Battlepanda: Warning: This class makes you conservative


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Warning: This class makes you conservative

I can't help but feel that Greg Mankiw's explanation for why students tend to become more conservative after studying econ is a mite self-serving:
My experience is that many students find that their views become somewhat more conservative after studying economics. There are at least three, related reasons.

First, in some cases, students start off with utopian views of public policy, where a benevolent government can fix all problems. One of the first lessons of economics is that life is full of tradeoffs. That insight, completely absorbed, makes many utopian visions less attractive. Once you recognize, for example, that there is a tradeoff between equality and efficiency, as economist Arthur Okun famously noted, many public policy decisions become harder.
And the way econ 101 encourage students to "absorb" this insight is by hammering home 'government intervention = bad, bad, bad!" over and over again. See 3.a.
Second, some of the striking insights of economics make one more respectful of the market as a mechanism for coordinating a society. Because market participants are motivated by self-interest, a person might naturally be suspect of market-based societies. But after learning about the gains from trade, the invisible hand, and the efficiency of market equilibrium, one starts to approach the market with a degree of admiration and, indeed, awe.
This insight is indeed a necessary corrective to any naive and unreasoned anti-capitalist sentiments many students may have, but "awe"? Are we talking about a (social) science or a religion here?
Third, the study of actual public policy makes students recognize that political reality often deviates from their idealistic hopes. Much income redistribution, for example, is aimed not toward the needy but toward those with political clout. This Dave Barry column, which is reprinted in Chapter 22 of my favorite economics textbook, describes a good example.
Let's see...when we talk about market activity, we talk in terms of parables and widgets and cute little triangles of consumer surplus. However, when we talk about government intervention, all of a sudden is a closeup of the wart that is agricultural subsidies?

Although Greg tries to make it sound like intro to Econ courses are just put tools at people's disposal that leads them to the "right" conclusions, I think the truth is a lot less subtle. Many people who go through Intro to Econ classes end up being more conservative because Intro to Econ classes tend to have a very definite point of view. That same very different point of view turns off many students to economics all together.

I don't think it is a job of an intro course to either turn people into true-believers or cynics.