sound economic discourse. Today’s global economic conversation has been fractured by political agendas and irrational dogma. But if this doesn’t change soon our economic scholarship is going nowhere.

In light of this predicament, the obvious questions are why does economics lack a productive discourse, and how can we restore economics to its critical nature instead of its judgmental current mode?

One key reason why economics is so susceptible to this trap is that economists are prone to accepting ad hominem fallacies. An ad hominem fallacy is when someone rejects an idea based on an irrelevant fact about the person presenting the idea rather than the idea itself.

You can be certain that economics is heading in the wrong direction when my conservative friends in college refuse to read Paul Krugman’s columns in The New York Times because he is “liberal,” while, my liberal friends won’t even look at Larry Summers’s papers because he is a “sexist.” The result is that few people consider views that differ significantly from what they already believe.

My friends’ opinions are not being shaped in a vacuum. In fact, they are reflective of broader political divide in the way people accept economic ideas in our society. For example, one of many reasons for our deteriorated economic discourse is the shift in economic scholarship from an empirical attempt to understand how societies function to a dogmatic belief in how we think societies should function.

Economic thinking succumbed to dogma partially because of a self-interest that runs parallel with certain economic theories. But it also fell prey to the human instinct to seek comfort in certainty and to fear doubt. Critical thinking makes us uncomfortable and irritated and causes us to question our assumptions. Therefore, when unfamiliar data disproves familiar dogma, believers in that dogma try to discredit these ideas by using terms such as ”heterodox,” or “socialist” or “neoclassical.” But these terms just hinder the debate.

Dogma not only harms our discourse by overwhelming it with unproductive attacks, but it also creates a support system for those carrying the attacks. Refusal to read certain economic journals for ad hominem reasons nowadays is rarely treated as a logical fallacy in academic circles. In many cases, it is even praised. The problem here really isn’t the rejection of economic theories for purely ad hominem reasons. It’s that we don’t perceive such an act as harmful, unproductive or irrational.

Associating some economic ideas with political ideologies also harms our economic discourse. We have created fake identity standards of what a politically liberal or conservative person should think of economic issues. It is said that Liberals love taxes, and conservatives abhor government programs. Hence, policy recommendations and economic theories are often dismissed not based on empirical examinations of their validity, but rather based on the conventional association of those ideas with a certain political identity.

To be sure, I am not advocating the separation of economics from the political discourse. I am fully aware of the fundamental impact political philosophy has on economic ideas.

What I am advocating for is pulling economics out of the mentality of our partisan political divide so we can fruitfully discuss economic ideas within the framework of political philosophy. I am calling for a fair evaluation of all ideas, not a biased judgment based on the perceived politics of individuals.

It is safe to say that reforming the economic discourse is a prerequisite for reforming the discipline as a whole. Rescuing economics from its subjectively judgmental mode is possible, but it won’t be easy. The first step is to start addressing the fallacies in our discourse and then to spark open-minded conversations about how we can foster a change. This essential transformation can only happen through openly sharing ideas, not caustically protecting closed minds with rhetorical smears.

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